The UK Government’s Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, published in 2022, set out a series of measures aimed at supporting schools and other bodies to help children whose home lives are blighted by violence. In this blog, Dawid Gondek from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health describes new research conducted with colleagues from UCL, Bristol and University of East London which has highlighted the ways in which strategies to provide adolescents with positive experiences outside the home can play a part.
In its Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, which followed the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the UK Government recognised that children were among the victims of domestic abuse and set out plans to alleviate the issue. These included pledges from a range of government departments, including:
- A promise from the Department for Education to share information on ‘What Works’ trials with schools and other partners, and to work with experts to develop a package of support for teachers.
- A Home Office pledge of £84,000 to support development of tools to measure the effectiveness of interventions with children experiencing domestic abuse, and also a promise to increase funding for organisations providing specialist support.
- A further promise by the Home Office to provide a National Teachers’ Helpline under its ‘Operation Encompass’ programme, which supports schools on domestic violence issues; and to ensure police attending incidents share information with health visitors.
- A Ministry of Justice plan to increase funding for community-based services to support victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, our study looked at ways in which violence between adults in the home – known as Intimate Partner Violence or IPV – affected children’s mental health, and the extent to which positive experiences could help prevent long-term damage.
The key finding was that schools, community organisations and other activities outside the home could support the mental health of these children and improve their chances of avoiding problems later in life.
In an ideal world, prevention would be better than mitigation – but reducing levels of IPV has proved highly challenging for policymakers and professionals in the field. Earlier research showed children who witnessed violence at home were more likely than their peers to suffer common mental disorders – though this still only applied to a minority and most remained well despite these issues.
Physical or emotional cruelty
Our study looked at almost 5000 children whose mothers and their partners were questioned on six occasions between the ages of two and nine years. Children were classified as experiencing IPV if one or other partner reported being the victim of physical or emotional cruelty. The number of occasions on which this was reported was also recorded, so that households had an IPV score of between 0 and 6. One fifth of the children in the study had had at least one episode of IPV during their early childhood.
They were then assessed for symptoms of depression at the age of 18, enabling us to look at whether there were links between these experiences and later mental health. The results showed each additional report of IPV was linked to an increase of just under five percentage points on a standard scale of depressive symptoms.
We then used a framework called HOPE to look at four types of positive experience which might help to mitigate the effects of the violence young people had witnessed, and which might promote health and wellbeing. These included nurturing and supportive relationships, safe and protective environments, constructive social engagement and connectedness and social and emotional competencies.
Young people were questioned about their relationships, wider environment and other social connections when they were aged nine and again when they were 14. In particular we were looking for practical ways in which young people could be supported: this included good relationships with parents, teachers and peers, enjoying school and feeling safe in their neighbourhood. Again, the number of positive factors each child had was recorded as an overall score.
When the scores were analysed, it was clear that positive experiences were linked to better mental health, regardless of whether there was violence at home. Young people who did not experience IPV benefited from good relationships with and between their parents and with their teachers as well as from other positive factors.
But for those who had been exposed to IPV, the only things which made a clear difference were relationships with peers, enjoying school and neighbourhood safety and cohesion. The lack of a beneficial effect from good relationships with parents and teachers among young people who had experienced IPV was likely to be linked to parenting issues which went along with the violence, but also could be caused by such positive factors being cancelled out, in health terms, by negative ones.
We found that the nurturing of good peer relationships, positive school experiences and stronger neighbourhoods could help mitigate the harmful effects of parental intimate partner violence on mental health during adolescence.
In particular, policy strategies could focus on providing young people with positive experiences outside the home through community or extracurricular activities. Capacity-building initiatives aimed at promoting resilience already exist and have shown promising results. This type of initiative could help to shift the narrative from one of adversity and victimhood to a more positive one in which young people could be enabled to build personal resources such as supportive relationships.
Factors mitigating the harmful effects of intimate partner violence on adolescents’ depressive symptoms—A longitudinal birth cohort study is research by Dawid Gondek, Gene Feder, Laura D. Howe, Ruth Gilbert, Emma Howarth, Jessica Deighton and Rebecca Lacey, and is published in JCPP Advances.