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Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies (UNARS): Children’s Experiences of Domestic Violence

This report focuses on children’s experiences of domestic violence, in families affected by domestic violence. Our report is concerned with children’s experiences in situations where the main perpetrator and victim of violence would be legally defined as two adults in an intimate relationship (not where the child is involved in ‘dating violence’).

Research and professional practice that focuses on children as damaged witnesses to domestic violence tends to describe children as passive and helpless. Our study, based on interviews with more than a hundred children across four European countries, recognises the significant suffering caused to children who experience domestic violence. However, it also tells a parallel story, about the capacity of children who experience domestic violence to cope, to maintain a sense of agency, to be resilient, and to find ways of resisting violence, and build a positive sense of who they are.

Our project highlights the implications of policy and professional discourses that position children as ‘damaged’ and as ‘witnesses’, but that do not recognise children’s capacity to experience domestic violence, make sense of it, and respond to it in ways that are agentic, resilient and resistant. Describing children as ‘witnesses’, ‘exposed to domestic violence’ and ‘damaged by it’ erodes children’s capacity to represent their experiences, and to articulate the ways that they cope with and resist such experiences. By focusing on children’s capacity for conscious meaning making and agency in relation to their experiences of domestic violence, we highlight the importance of recognising its impact on children, and their right to representation as victims in the context of domestic violence.

The project addresses several major questions:

1. How do children experience domestic violence and what evidence is there in their accounts of capacity for agency, resistance and resilience?

2. How might we devise an intervention focused on agency, resistance and resilience for children who experience domestic violence, rather than the usual interventions focused on behaviour change and perceptions of damage? How do children experience such an intervention?

3. How do those who work with children affected by domestic violence see them, and what implications do these representations have for children’s ability to cope with and recover from domestic violence? What does the policy and service landscape look like for these children?

4. How do practitioners who work with domestic violence experience training that enables them to consider children’s agency, resistance and resilience