Impact of Abuse on Mental Heal...

Impact of Abuse on Mental Health & Child Development

Child psychology and development are very different and fragile as compared to adults. This blog is to help understand what can be the possible impact of abuse on the mental health of a child. The question here arises “Why Now?” 

Since child abuse is one of the most persistent and increasing every day, it is important to know what could be the possible outcome and result of abuse on a child. 

  •  Every five minutes, a child is killed by violence
  • 400,000,000 abandoned children live on their own
  • 26 million children aged 5-17 working in dangerous conditions. 1 million children are forced to work in mines
  • 1.2 million children and babies are trafficked every year
  • At any one time across the world, around 1.8 million are being absued through prostitution, child pornography and sex tourism
  • 5.7 million slave children are in forced labour
  • 300,000 children are soilders under the age of 15

The above scale of violence is increasing and this is unacceptable in all countries. This kind of violence can cause severe physical, cognitive, and economic damage. 

To understand the impact of abuse on mental health, it is very important to know some key definitions so that we can illustrate them in further detail.


United Nations Violence against Children 5 settings state that the child is nurtured and developed in 5 different environments which are home, school, institutions, work, and community.  

Let us illustrate the impact of violence with the help of some cases

  • A 14-year-old child commits suicide by hanging himself because he was abused by his stepfather. He wrote “Take care of my sister” in Arabic on his front side before hanging himself. A handwriting expert has proved that it is the same handwriting as of the child. The body was found by the social worker.

  • A 4 to 6-month child was sexually abused by a friend of his father. The specimen was collected from the mouth of the child. However, in this case, any consequences on mental health in his life is less as the child is very small to remember the crime that took place. 

  • One of the terrible cases of attention deficit disorder was of a child who was abused by belts using the iron because the parents think that there is an evil spirit in the child. He improved overtime after two years of suffering from abuse so this is the kind of consequence that is suffered psychologically in a child. 

  • Another case of a child being treated badly by parents and it took one and a half years for the child to start recovering. In this case, the child was amputated by his mother or uncle which is in a dispute about the incidents. The child was recovered and reconstructed by the Maya Clinic of America. However, the abuse has resulted in permanent functional disability. 

The implication of Child Abuse

The Adverse Childhood experiences (ACE) study is a well-known study that focuses on the largest ongoing examination of the correlation between childhood treatment and health. 

Child abuse and neglect affect Children, Adolescents, Adults, and society.

The effect varies depending upon the circumstances of the abuse or neglect, personal characteristics of the child, and environment of the child.

The consequences of child abuse could be

  • Physical, Psychological, Behavioral, Social or combinations
  • Mild or severe
  • Disappear after a short period or last a lifetime.

Individual outcomes depend mostly on the following factors:

  1. Age and Developmental status of the suffering child.
  2. Type of Maltreatment
  3. Frequency, duration, and severity of maltreatment
  4. Relationship between child and the perpetrator

The consequences of abuse are interrelated. ACE data found that roughly 54 percent of cases are of depression and 58 percent of suicide attempts in women are related to their adverse experience in childhood (Felitti and Anda, 2009).

  • Physical abuse is “when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child.”
  • Emotional abuse, which is recognized less often, is “when a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development or causes severe emotional harm,” and can include (but is not limited to) isolating a child, terrorizing, ignoring, and humiliating them.
  • Sexual abuse is “when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts,” but it does not have to involve physical contact with a child. In addition to “contact abuse,” it can also include inappropriate sexual language, “making a child view or show sex organs,” and forcing a child to watch a sexual act.
  • Neglect is “when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being,” and it occurs when an adult fails to meet even the most basic requirements for taking care of a child that they are responsible for. Neglect can physical, emotional, medical, or educational.

Physical neglect relates to the reception of “care and supervision.”

Emotional neglect relates to the reception of “affection and attention.”

Medical neglect relates to “treatment for injuries and illnesses.”

Educational neglect relates to a child’s “access to opportunities for academic success.”

Neurophysiology behind abuse:

Abuse triggers complex neurochemical and hormonal systems that are involved in stress response and emotional regulation. Activation of Glucocorticoid, Noradrenergic, and Vasopressin oxytocin systems takes place. These are highly adaptive response that allows survival in a dangerous environment. However, chronic activation will result in some permanent changes and maltreated children are at risk of developing exaggerated responses even in minor stress.

Deficits in short-term verbal memory have been observed in adults with childhood sexual abuse. Deficient inhibitory capacity, problems with verbally mediated higher cognitive abilities, and distractibility, and impaired sustained attention have been observed in abused children.

Neuroanatomy behind abuse:

Abuse child develops alterations in the structure and functions of the brain. Children having post-traumatic stress disorder shows significant changes such as reduced cerebral volume, enlargement of the ventricular system, alterations in the pituitary and hippocampus. 

Child Resilience 

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from hard times. We describe someone as resilient if they are doing better than we would expect given the challenges that they are facing. Since we will all face periods of adversity in our lives, having the ability to weather those periods is key to a happy, successful life.

How to Build Resilience in Children 

  • Let them experience disappointment so they learn sadness doesn’t last forever.
  • Validate their fears and help them make plans to do things even if they are scared.
  • Let them take (reasonable) risks and experience natural consequences.
  • Encourage them to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from their mistakes.
  • Give them the opportunity to make their own decisions and help them problem solve.
  • Reframe challenges as sshort-termproblems, and opportunities for learning.


Children exposed to abuse are more vulnerable to have trust issues in later stages of life. Witnessing domestic abuse, either towards themselves or their parents, may lead these children to face difficulty in focusing on their studies, developing skills, and show violent episodes of behavior or suffer from depression or severe anxiety. Child abuse can be of four types: Sexual Abuse, Neglect, Emotional Abuse, and Physical Abuse & Domestic Violence. International standards about sexual violence, emotional abuse, and physical abuse have been identified and the ways to tackle them have also been discussed. Internationally, various laws and conventions have been signed by countries to ensure the protection of children worldwide. In India, various laws have been enacted to ensure the safety of children from abuse and to punish the perpetrators who commit such offenses. There is still a need to improvise Indian laws to make it a safer place for children to grow and evolve. 

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