Supporting the children who live with domestic abuse

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
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Clare Stafford continues her series on vulnerable learners with advice on how schools can spot and support those young people who are living with domestic abuse

Children who are dealing with domestic violence and abuse are more likely to perform badly at school and may well suffer from mental health issues. They may grow up feeling anxious and depressed and find it difficult to get on with other people.

Boys seem to express their distress more outwardly, for example by becoming aggressive and disobedient, while girls are more likely to keep their distress inside. They may become withdrawn and are more likely to have an eating disorder or to self-harm (Royal College of Psychiatrists).

Gill Allen is an occupational therapist who has worked in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for 26 years and in partnership with schools in the Croydon area for the last 17 years.

She gave me some insights into the role schools can play in recognising the signs of domestic abuse in a child and providing support. We also discussed the significant impact that an individual’s personal connection with a child in the school setting can have on their wellbeing.

The warning signs of domestic abuse

It can be very hard for a child to talk about the abuse they might be witnessing or experiencing at home. “There’s a huge amount of loyalty to parents,” Ms Allen told me. “They don’t want to get their parents into trouble, so they hold on to information and they don’t know what to do with it. You have to build up a great deal of trust with the young person before you can have that kind of conversation with them.”

However, there are likely to be behavioural signs that schools will recognise: “You’ll see a lack of trust and their inability to regulate their emotions – lots of outbursts maybe. They may have poor or difficult friendship groups, poor attendance or late arrival at school, not doing well at school and issues around communication at home.” These go hand-in-hand with issues around self-esteem and confidence.

Alarm brain and thinking brain

In terms of mental health issues, what might schools pick up?

“The child may well suffer from depression, which could be severe,” Ms Allen told me. “Or they might be struggling with irritability, difficultly concentrating, self-harming behaviours and feelings of hopelessness.”

Ms Allen also sees quite a few cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the child experiencing domestic abuse or violence. This causes the child to go into what is known as “alarm brain thinking”. Ms Allen explained:

“When a young person has experienced a trauma, that memory is stored in a different place in their brain. Most people can recall good and bad memories but when there’s been some kind of trauma or violence, their brain gets triggered in a very different way.

“The brain doesn’t know how to regulate. The child is full of fear and feels the world is filled with a lot of fear and they go into alarm brain thinking very quickly. What I mean by that is the fight or flight response you’d expect from anxiety. They’re in alarm brain rather than ‘thinking brain’.”

For a child experiencing domestic abuse, there are times when they need to be in alarm brain: “People think we should always be in thinking brain,” Ms Allen continued. “But people who are experiencing abuse at home need alarm brain because they need to be very watchful – they need to make certain they can protect themselves.”

However, it is about finding a way to help the child to differentiate between those situations and how to avoid the alarm brain getting triggered for the wrong reason, for example when at school.

Bringing back the thinking brain

When a child is in alarm brain, it becomes difficult to think and to learn, so it is important to find ways to help the child recover their thinking brain. First, I asked Ms Allen how a teacher might recognise the situations that could cause a child to go into alarm brain thinking.

“You might see someone who gets quite aggravated, for example because a child has looked at them in a certain way or because they have been left out of a friendship group or left out in PE – anything where the brain thinks there’s some kind of danger. Or it might be a noise, a smell, something that triggers the PTSD and sends the child back into the trauma. It is not actually dangerous but the child perceives it as not very nice and goes into alarm brain.”

So how could you help the child return to their thinking brain? “You talk to them about the thinking brain and the alarm brain and explain the fight or flight response. Help them understand – is there danger? If there’s danger, they need to do something about it but if there’s not, we have to get them to start emotionally regulating and understanding their thinking.

That way they can begin to calm themselves down and start to activate their thinking brain.”

Finding a safe place

It can be important when a child is feeling traumatised to have a safe place that they can go to in their heads.

“I often get the young person to think about what might be a safe place for them,” Ms Allen explained, “or ask a younger child to draw it. It could be their bedroom, being out on their bike or playing football. It’s a bit like mindfulness, finding a safe, containing place, which gives them the space to breathe, control their feelings and get back into their thinking brain.”

At school, there may be situations where the child needs to physically get away from the classroom and find some space. However, it is important that the child is also able to get back into the classroom and that requires the school’s support.

Ms Allen said: “What we need is a resilient community, a school that understands that some young people may get triggered and that being in a classroom setting doesn’t always help. But the child has to learn a way of managing their thinking, and equally the classroom needs to support the child when they are having these moments.”

The personal connection

From Ms Allen’s experience, a positive attachment at school can make a tremendous difference to a child experiencing domestic abuse, and it doesn’t have to be with any kind of “specialist”.

“The children I see at CAMHS say they always have one person they relate to – a cleaner, PE teacher, head of year, headteacher – whoever it is. You don’t have to be an expert in anything, all you have to be able to do is listen. Most people don’t listen, they do a lot of trying to problem-solve, but if you just sit back, listen and reflect, most young people really value that.”

As well as being able to listen, a real positive for these children’s sense of self is to keep them in mind. “They’re not often kept in mind,” Ms Allen said. “And if they are, it’s not in a nice way. If you can keep someone in mind and notice they are there – it is one of the most positive things you can give.”

Ms Allen gave some examples of how a teacher could very simply give this emotional support: “It’s about noticing things – that they’ve had their hair done differently or their clothes are different or they have achieved something. Or remembering that there are certain things happening in their life that you can refer to. Importantly, it is also about not promising things you can’t deliver – so if you say you’re going to see them for five minutes after school, you stay for those five minutes after school.”

Confidentiality and safeguarding

Becoming someone the child can talk to can be hugely beneficial but where does the line get crossed between being open and supportive and having to break confidentiality?

“I think it’s hard,” Ms Allen said, “but what I’ve always done is to be honest with the young person and make certain they are aware of where these conversations can lead to.

“Teachers see these young people five days a week so they know them really well and they will be doing their usual safeguarding and risk assessments. If alarm bells start ringing, if something just doesn’t feel right, then they have to go with their gut feeling and break confidentiality.”

In Ms Allen’s view, “I’d much rather have a child angry with me than one that’s dead or seriously harmed”.

Long-term prospects

Clearly these children need a lot more support if they are to enjoy the same prospects as their peers. However, Ms Allen has no doubt that this is possible if four key needs are met: “Young people need to feel some kind of belonging – whether that be to family, friends or school – and they need to have hope, warmth and boundaries. If those boundaries are crossed or aren’t upheld, you have a child that feels very vulnerable.”

It is important that the young person learns to fulfil these needs in the right way, for example in terms of relationships. “That relationship with someone at school,” Ms Allen said, “will be one of those nice, secure attachments for the young person. It might be more in the role of coaching or mentoring but because it is consistent, it reflects back to that young person in a positive way.”

What can we do?

  • Look out for behavioural signs relating to the child being unable to regulate their emotions.
  • Learn about alarm brain and thinking brain and how to identify the differences.
  • Develop strategies to use with pupils to help them return from alarm brain to thinking brain.
  • Identify a safe place for children to go when they are feeling particularly traumatised.
  • Listen to the child, keep them in mind, notice and remember them, keep any promises you make.
  • If you have a gut feeling about a child’s welfare being of serious concern, take action.

  • Clare Stafford is CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit

Further reading

The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s Stella Project has been working with professionals to provide mental health training in order to better support vulnerable learners. This series of articles is part of the legacy the year-long project hopes to leave. For more information, see The Stella Project: Supporting vulnerable learners, SecEd, February 2018: To read previous articles in this series, go to


Domestic violence and abuse: The impact on children and adolescents, Information from the Royal College of Psychiatrists:


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