Beyond ‘witnessing’: children’s experiences of coercive control in domestic violence and abuse

Jane Callaghan, Jo Alexander, Lisa Fellin, Judith Sixsmith

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticlepeer-review


Children’s experiences and voices are underrepresented in academic literature and professional practice around domestic violence and abuse. The project ‘Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies’ addresses this absence, through direct engagement with children. We present an analysis from interviews with 21 children in the United Kingdom (12 girls and 9 boys, aged 8-18 years), about their experiences of domestic violence and abuse, and their responses to this violence. These interviews were analysed using interpretive interactionism. Three themes from this analysis are presented: a) ‘Children’s experiences of abusive control’, which explores children’s awareness of controlling behaviour by the adult perpetrator, their experience of that control, and its impact on them; b) ‘Constraint’, which explores how children experience the constraint associated with coercive control in situations of domestic violence, and c) ‘Children as agents’ which explores children’s strategies for managing controlling behaviour in their home and in family relationships. The paper argues that, in situations where violence and abuse occurs between adult intimate partners, children are significantly impacted, and can be reasonably described as victims of abusive control. Recognising children as direct victims of domestic violence and abuse would produce significant changes in the way professionals respond to them, by 1) recognising children’s experience of the impact of domestic violence and abuse; 2) recognising children’s agency, undermining the perception of them as passive ‘witnesses’ or ‘collateral damage’ in adult abusive encounters; and 3) strengthening professional responses to them as direct victims, not as passive witnesses to violence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1551-1581
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Interpersonal Violence
Issue number10
Early online date10 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • Domestic violence
  • coercive control
  • children
  • intimate partner violence
  • domestic abuse
  • children exposed to domestic violence
  • family violence


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