Montage of UNARS staff

Children’s experience of domestic violence

The voices of children who experience domestic violence often go unheard. This video offers a glimpse into the lives of children who have experienced domestic violence, using children’s own stories, photos and drawings. Children who experience domestic violence need to be heard.

Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies (UNARS) is a two-year research and intervention project, focused on understanding and enhancing children’s capacity for resilience during and after living in situations of domestic abuse. The project is led by Dr Jane Callaghan with the Centre for Children & Youth (CCY) at the University of Northampton. Researchers are working with Northampton Women’s Aid and with partners in four European countries to develop and enhance agency and resilience of children living with domestic abuse.

UNARS is funded by Daphne III, a European Commission funding stream that is focused on the protection of women, children and young people from forms of violence.

Understanding young people’s experiences of agency and resistance in domestic abuse

Research exploring children’s experiences of domestic abuse is very limited. Research that is focused on children tends to talk about them as secondary victims, as witnesses, as passive recipients of abuse, and explores how they are damaged by the abuse they have experienced.

In contrast, UNARS is interested in understanding how young people experience and live with domestic abuse, how they cope, how they creatively manage their circumstances and how they build a positive and resilient sense of self. We are interested in talking directly to young people, to explore how they see their lives, their experiences and their own responses to domestic abuse.

The UNARS project researches four key areas:

  • how children and young people cope during and after living in situations of domestic abuse. This is achieved through interviews with young people who have lived with domestic abuse
  • the ways professionals and carers perceive and articulate children’s capacity for resilience. To achieve this, we have conducted focus groups with professionals who work with children and families, and with carers (mostly parents)
  • how the policy context frames children in situations of domestic abuse. This is achieved through a policy analysis of local, national and European frameworks relevant to children in situations of domestic abuse. Through an examination of the policy context and the professional focus groups we will explore the service landscape that young people must negotiate, in order to explore barriers and enablers to agency for children in situations of domestic abuse
  • how young people experience the impact of intervention, focused on building capacity for resistance, resilience and agency

In this project, our key goal is to develop a better understanding of young people’s experiences of living with domestic abuse. To explore how young people cope during and after domestic abuse, we are conducting interviews with children and young people aged 8-19. In each of the four participating European countries we have invited twenty children and young people to take part in one-to-one, semi-structured interviews which explore how they coped and what resources (personal, interpersonal, material, and so on) enabled them to be resilient in situations of violence.

Our research is interested in helping young people to give voice to their experiences. However, we understand that some experiences can be difficult to articulate, and that sometimes it is hard to ‘give voice’ to experiences that might be painful or complex, that might be non-normative, or might not fit with social expectations of ‘victims’. Because of this, our research uses creative techniques to help young people to tell their stories. A centrepiece of the UNARS project is the Photovoice Exhibit, in which young people are invited to use photography to tell personal stories about how they lived with domestic abuse. Participants will also be encouraged to use different mediums to facilitate the telling of their stories such as drawing, painting, writing or audio-recording. Young people will have the opportunity to meet one another and collaborate together creatively to build exhibits within each participating country. Policy makers and professionals will be invited to the exhibits.

This public engagement will facilitate young people’s representation in public discourses around domestic abuse. This will enable them to have a voice, both locally and across Europe and to have an influence on how young people are seen and treated in policy and service contexts.

The context of domestic abuse work for children and young people

One of our concerns in UNARS is with the way that young people are talked about and represented in public discourse about domestic abuse. Talking about young people as ‘victims’ and ‘witnesses’ to domestic abuse positions them as relatively powerless and as passive recipients of circumstances in which they have no control. In particular, pathologising discourses that position young people as damaged by domestic abuse leaves little space for young people to identify as agents, capable of positive coping and change.

It is therefore important to look carefully at public discourses about domestic abuse, to ensure that young people have positive alternative identities to victimhood available to them. Our project explores how young people are constructed in policy, through an analysis of the policy landscape in each of the participating countries. Our research is concerned with understanding:

  • dominant representations of children and domestic abuse, in domestic violence and child protection policy
  • how the policy landscape within each country and region shapes the ways children in situations of domestic abuse are conceptualised by young people and professionals

Our aim is to understand how policy frameworks might represent young people in a manner that does not just focus on ideas of ‘damage’ or ‘victimhood’, but is also able to incorporate their capacity for agency, resistance and resilience. This will help with the envisioning of possible positive future selves for young people.

Interventions with children and young people

Using knowledge gained from interviews with children and young people, and focus groups with professionals and carers we will build a therapeutic intervention for children and young people, focused on enhancing agency, resistance and resilience with young people who have experienced domestic abuse. This intervention will use creative therapeutic techniques. The therapeutic programme will be launched in July and August 2014, and further information on the intervention will be available on the UNARS website.

We will also provide a training programme for professionals working with children in situations of domestic abuse. Our aim is to help professionals to support and enhance young people’s capacity for agency and resistance, to foster resilient and positive self-identities for children who have lived in these stressful and complex circumstances.