Words Will Never Hurt Me?

The old playground rhyme got it wrong. Although sticks and stones do break bones, words can have devastating consequences as well. And when those words come from a child’s parent or caregiver, the repercussions for the child’s psychological and emotional health can be long lasting.

A recent clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (Pediatrics, July 20, 2012) describes the behaviors of emotionally abusive parents/caregivers and outlines the risks to children who are subjected to this abuse. Lead author Roberta Hibbard, MD, director of child protection programs at Indiana University and Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, asserts that the emotional maltreatment of children deserves the same level of attention that physical and sexual abuse is given.

Hibbard and her coauthors describe the different forms that psychological abuse of children can take, including:

  • spurning, that is, belittling or ridiculing the child in public;
  • terrorizing, or exposing the child to dangerous or chaotic situations;
  • isolating, or shutting the child out of interactions or relationships;
  • exploiting or corrupting the child; and
  • neglecting the child’s health or education.

According to the report, emotional abuse by a parent/caregiver may be verbal or nonverbal, active or passive, and with or without intent to harm. But regardless of the form or intent, these behaviors are harmful to a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and even physical development. “Psychological maltreatment has been linked with disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology,” says Hibbard.

In her July 30 article, “Childhood Mental Abuse Under the Radar?,” MedPage Today staff writer Nancy Walsh summarizes the AAP report and describes some of the challenges for mental health care providers in identifying and treating emotional abuse. “Although it can be difficult to determine the actual prevalence of psychological and emotional maltreatment of children, an estimated 4% of men reported having experienced some form of this abuse as children, as did 8% to 9% of women,” says Walsh. “The problem most often is found in families with high levels of conflict, and where substance abuse, violence, and parental mental health difficulties such as depression exist.”

Support for parents and early intervention may be the key to reducing these numbers, according to the AAP report. “Prevention before occurrence will require both the use of universal interventions aimed at promoting the type of parenting that is now recognized to be necessary for optimal child development, alongside the use of targeted interventions directed at improving parental sensitivity to a child’s cues during infancy and later parent-child interactions,” says Hibbard. “Intervention should, first and foremost, focus on a thorough assessment and ensuring the child’s safety. Potentially effective treatments include cognitive behavioral parenting programs and other psychotherapeutic interventions.”

What do you think? What can be done to increase awareness about the emotional maltreatment of children and to support parents who may be at risk for these behaviors? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

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2 Responses

  1. I believe this to be true. A child I tried to help long ago seems to be very disturbed now at 38 years old. I was involved as an outsider in his family. His mother is crazy and she abused the 2 boys so much I can see that they are not healthy adults or contributing to the universe properly. The real father hates them signed them off at 2 + 3 years old to her 2nd husband who basically ignored them. The first (39) son is in Jail and the 2nd just lost his 2 young children to their grandmother in court. The mother went on to have 2 more boys later in her life when these were 14 + 15. The 2 more are also disturbed but no as much. She disowns them all constantly and throws fits to get anyone to do what she wants by screaming.. meaning you just need to do it so she will stop! I was always more concerned over the 38 year old. I met him at 4 years of age and many times called CPS who never would do anything and from what i hear in our area (North East NY state) they still do nothing to help these children. The 38 year old was kept in his room most of the time with 1 sheet and a mattress, no toys, blankets, clothes besides underware, nothing. His mother and fathers and her many men who also abused the boys mentally and physically. The younger was always told he was a piece of crap and a burden, bad, crazy, etc. I told him he was not and it was them.. but with their influance he couldnt possibly grow to be any near normal. I used to beg the mother to let him come with me to my house for days, weeks or how ever long just to get him out of his room and that life because i thought even an hour away was any help in his poor isolated life. He definately acted out a lot because of it and was in special ed and on ritalin. I took him many times and he didnt need either, just extra attention, stability, love and kindness. He suffers terribly in adulthood and last month told me he wants to hurt them all and said he will in time. He may just do it. Sometimes i wonder if he is telling me the truth and will or not. I have tried to help him many times but with all that he went through sometimes nothing will repair these damaging life experiences. The court told him he needs mental evaluation to be able to even visit with his kids now and he wont bother, he will just let them go because he knows he needs help and always has after how he was brought up. He craves normalcy but ruins every chance at happiness he ever touched. I believe he sabotages himself when he is to happy or doing well. So sad! I still wish there was a way to help them ❤

    • •spurning, that is, belittling or ridiculing the child in public;
      •terrorizing, or exposing the child to dangerous or chaotic situations;
      •isolating, or shutting the child out of interactions or relationships;
      •exploiting or corrupting the child; and
      •neglecting the child’s health or education.
      The above went through all of the above situations.

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