Headlines: May 18th, 2004

Children who live in situations of domestic violence or whose parents have problems such as drug and alcohol misuse rarely seek professional help even though they say they want someone to talk to that they can trust. The finding comes from research published today and which also reports that children’s experiences when they do make contact with support services are mixed. Children’s coping strategies can also create difficulties for teachers and social workers trying to support them.The report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is based on a review by Sarah Gorin, Senior Research Officer at the NSPCC. She has looked at the key messages from 40 different studies in which children and young adults were interviewed.

The report also finds that children worry more about their parents than may be realised, especially if they fear for their parents’ safety. Boys find it especially hard to talk about their problems and, the report says, sadness and isolation children experience can be perpetuated by the stigma and secrecy surrounding domestic violence, parental substance misuse and poor mental or physical health.

Key finding are that children’s most persistent plea is for information that will help them understand what is going on in their family. Those whose parents have experienced domestic violence, substance misuse and, to a lesser extent, mental health problems, report witnessing or experiencing violence themselves. Some children report feeling depressed, having difficulty making friends and experiencing problems at school, including bullying.

Looking at children’s coping strategies and sources of help and support, the review finds that many children try to ‘blank out’ their problems at home when they are with other people and find other ways of distracting themselves. This makes it even harder for teachers or health and social workers to identify them and offer support.

When young people talk about their experiences they are most likely to seek informal support from family and friends, or even talk to their pets, rather than making a first approach to a professional. Their accounts of receiving professional help vary, but many children in the research reported negative experiences. Professionals did not always talk to them in ways they could understand and in some cases of domestic violence did not speak directly to the children involved at all.