In his seminal work on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)[1], Dr Felitti specifies that living with domestic abuse can have long-term emotional and physical impacts. Understanding dynamics in abusive relationships, where one person (abused) is adjusting every part of daily life to appease the other person (abuser) in an attempt to keep the family safe, there are likely to be other adverse experiences. These can include parents who are emotionally distant, have drug or alcohol issues, or have mental health difficulties. 

"If a child lives with violence, then shouting or a door slamming may trigger them. If a child lives with coercion and control, then not getting an answer right might be a trigger. It is possible to make a difference and enable these children. Schools which develop a trauma-informed approach find reductions in school exclusions."

In Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris’s TED Talk in 2015, she asks us to consider the bodily and emotional impact that would be placed upon us if we were to unexpectedly encounter a bear in a forest. Of course, what happens is that our autonomous nervous system triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response. The hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary gland (the master gland), which in turn sends a message to the adrenal gland which releases adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies, placing the body in an state of alert, ready to cope with whatever it needs to deal with. This happens instantly and is not within our conscious control. In fact, the thinking part of the brain (the neocortex) goes ‘off-line’ as the brain solely focuses on managing the threat and survival.

Dr. Burke-Harris then asks us to imagine what happens if the bear comes home every night. Over time and with continual exposure to fear (the bear), never feeling safe, never knowing if there is going to be violence, the child habituates to this disorganised stress response and is unaware that their daily behaviour can cause concern and alarm to others. This is because it is not within their conscious control; the hypothalamus is interpreting danger everywhere.

The stress reaction is more noticeable when there is a trigger that unconsciously reminds the brain of previous dangerous situations.

The problem is that it is almost impossible to predict what these triggers might be.

If a child lives with violence, then shouting or a door slamming may trigger them. If a child lives with coercion and control, then not getting an answer right might be a trigger. Triggers can be anything, getting dirt on their clothes, having their homework destroyed by the abusive parent, not having the required equipment or work for class, worrying about what is happening at home while they are in school. All of these worries keep the child in a hyper-aroused state.

Toxic stress 

This results in what is known as ‘toxic stress’, which can have pervasive impacts on brain development. Toxic stress is the term used to describe this constant overdose of the stress hormones that are meant to protect the individual but have become overwhelming. This is turn impacts on the development of 'Executive Functioning', leaving the child unable to organise, plan and emotionally regulate; some of the many skills necessary to sit in a classroom and contribute.

Supporting these children and preventing them being pathologised with medical diagnosis or labeled as difficult or defiant is crucial (and somewhat challenging). It is possible to make a difference and enable these children to manage the stress and develop those neglected parts of their brains.

It is vital that schools understand the complex and nuanced impact of domestic abuse. Ideally, all staff should have training on this but at least one member of staff is imperative. The myths surrounding domestic abuse are many and still often go unchallenged. We still have a blame culture towards individuals, particularly women, who do not leave abusive partners. This is based on not understanding the dangerousness or the psychological impact abuse has. People who have experienced abuse may have a genuine belief that they are protecting their children from the violence and abuse, and given that the person responsible is always the perpetrator of the violence, sadly, this person often goes unchallenged.

There are some simple steps to supporting children who live with domestic abuse. However, these principles apply to all children and there may be other traumatic experiences that children are living with in the classroom. We need to be thinking ‘what has happened to you?', rather than ‘what is wrong with you?’.

Schools that are developing a trauma-informed approach are finding reductions in school exclusions and better results – as a recent introduction of trauma-informed training in Manchester proved.

Ways we can support children affected by trauma

Understanding - Staff that are knowledgeable about the dynamics of domestic abuse can support colleagues. This can be achieved through training staff on the impact of domestic abuse and trauma on children’s emotional development.

Safety - Perhaps the most important intervention is making the child feel safe:

  • Thinking about how children can be supported in a safe environment by taking simple steps such as greeting the children in the morning to assess where their emotional temperature is, talking to the child about how together you are going to manage the times when they are triggered and feeling in the ‘fight or flight’ moment.
  • Lessons focused on how we manage emotions that are overwhelming and provide simple strategies for children to practice.

Being trustworthy - Children should not be forced or even asked about what they are experiencing (this may be too difficult for them), but if they disclose, they need action taken and domestic abuse and safeguarding policies will have to be followed. To disclose means they trust the adult that are telling. They are probably terrified, and taking a huge and scary step. Not to act on this would be devastating for the child and it may be years before they tell anyone again.

These children need to know you mean what you say. They don’t manage changes in routine or structure well, or surprises, as all of this can be triggering for them and make them anxious. If you say you are going to do something and then don’t, the child will lose trust. Their home experience means that they don’t trust anyone and so easily emotionally isolate themselves and stop engaging.

Emotional regulation – Living with toxic stress means that children have poor ability to manage their emotions and can escalate quickly from jiggling around on their chair to screaming at a teacher. The logical part of the brain has gone ‘off line‘ at this point; the child cannot reason, they cannot think about what they are doing, this is ‘flight or fight’ rather than conscious control.

Teachers also need to be mindful about their own emotional regulation because if their stress rises and they mimic the child’s emotions, this will just escalate further. It then becomes a power battle and the child knows what happens in those because of what is going on at home. They will continue to be distressed and far too often, without understanding this, children are excluded or punished.

Support the non-abusive parent – Ensure you have information on notice boards that parents can see that makes it clear that the school (or any agency) will support parents that require it. Have contact numbers for support agencies available to them, and most importantly, never judge.

Not all children are the same – while this article has focused on the children with the most visible behavior, children do respond to abusive households in a range of ways. A lot depends on how old the child is at the onset of the abuse and for how long the child is exposed to it. Some children will internalise their fear and these can be the children in the room who are anxious, prone to illness and maybe do not join in with social activities. Other children can excel at school, maybe recognising that success is their route to safety.

A child experiencing adversity may or may not be significanly impacted for life. However, with the right support these children are reachable and can move forward to achieve healthy, happy and fulfilled lives. 

Sue Penna is the co-founder and chief executive officer at Rock Pool. A UK pioneer of ‘trauma-informed training’, she recognised a growing need for better understanding by frontline service providers of trauma and the effects it can have on behaviour. 

This led to the launch of Rock Pool CIC, providers of specialist training and consultancy to organisations supported those affected by trauma

For further information, please contact:

01803 678067

[1] Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study