Domestic abuse: Spotting signs & training teachers

Written by: Dr Julie Leoni | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One in five secondary-aged children have been exposed to domestic abuse and around 130,000 children live in homes where there is high-risk domestic abuse. Dr Julie Leoni looks at what schools can do to spot the signs, support victims and train their teachers

Meet Celia. She was in her late 50s when I met her and is the owner of a booming business. She had raised three children who had all gone to private schools and had successful careers. Money had never been lacking for Celia, she went to private school and often travelled abroad with her father’s work. She had her own pony, music lessons and beautiful homes to grow up in. To all the world she had lived a charmed and easy life.

Except that she spent much of her childhood terrified. Hiding in her room, or the stables with her beloved pony, while her father tore into her mother, with words and sometimes fists. She learned how to live on eggshells, never sure what would set him off so always on her guard, looking perfect, being the well-mannered, well-groomed daughter, doing well at school, trying to please him so that she didn’t trigger an outburst which would inevitably be taken out on her mother as evidence of her poor parenting, as well as any other domestic crime he accused her of (overcooked food, unstarched sheets, a smear on the window, the wrong tone of voice).

Had it harmed Celia? From the outside it would have seemed not. Her child-groomed perfectionism has made her business the success it is was but Celia suffered from bouts of debilitating depression and anxiety all her adult life.


Meet Donna, she was in the sixth form when we met a long time ago. She was bright, doing well at her A levels, hard-working, polite and articulate; the ideal student. Except that she suffered from panic attacks, anxiety which kept her awake at night, and social anxiety which made it hard for her to make friends. Her perfectionism drove her to exhaustion and despair as she never felt good enough.

It was only when I met Donna again as an adult that she told me about her childhood. I had never guessed that she had grown up in a house where her father would abuse her mother and throw things, scream, punch walls, kick furniture, grab her by the neck and hold her against a wall. She told me about the nights she couldn’t sleep through fear or because of the noise downstairs and so she would study, with headphones, trying to take her mind off the chaos, feeling guilty and torn about whether she should do something to save her mum, while also being scared for her own safety. She told no-one.


Then there was Vincent, the friend of a school friend. I had met him a few times, cheeky and fun, he went to a different school from us but would sometimes catch up with us as we walked home. Then we didn’t see him for ages and I asked my friend why not. He was in custody, for stabbing his father with a kitchen knife because, this time, when his father had attacked his mother, Vincent had had enough and stood to protect her. He was 15. I don’t know what happened to him but I never saw him again.

Do you know?

Do you know what your pupils go home to? Statistics from sources including Safelives and the NSPCC show that:

  • Around one in five students aged 11 to 17 have been exposed to domestic abuse.
  • Around 130,000 children live in homes where there is high-risk domestic abuse.
  • Sixty-two per cent of children living with domestic abuse are directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others.
  • Two in five children living with abuse had not been referred to children’s services before the family entered domestic abuse support. Many more who had been referred did not receive substantial help.

Most of these children go to school. All of those pupils had teachers who could have made a difference to not just the young person, but the entire family.
In March 2016 I wrote an article for SecEd about domestic abuse and the signs and symptoms (see further information). All teachers have done their child protection training and know what to look out for in terms of neglect, bruising, behaviour change, social issues etc, and yet domestic abuse impacts people in different ways.

There may not be behaviour change as the domestic abuse may be so usual for the child, so much part of their life, that there is no change – life carries on as normal for them. If they do talk about home, they may describe the abusive parent as “having a bad temper” or “getting angry” and it is easy to shrug this off as a normal part of life, we all have bad days don’t we?

Similarly, as we have seen from some of the true stories above, children living with abuse may be some of our high achievers because their perfectionism, their desire to please and pacify, makes them ideal students. Too often they will explain their anxiety, their weight loss or gain, their sleeplessness as due to the pressure or desire to achieve, and we can believe them as we see the hours of quality homework they are handing in.

Raising awareness

Teachers need to become more aware of exactly what domestic abuse is in order to educate young people and help them spot and report it. Young people need to be taught about domestic abuse explicitly so they don’t end up in abusive relationships themselves.

Domestic abuse is dealt with in relationships and sex education (RSE). There is no prescribed content. The proposed guidance for the new statutory subject of RSE, which is to be implemented from September 2020, states that at secondary school level: “Grooming, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour, should also be addressed sensitively and clearly.”

It adds that by the end of secondary education, “pupils should know the concepts of, and laws relating to, sexual consent, sexual exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment and domestic abuse and how these can affect current and future relationships.”

This lack of detail means that the specifics and efficacy of delivery can be too dependent on the skills and knowledge of the teacher, who could be delivering content that they know nothing about.

The Freedom Programme

The Freedom Programme is offered to victims of abuse but I have found it to be one of the best resources for understanding patterns of abusive behaviour.
Pat Craven identified different aspects of “The Dominator” based in work she did with perpetrators in prison. Eighty-four per cent of victims of domestic abuse are female with only 16 per cent being male, so The Dominator is a male, but clearly some of these behaviours are used by abusive women too. Manifestations include:

  • The Jailer stops you from going out, stops you from working or seeing friends, tells you what to wear and who to see and makes it difficult for people who care about you to stay in contact.
  • The Bully glares, shouts, smashes things, slams things and sulks.
  • The Headworker puts you down, insults you and tells you that you are stupid, fat, ugly, useless, could never survive without him.
  • The Persuader tells you he will kill himself, or you or the kids if you leave. He promises to change, cries and tells you he loves you, threatens to report you to social services, the benefits agencies etc.
  • The Liar denies the abuse, tells you it was “only” a slap, blames you, drink, stress, overwork, the kids.
  • The Bad Father tells you that are you a bad parent, turns the children against you, threatens to take the children away, persuades you to have “his” baby and then refuses to co-parent, uses access arrangement to harass you.
  • The King of the Castle uses money to control you, expects you to do all the housework, treats you like a slave.
  • The Sexual Controller keeps you pregnant, rapes you or rejects your sexuality.

Ms Craven has produced a graphic of these behaviours and also an image of what a healthy relationship should look like, both of which could be used easily in RSE (see further information).

Her book, Living with the Dominator (March 2008), provides material for the Freedom Programme support groups and could easily be adapted for RSE. She has also published a follow up – The Freedom Programme Home Study Course (May 2010), which is a course that could be used with children living with or thought to be living with abuse (as long as there was an adult working with them through it to identify issues as they arose). A third publication Freedom’s Flowers (October 2012) is about the effect that domestic abuse has on children so would be useful to teachers delivering RSE.

There is also an animation (see further information) that could be used for staff training and some parts are suitable for older children as it gives information as well as activities. It might be a good way to start getting informed about the facts and faces of domestic abuse.

I have no connection with Pat Craven and her work but I do know how clear and useful it is, and I do know what a difference her information makes to the people I share it with, how it helps them name what is happening to them – gives them a language to explain what is often their everyday experience.

One in five children living with domestic abuse is horrific, as is the statistic that one in four women will live with it at some point in their lives and that two women a week are killed by their partner. This is not somebody else’s business, it is ours. For the likelihood is you have worked with someone or taught someone who is living in fear today.

It is our business to educate ourselves so we can share information to educate and empower others to spot and escape abuse.

  • Dr Julie Leoni is a teacher, a life coach, academic and writer. Her book Into the Woods is a collection of fairy tales based on interviews she did with survivors of domestic abuse. All profits go to charity. Visit www.julieleoni.com

Further information

  • NSPCC domestic abuse statistics: http://bit.ly/2QBpylz
  • Safelives is a UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse. It combines insight from services, survivors and statistics to support people to become safe, well and rebuild their lives: www.safelives.org.uk
  • Child protection: Domestic violence and abuse, Dr Julie Leoni, SecEd, March 2016: http://bit.ly/2M3cULu
  • Relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education, DfE, July 2018 (consultation now closed): http://bit.ly/2EFz6Lp
  • Freedom Programme is a domestic violence programme which was created by Pat Craven and evolved from her work with perpetrators of domestic violence: www.freedomprogramme.co.uk
  • You can download the graphic created by Pat Craven via http://bit.ly/2Hbx3jI and watch the Freedom Programme animations via http://bit.ly/2RDuwTc


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