The effects of abusive parents on children can be far-reaching. In addition to negatively affecting the child’s relationship with her abuser, she may have difficulty forming bonds with other caregivers. Additionally, abused children may have difficulty forming meaningful relationships with peers. Even into adulthood, children with abusive parents often struggle to form healthy, secure bonds. That said, the Communities Overcoming Relationship Abuse support site explains that “Children and teens are resilient; they are strong and able to heal if they are listened to, nurtured and allowed to feel safe.”
Because children’s first experience with interpersonal bonding is with their parents, when kids are exposed to abuse, they often have no reliable way of knowing who to trust or how to form attachments, explains HelpGuide.org. This can make it difficult for children not only to maintain emotional closeness with their parents, but with other individuals, such as extended family members, foster parents or other trusted adults. This pattern of poor attachment may manifest itself long after the abuse ends.
Cycle of Abuse
In addition to struggling with trust issues, abused children may not have a model for a healthy relationship. Without appropriate therapeutic interventions, abused children may grow up believing that hurtful dynamics are a normal part of all relationships. Thus, as they grow up, they may become victims of domestic abuse or act abusively toward their own children. That said, many victims of child abuse recognize the severe effects of their own trauma and go to great efforts to protect their own children from harm.
Friendships and Empathy
Children who suffer abuse may struggle to maintain friendships or even casual relationships. Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D., of the Center for Family Development, explains that the brains of young children can be permanently altered by abuse. Because of these brain development issues, abused children may struggle to empathize with others and may have difficulty communicating effectively, which can lead to strained friendships. These unhealthy dynamics may be further perpetuated if the victim of child abuse struggles with anger or emotional regulation problems.
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Reactive attachment disorder is a chronic mental health condition that stems from severe abuse or neglect. The Mayo Clinic website explains that it is a relatively rare condition, but a serious one that affects a child throughout her entire life. Children with RAD may avoid physical contact and social interactions with others. As adults, persons with RAD may develop substance abuse issues or depression or display inappropriate sexual behaviors. That said, when treated early with psychotherapy, psychoeducation and medications, children with RAD can go on to lead productive lives and form healthy relationships.