Children and abuse

Approximately 10% of all children in Sweden have experienced violence in the home at some point. 5% have experienced this violence often. The figures come from the Child Abuse Prevention Committee (Kommittén mot barnmisshandel) (SOU 2001:72) and have been confirmed in a national survey spanning 2006–2007 and the National Board of Health and Welfare’s public health report from 2009. The study Våld och hälsa – En befolkningsundersökning om kvinnors och mäns våldsutsatthet samt kopplingen till hälsa [Violence and health – A population study of women’s and men’s exposure to violence and the link to health] reports that 15% of women and 13% of men indicate that they have seen or heard physical violence between their parents during their childhood. Swedish studies have shown that children who live in a family where the mother is threatened and abused by her partner are six times more likely to be struck compared to families without violence in the home.

Children who experience abuse in the home are rarely passive, distant spectators. They are often participants in the situation in one way or another. We therefore find it more appropriate to talk about children who experience abuse instead of using the word witness, which was the term previously used in this context. It then becomes clearer that abuse in the home affects the child’s entire living environment and person. The child may both see and hear the abuse, become directly involved, for example by calling the police or trying to protect their mother, and experience the results of the abuse, like the mother’s fear or destroyed furniture. Referring to it as “children who experience abuse” also emphases the child’s status as a subject of the abuse and the fact that the child absorbs and actively reacts to the abuse.

Children who experience abuse in the home
Experiencing abuse in the home as a child causes great mental strain, since the abuse often continues for many years and occurs in the environment that should be our safe place – the home. The fact that the abuse is done by and against a loved one the child depends on and at a place where the child should be able to feel safe and cared for makes it a serious threat to the physical and psychological security of the child. The fact that it is done in the home also limits the child’s ability to flee from the abuse. Instead of feeling like a safe place, the home becomes a crime scene. It’s hard for a child to see someone they love and depend on being hurt. It is also hard for the child if a person they love is the one causing the hurt.

For many children, the abuse is part of their everyday life. The threats and abuse can come in different forms: physical, mental, through angry looks, against an animal, or by breaking things. The child never knows when it will happen and is forced to live in a heightened state of tension, where they are always on their guard, observing and trying to adapt.

Most children who experience abuse in the home have at some point been at home when the abuse occurred. Even if the child is not in the same room, the child can hear and experience the violence. The child may also see the aftermath of the abuse. Many children are in the same room and are in physical contact with one of the parents when the abuse is going on. For example, the child may cling to their mother, try to protect her, or try to physically stop their father.

A 2004 study (Almqvist & Broberg) of 50 women and 90 children staying at shelters revealed the following:

  • 95% of the children had been in the home when the mother was beaten on at least one occasion.
  • 77% of the children had been in the room when the mother was beaten on at least one occasion.
  • 62% of the children had been subjected to one or more forms of abuse by their father or stepfather.
  • 45% of the children had been in direct physical contact with one or both of the parents during the abuse on at least one occasion.
  • 2–3% of the children who had been beaten had also been sexually abused.

Later research confirms that it is common for children experiencing violence against their mother to also be a victim of violence.

Small children are often physically close to the people caring for them, making them particularly vulnerable. They are less able to protect themselves from seeing and hearing the abuse than older children. Very young children risk being themselves affected by the violence against their mother when she is holding them in her arms, for example. Eating and sleeping routines can be disrupted, and the process in which the child develops ties to and trust in their caregivers is disrupted.

Many abused mothers have trouble thinking about or admitting to themselves that the child has seen or heard the violence. For this reason, many mothers may downplay the abuse the child has experienced.

The abuse has both short-term and long-term consequences for the child
Children who experience domestic violence react differently. The reactions vary depending on age, gender, how long the abuse has been going on, and what relationship the child has with the abuser.

However, research shows that a child who has experienced abuse in the family exhibits more anxiety, trauma symptoms, depression, poor self-esteem, and aggression than other children. The child may have trouble sleeping, have nightmares, get frequent stomach aches, have trouble concentrating, be anxious, have trouble interacting with others, or have trouble showing their emotions. Many children feel guilt and shame.

Children who experience abuse may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which means they relive the trauma in the form of recurring and intrusive memory flashes, that the child is hypervigilant in a way that makes them easily frightened and irritable, or that the child tries to avoid everything related to the trauma. Ultimately, the child’s development, performance at school, and physical and mental health may be affected.

Growing up with violence can also alter a child’s values and view of humanity. They learn that you can use power, control and violence to get what you want, that the world is unpredictable, and that you can’t rely on other people.

It’s a long road back
When the mother finally leaves the abuser, the breakup brings with it many problems. The violence could escalate, there may be a custody battle that causes stress for the child, or the children may have to change schools, leaving their friends and possessions behind. It often takes a long time for the mother to regain her self-respect and reclaim her parental role. At the same time, many abused mothers feel like they are responsible for the child’s well-being and for protecting them from the father. The mother is often blamed for being unable to protect the child, even though research shows that the mothers usually make significant efforts to protect their children.

There is a risk that the child may continue to experience the abuse even after the mother has ended the relationship. For example, the abuse may continue during custody exchanges or through continued threats and harassment. The father may also enter into a new relationship in which the child is forced to experience him abusing a new partner.

Children who have experienced intimate partner violence need help and support
In Sweden, the Social Welfare Board must bear in mind that any child who has witnessed violence or other abuse against an adult they love is a victim of crime. This means that they are responsible for ensuring that the child gets the support and help they need. The first important step in helping a child experiencing abuse in the home is to make sure they are protected, for example at a women’s shelter.

Since 2006, children who have experienced intimate partner violence are entitled to criminal injuries compensation. However, in most cases the perpetrator must have been convicted of the crime the child witnessed. There must also be some form of documentation proving that the child saw or heard the crime. An application for criminal injuries compensation must be submitted by one of the child’s guardians via the Swedish Crime Victim Compensation and Support Authority’s website.