Sticks and Stones ..

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How many of you are survivors of childhood verbal abuse? I am not talking about an occasional parental outburst, but rather, consistent full-scale verbal assaults by your parents? According to a recent study by Harvard University psychiatrists, these so-called verbal beatings are as hurtful to an individual as sexual abuse and may also have long-lasting effects on the brain and behavior.

"Exposure to verbal aggression has received little attention as a specific form of abuse," notes Martin Teicher, associate professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated psychiatric facility and co-author of the study. "This despite the fact that one national study found that 63 percent of American parents reported one or more instances of verbal aggression, such as swearing at and insulting their child."

Teicher and three of his colleagues -- Jacqueline Samson, Ann Polcari, and Cynthia McGreenery -- found that, when verbal abuse is constant and severe, it poses the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is the same psychological collapse experienced by combat troops in Iraq. The team's research showed that children who are the target of frequent verbal mistreatment also exhibit higher rates of social problems, delinquency and physical aggression than other children.

"Verbal abuse may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, because it's often more continuous," said Teicher. "And in combination with physical abuse and neglect [it] may produce the most dire outcome. However, child protective service agencies, doctors, and lawyers are most concerned about the impact and prevention of physical or sexual abuse."

To gather data for this study, the team recruited 554 young people, aged 18 to 22 years, using advertisements. About half of the respondents were women and most were white. They all filled out questionnaires about unhappy childhoods and verbal abuse.

The data revealed that verbal abuse had as great an effect as physical or nondomestic sexual mistreatment. Verbal aggression alone turns out to be a particularly strong risk factor for depression, anger-hostility, and dissociation disorders. Dissociative disorders involve cutting off a particular mental function from the rest of the mind. Dissociation disorders involve feeling unreal or unstable, forgetting one's history, subconsciously converting painful emotions into physical symptoms, hallucinations, or multiple personalities.

Additionally, this study found that the effects of verbal abuse were worse than witnessing serious domestic violence and as serious as sexual abuse outside the home, although not quite as bad as sexual abuse by a family member.

Further, according to as yet unpublished research, exposure to verbal abuse also affects certain regions of the brain associated with verbal IQ and with depression, dissociation, and anxiety.

"Our findings raise the possibility that exposure to verbal aggression may affect the development of certain vulnerable brain regions in susceptible individuals," Teicher's group warns. "Alternatively, such exposure in childhood may put into force a powerful negative model for interpersonal relationships." Possible consequences could include insecure attachments to others, negative feelings about oneself in relation to others, poor social functioning, and lowered self-esteem and coping strategies. Worse, said Teicher, "such possibilities are not mutually exclusive."

The team noted that it was possible "that exposure to domestic emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is greatest in families with mental illness. Thus, genetic factors could contribute to the higher symptom scores we found in subjects exposed to domestic abuse."

But it is likely that the degree of psychological problems is probably lower for their college-educated, mainly upper middle-class subjects than it would be for the population in general.

Cited press release.


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Sorry to say I am from a lower middle class home, with enough of most things we needed and possibly abit more if we scrimped,with a physical,mental & verbal abusing father."Do as I say",type of fellow who believed in a strap'in in the coal shed - as he was raised - was good for us also. I hated him growing up. It wasn't till yrs. later after he mellowed out and I was an adult that we became friends and his new way was to "offer advise - take it or leave it".This article hits very close to home for me....Thanks for posting.

By Diane in Ohio (not verified) on 04 May 2007 #permalink

I am thoroughly convinced that verbal abuse can be a damaging as physical or sexual abuse. What is more, emotional neglect is probably just as bad.

Compounding the difficulty faced by victims, is the fact that is is hard for them to acknowledge the seriousness of what they faced, and they tend to get little validation from others. This leads to a sense of alienation, which is itself damaging.

this article also hit close to home for me. as a survivor of all forms of abuse when i was a child -- abuse that was so severe that i was diagnosed as having PTSD when i was 15, when i was also made a ward of the state, i am always curious to know more about what i have to battle daily.

I so hope that parents appreciate the potency of this study. Yelling at kids is child abuse. I know next time I'm tempted to raise my voice in anger, I'll be thinking twice. Don't scream, it's mean.
Excellent post. Thanks.

I know verbal abuse is as damaging as is physical abuse for most.
In the UK the demise of OUR country is down to the closing of
mental favour of 'care in the community'! It's The biggest mistake ever!!! Can the Government see it! We are ALL now coping with it, and
living with it! The government wonder why there is an upsurge in CRIME, ABUSIVE BEHAVIOUR, UNDER AGE BIRTHS!!! Labour Created it.

I disagree that there has been little research into verbal abuse. I studied abusive family dynamics in the early 90's (alcoholic parents/siblings, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse). There was at the time extensive literature on emotional abuse, of which verbal abuse is a critical component. I think the article is accurate in all other respects.

I do know what its like to suffer abuse as a child too, especially verbal abuse. This created problems for me for all of my life. It is only now that I understand how I was abused and how it effected me.

I agree that verbal abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse and it's probably a lot more common, too. It's sad that kids have to endure this kind of treatment.

Thank you for sharing this with the Carnival of Family Life.

Verbal abuse can cause damage to an individual that lasts long past that of a physical wound. As an owner of serveral anger management education centers. Individuals enter my anger management classes as victims of verbal abuse as well as perps. Anger Management classes emphasize effective communication skills in an effort to limit verbal aggression.

Shannon Munford M.A.
Daybreak Counseling Service

I also agree that verbal abuse can cause the same kind of lasting trauma as physical and sexual abuse. I am a survivor of all of these...including sadistic torture at the hands of my father. But, I've got to say that it's the verbal abuse that is the hardest to shed; it sticks like glue and replays in my head almost daily. Being called an "idiot" and a "moron" constantly by my father was bad enough; being called "bad, dirty and evil" by my mother because of my father's sexual abuse was almost impossible to bear.

Thanks for raising awareness on this and letting us use this post in our blog carnival against child abuse. We CAN break the cycle!

I only realized how severe my PTSD was when I finally got antidepressants that worked pretty well and I actually started looking forward to doing things.

That and when my ex falsely accuseed me of abusing our children, and I was being interviewed by a social worker who asked if anyone in the household was a victim of domestic violence, the definition of which was "having been hurt intentionally by someone in your household severely enough that you required medical treatment", and I realized that I was, in my family of origin, multiple times by each of my older brothers and that I have never done so, not when I was a child, not when I was an adult.

I see many clients who have been victim of verbal abuse. Taking personal responsibility is important for the perpetrator so that he/she can accept and potentially learn new ways of communicating feelings and needs. While I teach these skills in my anger management classes, they can also be learned in psychotherapy.

Ari Novick, Ph.D, LMFT