3 Children’s experiences of family life
Positive aspects of family life benefit children’s wellbeing and their experiences of education and other services.
I like the security of having a home. I feel like at the end of the day, no matter what has happened, I can go there, and it’s always going to be there, and just the fact that it’s somewhere that I can hide away, and the physical aspect of the warmth as well. The fact that my mum is there. … The fact that if there’s something wrong, I can always talk to my mum. She might not always approve, but I know she’s always going to be there to give me the advice I need. That’s nice.
(LGBT young person)
They feed you, they keep you alive and they help with your homework.
(Child living in poverty)
These findings echo what we have learned from the research quoted above, about the importance of stability, safety, security and good relationships. But negative aspects of family life can have a detrimental effect. Two examples are discussed below.
The effects of abuse and neglect
A review of relevant research found that poor home experiences negatively affect children’s academic performance (Mills, 2004). Children mistreated at home performed less well in standardised tests and achieved poorer school marks, even when differing social, economic and other background factors were taken into account (Veltman and Browne, 2001).
The review also found that disabled children were more likely to be mistreated than non-disabled children (Sullivan and Knutson, 2000a). There was a link between mistreatment in the home and increased risk of behaviour problems, aggression and crime (e.g. Manly et al., 2001), increased risk of being bullied (Duncan, 1999; Baldry, 2003), school absence (Sullivan and Knutson, 2000b), exclusion (Eckenrode, 1993) and poor mental health (Briere, 1991, cited in Mills, 2004).
The relatively poor overall educational achievements of ‘looked-after’ children and the links between being in public care and poor school experiences are well documented (Barnardo’s, 2006, and Berridge, 2007). But children’s experiences at home before entering the care system also contribute to poor outcomes. One study found that children in care because of abuse and neglect fared significantly worse than those in care for other reasons (Heath et al., 1994). Those who had experienced abuse and neglect before entering the care system were found not to have improved over time nor escaped the disadvantages they faced in the same way that those in care for other reasons did.
It is not only mistreatment which reaches the legal threshold of ‘abuse’ that affects children’s time in school. Reviews by Elizabeth Gershoff of studies on the effects of corporal punishment found that while smacking or spanking may make children comply with instructions in the short term, in the long term it affects their ‘moral internalisation’ – their beliefs about what is acceptable and not acceptable behaviour – and makes aggression and defiance more likely (Gershoff, 2002, 2008).
At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence (BMA, 2007). To find out how children feel about what happens during and after the violence, an online project called Kidspeak was set up (Barron, 2007). Message boards allowed children to speak to each other and share stories with key professionals – senior police officers, judges and parliamentarians.
Children’s accounts revealed the immediate and long term effects of domestic violence on them:
I was really scared when I first heard my Mum and Dad shouting. I was afraid to go downstairs, and when I realised it was a fight I didn’t know what to do. I tried to forget all about it and go to sleep, but I couldn’t because of all the things in my head. I didn’t know what to do – should I say something, stand up and speak out, or lay here and let it unfold? One night I went downstairs but they told me to go back to my room, and when I woke up the next morning it was all back to normal again. I didn’t know what to do …
(Silas, aged 11)
My heart jumps when I see a familiar car to my dad’s one. It’s horrible …
Feeling safe was very important. In spite of the disruption to their lives, many felt that moving to a refuge was overall a positive move. But many were angry at the personal losses they faced and the adjustments they had to make. Unlike typical transition times, such as primary to secondary school or a planned house move, moving to a refuge usually happens with little warning, no opportunity to say goodbye to friends, and little or no say in where to move to. Children may have to leave their belongings and pets behind, and deal with family break up. There can be ambivalence as children confront these negative experiences alongside the positive aspects of living without the fear of violence and among supportive adults.
i had 2 leave everything behind, it was horrid, i am in a refugee [sic] and I hav made loads of new friends though. … i had 2 leave all my friends though i stay in contact. I hav 2 b careful wot i say 2 them though. the refugee is gr8. It’s a luvly opportunity to meet new ppl safely and u know that they hav gone through exactly the same thing as u hav.
i had to go in a refuge ... my pets aren’t allwored [sic] and … i miss them and when i get a proper house i will get my dog back. … i had to leave home and at first it is scary but it is not all bad some plasers [sic] have play room … but the ally bad thing is you are not allwored [sic] friends round.
(Ellie, 10 years old)
I only moved 2 weeks ago but i really miss my friends and my old school, I used to love goin to that school. … I have to do a lot of things to get into school [here] at the moment I am going to a school where id do 2hrs a day, 4 days a week! Then by September I will be going to full time education school!
(Natalie, 13 years)
I think because I came into a refuge it helped me with my gcse’s and my schoolwork, because it was easier to concentrate when I sent to refuge on my schoolwork and my exams because there was less arguing etc. … I know I am lucky to be in refuge because nearly all refuges don’t take boys in to refuge at the age of 16.
(Jared, 16 years old)
Can you think of issues children may face when they leave the refuge for permanent housing? These can include ongoing contact issues with the non-resident parent, involvement in court proceedings between parents, financial stresses faced by the resident parent in setting up a new home from scratch and continuing concerns over safety, on top of the tasks and well known stresses of moving house, changing schools and making new friends.