Research finds children use art to cope with domestic violence

Date 12.04.2017

Research led by the University of Northampton has found that society underestimates the emotional strength of children who experience domestic violence within their homes.

Previous psychological literature has suggested that children who experience domestic violence are likely to be emotionally incompetent and reactive, unable to cope and contextualise their overwhelming and difficult emotions; however a University of Northampton-led project has found that these children are often able to recognise and express their emotions in many vivid, expressive and artistic ways.

To collate the data, researchers in Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK interviewed 110 children and young people who had experienced domestic violence, focused on how they experienced the violence, and how they found ways to manage their experiences. The children interviewed expressed their emotions in many different ways; through drawing, painting, photography, music, writing and sports.

Project lead, Dr Jane Callaghan explained: “We should challenge the depiction of children who experience domestic violence, as they are often portrayed as passive, helpless victims, doomed to repeat cycles of violence in their own later relationships. By focusing on children’s voices, on their capacity to make sense of the situation they are in, and to take creative action to make their lives a little better, we have been able to highlight both the profound impact of violence on children’s lives and the complex and often paradoxical ways that they find to cope.”

“Children’s accounts of their experiences are multi-layered, and the emotional nature of their experience is not necessarily ‘on the surface’, or directly expressed using clear emotional labelling. Our research illustrates that the children we interviewed were able nonetheless to express their emotions in vivid, embodied and evocative ways. Thus they are able to recognise and express their emotions, challenging the view of them as emotionally incompetent.”

The report, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychology of Violence journal, has the full title of ‘Children and Domestic Violence: Emotional Competencies in Embodied and Relational Contexts’. The work stems from the ‘Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies – Children in Situations of Domestic Violence’ project, a two year project funded by the European Commission and led by the Dr Jane Callaghan. The University of Northampton’s Jo Alexander was lead researcher on this project, which was the largest qualitative study of children’s experiences of domestic violence conducted in the world to date.

Dr Callaghan recently presented this work at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Couple Relationships, to support their discussion on the Mental Health in Education Green Paper.

To learn more about the research, and to read the research report, visit the UNARS website.  You can also view a short video, based on the interviews, as well as drawings and photos that the children contributed to the project. To discuss this research, or the experiences of children who live with domestic violence, please contact Dr Jane Callaghan via email or phone 01604 893268.  To find out more about the University of Northampton’s courses in Psychology, visit our website.