'Feel Everyone Will Hurt Me': Adults Who Witnessed Domestic Abuse as Kids Speak

Sometimes, patterns of domestic violence repeat over generations.

5 min read

(Trigger Warning: Description of domestic violence and assault. Reader discretion advised. Names of all survivors have been changed to protect their privacy.)

"Every night, I would wake up to the sound of loud crashes, screams, and abuses. My father used to beat my mother mercilessly while she begged for forgiveness," recalls 26-year-old Tina, a teacher in Delhi-NCR.

"I have become a very pessimistic person over the years; I always feel like the worst thing possible will happen. I feel that everyone around me will hurt me and harm me in some way, so I avoid talking to them," she shares, over a phone call with The Quint.

In a five-year-old video, that went viral again earlier in October, a child was seen mimicking his father – as he went on thrashing his mother. Earlier in August, 30-year-old Indian-origin woman Mandeep Kaur died by suicide after repeated domestic abuse. In a purported video that went viral following her death, her children can be heard crying, "Papa, no maaro mumma nu" (Papa, stop hitting mom), while she is being abused.

Can witnessing domestic violence in childhood can have lasting repercussions?

As a child, seeing an abusive relationship between parents can trigger emotional difficulties, low academic performance, and risky behaviours, explained experts to whom The Quint reached out.

"The experience will surely have an impact in the long term. Adults who saw domestic violence in their homes are more susceptible to depressive illnesses, generalised anxiety disorder, panic, sleep disturbances, adjustment issues, and relationship difficulties. It could even lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."
Dr Kamna Chhibber, Head - Mental Health, Department of Mental Health, Fortis Healthcare
Sometimes, patterns of domestic violence repeat over generations.

'I Haven't Been in Serious Relationships'

Speaking to The Quint about the effect that her childhood experience has had on her, Tina shares, "I haven't been in serious relationships all my life. I am scared of feeling too much. I am scared of investing my energy and love into someone who could turn out like my father. I started dating a very nice man couple of years ago, but slowly fear and anxiety creeped in and affected the relationship."

Sometimes, patterns of domestic violence repeat over generations.

Psychologists suggest that children who grew up in abusive environments may have emotional difficulties that affect their adult relationships.

"The individuals may struggle with trust or healthy boundaries in their adult relationships. They may be hyper vigilant for signs of danger, and that may affect their relationship," Dr Komal Manshani, Consultant – Psychiatry, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, explains to The Quint.

"I made a family outside my broken home. I have very few friends, but they are my world. I started staying over at friends' place to escape my house. I tried to find parental figures in the outside world," adds Tina.

The first responders who work with survivors of domestic violence note that the children of the survivors, especially girls, often look for love outside their homes when they grow up.

"They do not see love in their homes so they look for attention, appreciation elsewhere. This is why we have seen that these young girls become more prone to pre-marital rape. We also see an ingrained fear of the male figure in the women who witness violence. It takes a lot of time for them to trust people again," remarks Shivani Saini, Centre Coordinator of Gauravi (Sakhi) One Stop Crisis Centre, which is run collaboratively by the Madhya Pradesh government and ActionAid Association.

'My Grandfather, Then My Father, Then My Husband...': Do Patterns Repeat?

"My grandfather was an alcoholic. After drinking, he used to beat my dadi (grandmother), even throw her out of the house. My father and chacha (paternal uncle) also became like him. My father used to beat my mother and throw her out of the house, and she used to remain silent," shares Manisha, 30, who works as a computer operator.

"Often, I used to ask my mother, why do you put up with all of this? She told me that the reputation of her family would be ruined if she raised her voice in her marital home. Also, my mother was dependent on my father for finances," she adds.

Rita, after she was married at the age of 18, also suffered domestic violence in her marital home, which she has now left.

"Initially, I followed the example of my mother and grandmother that I had seen in my childhood, and didn't raise my voice. I worried that if I did, my home would break. But, since I kept silent, the abuse kept on increasing."
Sometimes, patterns of domestic violence repeat over generations.

Speaking to The Quint, Dr Komal Manshani explains, "All children learn by observing. If they see repetitive patterns of abuse in their homes, it is possible that they may internalise that. Like a women may be passive in her response to domestic violence since she has seen her mother also remain silent. But it is not necessary that that will happen. It depends on you the individual deals with that situation."

Ruksana, a domestic worker who also has a similar tale of intergenerational violence to tell, disclosed, "As a mother of three daughters, I feel anxious about them all day. I don't want them to suffer like my mother and I. My mother never spoke to me about it. But I will tell my daughters to never keep quiet if someone ill treats them, but to raise their voice and even hit the man back if needed."

"The individuals might emulate the same way of responding. But, as they have experienced the distress in those situations during their childhood, it may take them in an opposite direction as well," summarises Dr Chhibber.


What Can Help?

Parents addressing the issue with the child can go a long way in reducing the impact of the aversive experience.

"Parents should talk to the child about what they have seen instead of dismissing it. If the child is old enough, they can explain that what the child has observed is not the correct way of dealing with conflict," advises Dr Manshani.

"If the parents talk to the child, help them navigate the situation, and reinforce that the marital conflict is not because of the child, it will certainly help. But, both partners would need to be invested in that."
Dr Kamna Chhibber, Head - Mental Health, Department of Mental Health, Fortis Healthcare

Experts also emphasise on the importance of facilitating safe spaces and providing healthier role models for the child to express their thoughts and feelings.

School counsellors, teachers, and other adults around the child can play a role in supporting them and helping them understand that all relationships are not like this, and that they are not responsible for the situation, says Dr Chhibber.

Sometimes, patterns of domestic violence repeat over generations.

These adults can also talk to children about healthy boundaries in relationships and better mechanisms of solving relationship conflicts.

And, seeking professional help is always a good option. "Professional help can help focus on tackling specific emotional and behavioural issues that the child or individual may be facing," notes Dr Manshani.

(With inputs from Ishita Das)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More