Traditional research to ascertain the effects of living with domestic violence on children conducted psychological test to measure children’s competency and development. Development psychologists experimented on children in laboratory settings, if the level of competency demonstrated by a child was below average for their age and stage of development, witnessing domestic violence was deemed to be the cause. To know whether a child has been harmed by their experiences we need to how ‘normal’ children function and develop (Archard 197). But there is no universally agreed timeless norm of children’s health and development. Some psychologists believe domestic violence effects the way that children think and can cause ‘pre-mature’ developmental understanding and ways of thinking. What counts as harm depends on norms of well-being which vary culturally.
Few would disagree that witnessing the assault of their mother is a very disturbing experience for children. However, not all children living with domestic violence witness the direct physical assaults on their mother but they will be acutely aware of the abuse she suffers. Children do not have to directly witness any violence to be profoundly affected by it. There is a wealth of research which has highlighted the negative impact witnessing domestic violence can have on children. Abrahams (1994) found that ninety one per cent of the mothers within her research thought their children had suffered negative effects due to domestic violence. Furthermore, eighty six per cent believed these negative effects continued into adolescence.
Children and young people develop a wide range of active strategies to help them cope with living with violence, which include: keeping themselves and their brothers and sisters away from danger, staying around or physically intervening to protect their mother, summoning help and offering their mother emotional support (Humphreys and Mullender 2000:22). Children also develop psychological coping mechanisms such as; blocking out the violence or on the contrary, monitoring it closely as a means of feeling in control; children may also talk about their experiences to a person, pet or object (McGee 2000). Very young children can only show their distress through their health and behaviour, for example: Sleep disturbances, eating problems, unnatural quietness and clinginess.
Professionals disregard some of the complex and diverse coping mechanisms children possess by labelling them as psychosomatic disorders, personality defects or the beginnings of an addiction to violence. Based on studies of child development in what Jaffe et al (1990) call ‘normal’ families, a range of adjustment difficulties can be identified. Difficulties include: increased anxiety, psychosomatic illness including headaches, abdominal complaints, asthma, ulcers, stuttering, depression, sadness, withdrawal, fear, a reduction in understanding social situations including...