Domestic violence is a known social problem around the world. In South Africa, there is an extremely high prevalence of domestic violence and the country has the highest incidence of intimate partner violence, a form of domestic violence, in the world. Intimate partner violence refers to domestic violence between partners of spouses. Children who are exposed to domestic violence are often the unseen victims thereof. Although their exposure to domestic violence have a negative influence on their behavioural, emotional, cognitive and social functioning, they are not necessarily seen as victims of domestic violence if they were not direct victims of the violent incidents. The focus of this study was on young adults who were exposed to intimate partner violence in their childhood homes.
The goal of the study was thus to explore the experiences of young adults regarding their exposure to domestic violence during childhood. A qualitative research approach was utilised in order to explore the personal experiences of the participants in the study. A phenomenological research design guided the study, as the researcher aimed to gain insight into the experiences of the participants by letting them descriptively elaborate on their experiences. Following a pilot study, data was collected by means of unstructured one-to-one interviews. Purposive sampling was used to identify participants that complied with certain sampling criteria. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, snowball sampling was also utilised to gain access to participants. The sample of the study consisted of ten participants, one male and nine females.
The findings of the study confirmed the harmful effects of exposure to intimate partner violence, even though the participants were not direct victims of the violent incidents. The participants experienced the negative consequences of exposure to domestic violence in various areas of their life, including on their emotional well-being, roles within their childhood homes, academic performance and peer group relationships. The negative effects were not limited to their childhood years, but also affected their psychosocial functioning as young adults. In some cases, domestic violence were perpetuated into the participants’ adult family situations. As children, the participants tended not to talk to anyone about their experiences, which can contribute to children being the hidden victims of domestic violence.
The findings of the study suggest that exposure to intimate partner violence, as a form of domestic violence, have many harmful effects on children. It is highlighted that even indirect exposure of children to domestic violence have significant negative consequences for them. These consequences can be long-term and can contribute to domestic violence being an intergenerational phenomenon.
Children who are exposed to domestic violence cannot be overlooked and demand attention and support from professional persons such as social workers, psychologists, teachers, school principals, the South African Police Service, the Justice System as well as the government services of South Africa. It is recommended that prevention and early intervention strategies are put into place, for example educational and awareness campaigns and early identification of children who are exposed to domestic violence. Further, therapeutic services should be offered to children to help them deal with the harmful consequences of their exposure to domestic violence. It is also recommended that perpetrators of domestic violence be removed from the home, rather than re-victimising children who are exposed to domestic violence by removing them from the family home.