Invisible spectators: Children who grow up in abusive households, and what it does to them

"You want to have a normal family like everyone else. There was a lot of self-loathing."
Invisible spectators: Children who grow up in abusive households, and what it does to them
Invisible spectators: Children who grow up in abusive households, and what it does to them
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One of the earliest childhood memories Naina* has is of her parents fighting. “I still don’t know the meaning of all the swear words my father or his family used,” the 24-year-old says. Her parents married for love, but there wasn’t much of it around as Naina grew up.

The fights were a daily affair, with her father leaving the house after beating up her mother late in the night. “I remember hiding behind a curtain, wishing I would become invisible,” Naina recounts.

Her mother was diagnosed with cancer when Naina was 10. And while the physical violence reduced because she and her brother grew up, the raised voices still wouldn’t let her sleep. “In her final days, mom told me to forgive my father, because she had. She then asked me to call him inside the room. I remember her looking at him and smiling, and him doing the same. It’s one of the only happy memories I have of them,” Naina says.

Naina is one of the many children who grow up witnessing violence and/or abuse at home. While discussions around domestic abuse often center around victims and perpetrators, conversations around children who end up being helpless spectators, are often drowned out.

Vandhana, a Chennai-based clinical psychologist explains that domestic abuse can happen in several ways: emotional, physical, verbal, economic and sexual. But for children, the first three are more apparent, she says.

“When children grow up in abusive households, it changes their neurobiology, especially if the instances of abuse are frequent,” says Vandhana. This means that the children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional growth is adversely affected.

“Children who witness violence and/or abuse on a daily basis may also have stunted growth, especially if they are younger. Emotionally, they may either become overly sensitive, or completely numb.”

The social and cognitive effects of being in such an environment are more severe and long-lasting. “Such children will either be aggressive and lash out at the smallest provocation or become completely withdrawn and submissive. The whole experience also leaves them feeling very confused and they may end up blaming themselves,” Vandhana says.

25-year-old Avinash* for instance, grew up in a household where his father would remain absent for days. “But when he came, say once a week, he’d be like Santa Claus. I loved the time we spent together,” he says.

But the fights were loud, dramatic and violent. “He would beat my mother a lot. I still haven’t figured out why. She would get depressed and suicidal and sometimes beat me, because I think she didn’t have any other outlet,” he recalls.

This continued till Avinash was in Class 5, when suddenly, one day, his father left for good. Three years later, his parents got divorced. But far from recovering in those three years, Avinash’s relationship with his mother worsened because he blamed her for his father leaving.

“I felt abandoned and angry at myself. You look around and you want to have a normal family like everyone else. There was a lot of self-loathing,” Avinash says.

While Naina didn’t blame herself for what was happening till her mother passed away in 2012, confusion is all she felt in her childhood. “I saw my mother try to commit suicide when I was 12. But when you’re so young, you don’t know what is happening. You just see your mother’s tear-filled eyes looking at you as someone shoves two fingers down her throat to make her puke the sleeping pills she swallowed. It all hits you later when you start to grow up and realise the implications,” she says.

Growing up in such an environment has far-reaching psychological implications too. For Avinash, it meant being a loner at school. When he moved out to college, he found a little peace with the distance, but also started using drugs.

“You’re born into a system and you get used to it. When it collapses, you have a certain freedom which you don’t quite know what to do with. I felt so lost that I think I romanticised the idea of not succeeding,” he offers by way of explanation. He adds that he was diagnosed with a mood disorder, characterised by mood swings and chronic depression.

Disorders like these are common in children growing up in abusive households, says Vandhana. “Depression and anxiety are common. But children also suffer from Oppositional Defiant Disorder (characterised by defiance, spitefulness, negativity, verbal aggression), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and conduct disorder (when a child persistently and repetitively disregards others’ rights and concerns without remorse or guilt). And when unchecked, these disorders can turn into full-blown psychopathic behaviour,” Vandhana warns.

Many tend to perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own interpersonal relationships. Avinash for example, reveals that the dynamic between him and his former girlfriend (who came from a similarly abusive household) was very similar to that between his parents.

“I could never trust her and we were often physically violent with each other. I know it is wrong and I would feel horribly guilty the next day,” he says.

In Avinash’s case, he began externalising the violence he experienced at home, as opposed to others who tend to internalise it. “In psychiatric terms, ‘externalising’ means to perpetuate what you have witnessed. Someone who ‘internalises’ it on the other hand, would tend to become more meek and submissive,” Vandhana explains.

And the girl child is more likely to internalize violence, because of the patriarchal culture we live in, Vandhana adds.

Naina ended up doing exactly that. “I started to believe that if I didn’t say anything, nothing would happen. But I had so much rage inside me towards my father’s family. I’m still a very meek person, but the rage comes back whenever I think of those relatives. But I still don’t do anything,” she says.

While Avinash has a better relationship with his parents now and Naina, with her father, they are still wary of speaking about the abuse. Avinash says he doesn’t like to revisit that time of his life now that he is in a slightly better place. Naina is wary of the impression it may create of her family and her father.

The latter, Vandhana says, is one reason even children end up staying silent. However, she says that there are ways to identify if a child is witnessing or being subjected to abuse:

1. Every child has a behaviour which is normal for him/her. Look out for discrepancies, such as an extroverted child becoming quiet and unsocial or vice-versa.

2. The child will give out certain indirect signals if he/she is unable to speak about it. It could be through the written word, drawings or referring to their ordeal in the third person as if it is happening to a ‘friend’.

3. Signs of sleep deprivation are another indication. Children in such toxic environments often experience nightmares or lack of sleep.

4. In school, a child may lose interest in things they previously liked or show deteriorating academic performance due to an unconducive environment at home. 

(*Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

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