Infants and young children can be seriously affected both biologically and in their behaviour and development by domestic violence, according to new research.
It found that distress caused by domestic violence showed itself in infants and toddlers as excessive irritability, a fear of being alone, sleep disturbances, and regressed behaviour.
A seminar on the issue also heard from one contributor who was aware of a case in past years involving a child who was hung from a nail on a wall by her father to watch while he physically abused her mother.
In research entitled ‘The Impact of Exposure to Domestic Violence on Very Young Children’, Stephanie Holt, assistant professor in social studies at Trinity College Dublin, said infants and toddlers are considered a particularly vulnerable group as they are totally dependent upon others for care.
The research includes interviews with public health nurses, domestic violence workers, social workers and family support workers and found that children’s exposure to domestic violence had biological and behavioural influences.
The effects included the risk of impaired growth rate and nutrition issues — such as financial abuse taking the form of restricted access to formula or nappies — and other risks associated with mothers whose parenting abilities can be compromised by living in an abusive situation.
On a behavioural level, risks included direct and indirect involvement in abusive incidents, permissive or inconsistent parenting and risks associated with an absent or angry, aggressive father.
It also suggested that the impact of domestic violence could affect a child’s longer- term development, such as fear and instability inhibiting exploration, play becoming aggressive, parents not being able to consistently respond to an infant’s needs, and loud noises or vivid visual images associated with violence causing distress.
At preschool level the study suggests children can begin to show signs of mental and behavioural disengagement, a preoccupation with their own safety, and other problems.
Other effects could be children learning unhealthy ways to express anger and aggression, a sense of distress at perceived unfairness, self-blame and confusion, and a lack of a sense of independence.
Interviews with professionals who work with families affected by domestic violence said the mother-child relationship was sometimes hampered and that in some cases children struggled to communicate.
One public health nurse interviewed for the study said: “I’ve a little boy at the moment who is banging his head off the wall and the reason is domestic violence.”
Another public health nurse said during a check on a baby the child was clenching her fists next to her ears — something which stopped once she was removed from the abusive setting.
Those interviewed stressed the need for sound clinical practice, inter-agency relationships, good clinical and assessment skills, and the need for early years intervention.
One seminar speaker, Colm Dempsey, a child protection trainer and consultant, said domestic violence was “not just adult v adult, but adult v adult v children”.
He referred to his past as a garda and cases including the one in which the child was hung from a hook and watched a violent episode unfold.
The seminar was held at the Bessboro Centre in Cork.
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