Children who experience domestic violence are not just ‘passive witnesses’, argue researchers

Children’s Experiences of Domestic Violence FINAL REPORT - executive summary

Full report - UNDERSTANDING AGENCY AND RESISTANCE STRATEGIES (UNARS):                      Children’s Experiences of Domestic Violence FINAL REPORT

Children who experience domestic violence between their parents, or other adults at home, are not just passive observers. They are profoundly impacted by violence and coercive behaviour at home, and they find complex, creative ways to manage and cope with these experiences. This is a key finding of the research project ‘Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies – Children in Situations of Domestic Violence’, which today has published its final project report.

This two year project, funded by the European Commission and led by Dr Jane Callaghan at the University of Northampton, is the largest qualitative study of children’s experiences of domestic violence conducted to date. Researchers in Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK interviewed 110 children and young people who had experienced domestic violence, focused on how they experienced the violence, and how they found ways to manage their experiences. Using the insights gained from this research, the team developed a group-based therapeutic intervention to support children to build on their existing strengths and coping strategies. The intervention aims to help the young people develop resilience and a positive sense of self, as they recover from living with domestic violence.

The UNARS researchers argue that we should challenge passive images of children who experience domestic violence has been skewed by media coverage and images, which portray them as passive, helpless victims, doomed to repeat cycles of violence in their own later relationships. The UNARS research is not suggesting that domestic violence is not an acutely painful experience for children – of course it is frightening, distressing, and children are hurt and wounded by the violence they live with, and the coercive and controlling behaviours that often pervade their homes.

However, it is also clear, in children’s accounts, that there is an inextricable intertwining of their experiences of damage and of coping. Children’s experiences of domestic violence is a little like a double helix, with the twin strands of coping and damage very closely interlinked. Children’s capacity to be strong, to be agentic, to be resilient can only be read in the context of the actions that function to undermine their development of agency and resilience, forms of relating that characterise violence, abuse and coercive control.

Jane Callaghan explained: “Consider, for instance, the examples of children hiding away in cupboards, hidey holes and dens. In some senses this looks like an accession to abuse and control – children might be seen by professionals and academics as hiding away, as cowering in corners. But if we only see this painful and difficult aspect of the child’s behaviour, and don’t try to make sense of the meaning they attach to it, we do not see how it is also resistant and resilient. Children are not just frightened, they are not just hiding. They are creating spaces for themselves, where they can feel just slightly safer, just a little more secure and in control.”

The research team also completed an analysis of European and national policies on domestic violence. Their most significant finding is that children are startlingly absent from legal and policy frameworks.

The Istanbul Convention, introduced by the Council of Europe to galvanise action around violence against women and domestic violence. Children are not explicitly defined as victims either in the Istanbul convention, or the national and regional legal and policy frameworks that implement it. In this sense, children are absent from legal definitions (except as victims of dating violence). Children who ‘witness’ domestic violence do not have a legal status as ‘victim’. (This is changing in Spain, where the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ victims is being removed from Spanish statutes). This means that children are seen in law and policy as an absence, as ‘collateral damage’ to adult domestic violence, and this has consequences for how they are understood and treated in criminal justice, social services and voluntary sector organisations. Services for children who experience domestic violence are typically a ‘bolt on’ to adult oriented services, as adults, and particularly women, are seen as its main victims.

“We think this is because children are seen as ‘silent witnesses’, helpless in families where domestic violence occurs”, says Dr Callaghan. “By focusing on children’s voice, on their capacity to make sense of the situation they are in, and to take creative action to make their lives a little better, we have been able to highlight both the profound impact of violence on children’s lives and the complex and often paradoxical ways that they find to cope.”

The UNARS project has highlighted that children experience the negative impact of domestic violence, and cope with domestic violence, in much the same way that adult victims do, and that the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ victim, or between ‘adult victim’ and ‘child witness’ is not sustainable. When policy frameworks do not include children as victims, this contributes to the erosion of children’s representation and voice in professional and policy discourses. By focusing on children’s capacity for conscious meaning making and agency in relation to their experiences of domestic violence, we have highlighted the importance of recognising the impact domestic violence has on children, and their right to representation as victims in the context of domestic violence.

To learn more about the research, and to read the research report, visit You can also view a short video, based on the interviews, as well as drawings and photos that the children contributed to the project. To discuss this research, or the experiences of children who live with domestic violence, please contact Jane Callaghan ( or phone our Press Office on  01604 893268.

This report focuses on children’s experiences of domestic violence, in families affected by domestic violence. It summarises the key findings of the two year, four nation project "Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies. 

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