Emotional abuse may be as harmful as physical abuse and neglect, report researchers.
The finding complements existing imaging research showing that
emotional and physical pain both activate the same parts of the brain.
Emotional abuse, which includes behaviors such as ridicule,
intimidation, rejection, and humiliation, is much more common than
physical abuse and neglect. Worldwide prevalence estimates suggest that
approximately one third of children experience emotional abuse.
“Although people assume physical abuse is more harmful than other
types of abuse, we found that they are associated with similar
consequences,” says David Vachon, a professor in the psychology
department at McGill University and the study’s first author. “These
consequences are wide-ranging and include everything from anxiety and
depression to rule-breaking and aggression.”
The discovery may pave the way for more effective means of addressing
how different forms of child abuse should be recognized and treated.
Vachon, working with his former postdoctoral mentor Robert Krueger,
used data from a study by Dante Cicchetti at the University of Minnesota
and Fred Rogosch at the University of Rochester that was conducted
through Mt. Hope Family Center.
Cicchetti and Rogosh have been running a summer research camp for
over 20 years to study low-income, school-aged children ages 5-13 years.
About half of the camp-goers had a well-documented history of child
maltreatment. Various types of child-, peer-, and counselor-reports were
used to assess psychiatric and behavioral problems, and the camp
counselors were not told which campers were abused.
Using their data, Vachon studied 2,300 racially and ethnically diverse boys and girls who participated in the summer camp.
“We also tested other assumptions about child maltreatment,” adds
Vachon, “including the belief that each type of abuse has specific
consequences, and the belief that the abuse has different consequences
for boys and girls of different races.”
The study produced surprising findings: “We found that these
assumptions might also be wrong. In fact, it seems as though different
types of child abuse have equivalent, broad, and universal effects.”
The study may significantly change how researchers, clinicians, and
the public think about child abuse. “One implication,” adds Vachon, “is
that effective treatments for maltreatment of any sort are likely to
have comprehensive benefits.
“Another implication is that prevention strategies should emphasize
emotional abuse, a widespread cruelty that is far less punishable than
other types of child maltreatment.”
When asked about next steps, Vachon says, “One plan is to examine the
way abuse changes personality itself—does it change who we are? The
point is to go beyond symptoms and ask whether abuse changes the way we
tend to think, feel, and act.”