The legacy of childhood trauma

Policies on domestic violence ignore the effect of trauma on children and inter-generational transmission of violence

March 04, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:10 pm IST

Everyone who knew Rakesh said he was a monster. He could not handle conflicts at home and often resorted to yelling to get his point across. He would discipline his children by being physically violent. His idea of showing love for his partner was through physical violence and threats. Where did Rakesh learn to be the man he was? Perhaps from his childhood. Rakesh’s story is all too frequent in India.

Impact on children

One in three women faces intimate partner violence, according to the World Health Organization. Each successive government has tried to put in place legal and judicial recourses for these women, but has left children unprotected and exposed. Witnessing such widespread violence at home affects children seriously. First, there are recorded physiological effects of trauma on the brain. CT scans show that children who have been exposed to trauma develop smaller corpus callosum and smaller hippocampus regions, which means that their learning, cognitive abilities and emotional regulation are affected. Second, inter-generational transmission of violence is a disturbing consequence of violence in families. Dr. Byron Egeland, a widely published researcher in the areas of child maltreatment and developmental psychopathology, showed a history of abuse to be a major risk factor for abusing the next generation. Researchers have estimated an average inter-generational transmission rate of 40%. This means that for every 100 persons who were abused as children, 40 transmit this violence to the next generation.

Rakesh’s own history shows that he was a victim of violence. Rakesh had been a witness to violence between his parents at home every day until he turned 20. He saw his mother being slapped, and learnt to create cover-up stories for the frequent injuries that appeared on his and his mother’s bodies. By the time he was five, he had learnt that violence was an acceptable means to deal with conflict, and that it was important for the man to dominate through power-assertive violence. To cope with the trauma at home, he had also learnt to quickly suppress his childhood fear and deep insecurity. How else could he deal with the complexity of it? The trauma left physical effects on his brain, leading to poor emotional regulation.

According to Dr. John Bowlby, a renowned psychiatrist known for his pioneering work in developing attachment theory, the “internal working model” of a child is developed based on familial patterns of showing love and resolving conflicts. Rakesh’s internal working model had been developed based on behaviours between his caregivers in the first two years of his life. How can we teach our children other ways of healthy relationships between partners if this is all they have witnessed all their lives?

It is important to note that not all victims of domestic violence become aggressors. We must not victimise young survivors of violence. Declaring that some of these victimised children will end up being violent themselves can, in fact, make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, it is crucial in a country that faces a massive crisis of violence against women to understand that a history of abuse is often a risk factor that points to a likelihood of perpetrating inter-generational abuse.

Dealing with childhood trauma

India puts in place reactive policies every time a new case of violence comes to the fore. The country’s domestic violence policies have ranged from declaring certain offences against women as criminal offences, to setting up all-women police stations, to capital punishment for fatal rape cases. These policies have ignored the effect of trauma on children and the concept of inter-generational transmission of violence.

As a 2016 report by the U.S. Children’s Bureau explains, “violence and abuse produce trauma symptoms which when left unresolved, increase the likelihood that the individual will engage in violent behaviour as an adult.” We need to provide spaces for children to resolve these symptoms of childhood trauma.

India has become serious about mental health beginning with the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, but it needs to do more. Policymakers need to link the provision of professional mental health services to families recovering from domestic violence. A prospective policy, working with families to actively provide trauma-informed mental health care, needs to be in place.

But for this to happen, India needs more mental health practitioners. It needs accredited systems to train and track the quality of mental health trauma-care providers. Connecting such a network to peer-supportive groups can help survivors integrate their experiences into their lives and finally heal.

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