Emotional abuse is as harmful as physical abuse, says new study

“These consequences are wide-ranging and include everything from anxiety and depression to rule-breaking and aggression.”

If you suffered through a childhood marked by adults who yelled at you, humiliated you, deliberately excluded you, intimidated or rejected you, you are likely to have suffered long terms effects as psychologically damaging as if they had actually beaten you, says a new study.

In the long run, says scientists at Canada’s distinguished McGill University, emotional abuse might hurt a child as much as violence or neglect.

Emotional abuse – which includes behaviours such as ridicule, intimidation, rejection, and humiliation – is much more common than physical abuse and neglect.

And perhaps as many as one third of all children worldwide suffer emotional abuse in some form. Yet most people assume that physical abuse is much more harmful than other forms of abuse.

However, says David Vachon, a McGill professor in the Department of Psychology, the opposite is actually true – emotional abuse is just as harmful.

“We found that emotional abuse and physical abuse are associated with similar consequences,” says Vachon.

“These consequences are wide-ranging and include everything from anxiety and depression to rule-breaking and aggression.”

Using data collected from summer camps in the United States over two decades, Vachon and his collaborator Robert Kruger studied the experiences of thousands of low-income, school-aged children aged between five and 13.

About half of the camp-goers had a well-documented history of child maltreatment. Various types of child-, peer-, and counsellor-reports were used to assess psychiatric and behavioural problems, and the camp counsellors 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.”

Once again, 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 and pave the way for more effective means of addressing how different forms of child abuse should be recognized and treated.

“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.”

Vachon said his future study would examine the consequences of emotional abuse.

“One plan is to examine the way abuse changes personality itself — does it change who we are?,” he says.

“The point is to go beyond symptoms and ask whether abuse changes the way we tend to think, feel, and act.”

The discovery, which also reflects new attitudes that include emotional abuse as part of domestic violence, follows research completed last year which found that children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused.

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