Talking to pupils about domestic violence and abuse

If a child has seen or heard domestic abuse it is a safeguarding issue. Lisa Griffin explains how schools can raise awareness of it in the classroom and help pupils impacted by violence

Author details

Lisa Griffin is content lead at Optimus Education, focusing on leadership and governance. 

Domestic violence or abuse can be:

  • emotional (criticising, intimidating, undermining, insulting)
  • financial (having control of victim’s income and how it is spent, stealing, or withholding it)
  • physical (pushing, slapping, kicking, biting, throwing things)
  • psychological (frightening, controlling, isolating the victim, name-calling, belittling)
  • sexual (being forced into sexual acts).

Domestic violence or abuse can include any situation where someone is forced to change their behaviour or what they might say because they are fearful of the perpetrator’s reaction.

It can affect anyone of any age, social background, gender, religion, sexuality, or ethnicity. It can happen in any relationship (over 16s) and the perpetrator can be male or female, though women are the victims in most cases.

KCSIE makes it explicit that if a child has witnessed domestic abuse, this is a safeguarding issue due to its psychological impact.

Impact on children

Living in a home where domestic abuse occurs will have a serious negative impact on a child's mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, as well as their behaviour, which can last into adulthood.

Children and young people need to feel confident and safe if they are to learn effectively. They will find it very difficult to fully engage in education when they feel fearful, stressed, and are worried about their family situation.

Experience of trauma such as domestic abuse can have an impact on children’s understanding of normal or acceptable relationships with others and their ability to form any relationship in school and beyond.

Children who have experienced violence at home may grow up feeling anxious and depressed, have low self-esteem and find it difficult to get on with other people.

As adults, children who have witnessed violence and abuse are more likely to become involved in a violent and abusive relationship themselves. Children tend to copy the behaviour of their parents – boys may think it is acceptable to be violent towards women.

However, children do not always repeat the same pattern when they grow up. Many children do not like what they have experienced and don’t want to behave in the same way as their parents.

Domestic abuse should always be talked about as a crime

Spotting the signs

All children who have experienced domestic violence are affected by it – even if they do not show any obvious emotional signs or changes in behaviour.

No child is the same and even children in the same family may react differently to what they have seen, heard and experienced.

The following do not specifically identify that a child is experiencing domestic violence, but they are obvious signs that the child is unhappy, and it could be an explanation.

  • Changes in behaviour or increased mood swings.
  • Self-harming or other coping strategies.
  • Lack of focus and decrease in quality of schoolwork.
  • Repeatedly late or absent from school.
  • Being unusually hostile or aggressive to others.
  • Withdrawing from school or friends and spending more time alone.
  • Increased anxiety and low self-esteem and confidence.
  • The secrecy of domestic violence can prevent children sharing their worries, or some children may look for extra support or reassurance from trusted adults.
  • Parental attention or interest in school decreasing e.g. pupils not being picked up, not participating in extra-curricular activities, parents not responding to school letters/requests etc.

Example questions

Ask these types of questions if you suspect a child is experiencing domestic violence.

  1. What happens when your (e.g. mum and dad) disagree?
  2. What does your XX do when he/she gets angry?
  3. Do you ever hear or see your XX making your XX sad or hurting them?
  4. Do you worry about mum and dad?
  5. Who do you talk to about things that make you scared, worried, or unhappy?

What can schools do?

Schools can raise awareness of domestic violence and abuse among pupils and help to increase their understanding of it.

Domestic abuse should always be talked about as a crime. To emphasise the dangers of it, you could consider bringing a police officer or social worker in for a special assembly.

Teach children early about respecting each other, equality, behaviour, and non-violent relationships. You should also use lessons to:

  • help pupils to understand their feelings and improve their communication skills
  • encourage pupils to have someone they can confide in if they are worried, scared etc
  • talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships and give examples
  • ask questions – what pupils want from a relationship, what is important, what qualities to look for in a friend or boyfriend/girlfriend etc
  • help pupils to identify warning signs of an abusive relationship
  • help pupils to decide what they can and cannot do to help a friend or family member who is being domestically abused
  • help pupils to understand conflict and learn what they can do to help resolve it.

Helping children affected by domestic abuse

Safeguarding training at the start of the year should include a section on safeguarding pupils from domestic abuse.

It is important to make it clear to all staff that if they hear about concerning situations in the home then they should report this to the DSL, as with any other safeguarding concern.

Your DSL should ensure that staff members know to discuss child protection concerns with them.

There also needs to be joined-up services and clear communication between all agencies working with children and families affected by domestic violence to properly help victims and keep them safe.

These are some things schools can do to help children.

  • Raise self-esteem and confidence. Praise them and pay attention to them.
  • Help pupils to identify someone they trust and would talk to if they were feeling worried, unhappy, or unsafe.
  • Children may have to start a new school midway through the year after leaving a violent situation so be aware of additional help they made need. Consider assigning a ‘buddy’ to help them settle in.
  • Don’t make too big a deal out of their home situation in front of other children – children don’t want to stand out or be seen as different to their peers.
  • If children are in temporary accommodation, offer breakfast and homework clubs, help with uniform and equipment, computers etc.
  • Staff supervising children at break times are often well placed to keep an eye out for children and be there to talk to them so include them in safeguarding training.
  • Ensure that the school keeps a list of parents who may be a risk to children and that premises staff, reception and other relevant staff know who they are and what to do in an emergency.

Useful websites for further information


Last Updated: 
12 Nov 2020