Parent, aunt, uncle, school teacher, older sibling, friend or neighbor, regardless of the role we currently have concerning our communities’ children, understanding psychological violence and abuse at home as a real problem, can prevent potential lifelong psychological effects for a child, and contribute to healthier societies.

Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven “stated Henry Ward Beecher, known as a social activist in his times. There should only be a few better interpretations of the purity of a child than that one of Henry. 

Children are pure in nature and spirit, and there is growing consensus and evidence that childhood experiences are the foundation on which the rest of their lives are built. In their fragility, a child is dependents of their families, the fundamental unit of society. According to international law, “the family is the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members”, as it has the potential to protect the emotional and physical safety of children.

Widespread evidence of psychological violence

However, according to United Nations studies, one of the settings in which violence against children mostly occur is at home, which makes it more difficult to combat it, due to its “private” nature.  Having said that, children have the fundamental right to life, development, dignity and physical integrity. Given that these are universal human rights of international public law, their rights do not stop once they enter their home, and it is the Nation-State the duty-bearer for ensuring that children’s rights are realized.

Psychological violence and abuse against children by parents and other family members including step-parents, foster parents, and siblings has been widely documented across nations. According to the United Nations, psychological violence against children in the form of humiliating punishment, mistreatment, insults, emotional indifference, neglect, name-calling, isolation, rejection, and threats usually takes place in the context of discipline.

For its part, a UK study has found that sibling bullying may even be worse than school bullying, as it happens repeatedly, it is inescapable, and it tends to occur under the radar. The study has observed that sibling bullying stems from the intention to inflict physical and psychological harm to one sibling, in a power imbalance basis, and it holds a stronger likeliness among first-born children as the inflictors.

Moreover, other studies have found that when one child is favored over the other sibling, or when the “good child” can do no wrong, while the other child is purposely cast into the role of the “scapegoat”, is particularly damaging for the child’s mental health, and can exacerbate sibling bullying.

Frequent exposure of children to violent fights between parents can also severely impact the psychological development of a child, and it increases their risk to be subject to physical violence. In this regard, physical violence is generally accompanied by psychological violence, leading to psychological implications for their development.

Impacts of psychological violence in the family

Factually, all of the above experiences could permanently damage the mental health of a child. The Lancet suggests that sibling bullying increases the risk of mental health consequences in adulthood, and it doubles the risk of the victim experiencing depression at later stages in life. Other studies reveal that bullying experienced during childhood can have lifetime effects even at the age of 45, amongst which they may include loss of trust, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and even physical health problems. 

Regarding the physical health consequences, mistreatment can impact the biological stress system, the morphology of the brain, and the neurological system of the victim.

Mental Health Awareness

It is particularly important for our societies to recognize that mental health challenges are a very real problem. Suicide continues to be the second major cause of death among 15-29 years old, globally. Unfortunately, adults who struggle with mental health conditions are more vulnerable to experience other human rights violations based on discrimination and stigma. Consequently, States must ensure access to quality mental health care and treatment for anyone overcoming the plethora of adverse consequences of psychological violence

Considering the documented consequences of psychological abuse against children, States have the obligation, under international human rights law, to implement public policies to ensure children are protected from violence in their families, for example through the effective dissemination of children’s rights; and the establishment of safe and confidential complaint mechanisms for children to report cases of violence, such as telephone helplines.

The role of the family and society

Given that the family has the primary responsibility for the child’s development and upbringing, parents must become aware of the long term consequences of abusive behavior they, or even siblings, might be adopting against their children. In this context, employing alternative forms of discipline that are not violent nor belittling is the best alternative. Positive discipline methodologies include teaching children the reasons why certain behaviors are acceptable and other are unacceptable.

Health professionals, social workers, and family counselors should enquire about potential scenarios for sibling bullying, and encourage interventions to reduce its health implications.

Society must also do their part on combating all forms of violence against children and beware of attitudes that normalize this violence, advice when appropriate, or recourse to denounce when necessary.