How witnessing abuse as a child impact development?


Abuse is not just limited to physical and verbal forms, it also includes sexual, emotional, financial, and technological abuse. When children are exposed to such abuse, be it only as an observer, it can be a traumatic experience for them. 

This would consequently impact their behavioral, emotional, and cognitive functioning. They could start engaging in aggressive and antisocial behaviors. They could also experience anxiety, depression, and disturbance in mood. Additionally, they become susceptible to developing insomnia, bed wetting, and problems with their verbal and motor functioning as well. 

Children are like blank slates; they intentionally or unintentionally learn everything they observe around them. Children observe their parents/caregivers- the way they talk and walk, the things they say/ don’t say, the things they do/don’t, how they behave, resolve conflicts; basically, everything that’s happening around them. Since they are too young to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy responses, they act out what they have learned from their surroundings. Research suggests that a victim of abuse can later go on to become a perpetrator. They could do this without even realizing it since this would feel like a perfectly normal way of being. These unhealthy patterns that they end up adopting, of thinking, feeling, and behaving, then need to be unlearned in order for them to live healthy and fulfilling lives. 

Such experiences could have adverse effects on one’s mental health. They could develop mental health conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders. Specifically during childhood, they could develop behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder which may also lead to difficulties with the legal system. They could also start developing traits of personality disorders. And so in their adulthood, they become prone to developing personality disorders.

They are also likely to face problems developing and maintaining relationships as they also often go on to develop insecure attachment styles. 

In their adulthood, they could suffer from anxiety, depression, and dissociative disorders and engage in self-harming and suicidal behaviors. According to research, they could also present psychopathic traits in adulthood. 

It is needless to say that help should be provided to those who are being exposed to abuse. Children too need to have access to a safe and protected environment. They need to be educated about unhealthy and unhealthy responses to cope with stressful situations, boundaries, and safety measures that they could use to be safe. 

Psychological intervention can help in identifying such patterns, their causes, and the development of healthy patterns of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.