Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
July 30, 2012

Verbal Abuse From Parents Harmful To Children

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics challenges the age-old schoolyard taunt, suggesting that words can, in fact, hurt children. Though they may not realize it, parents who bully or demean their children could cause long-lasting harm. As their life progresses, these children might not seek the help they need to recover from these damages.

"Psychological maltreatment is just as harmful as other types of maltreatment," says the report in an upcoming Pediatrics journal. The new study points out that while it´s difficult to know exactly when a child is being abused or neglected, this is the most common form of abuse in America.

The study defines psychological abuse as belittling, denigrating, exploiting or terrorizing a child to the point where their well-being is at risk. Even those parents who distance themselves emotionally are now said to be psychologically abusing their children, according to Dr. Harriet MacMillan, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences and pediatrics of McMaster University´s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and the Offord Centre for Child Studies.

“We are talking about extremes and the likelihood of harm, or risk of harm, resulting from the kinds of behavior that make a child feel worthless, unloved or unwanted,” said Dr. MacMillan, one of three authors of the study, which will be released in the August issue of Pediatrics.

Dr. MacMillan then gave specific examples of abuse, such as a mother leaving her baby alone in a crib all day or a father including his teenager in his drug habit.

Co-author Roberta Hibbard, director of child protection programs at Indiana University and Riley Hospital for Children defines abuse as when “an interaction between a parent and child inflicts harm and causes difficulty with the child's emotional well-being and development.”

"But you really can't pinpoint and say that the one time that you called the child 'stupid' is the reason they are having these problems," she said, speaking to Kim Painter of USA Today.

Psychological abuse had been defined more than 25 years ago, but Dr. MacMillan says this kind of abuse has gone under-recognized and, therefore, under-diagnosed. According to Dr. MacMillan, the effects of psychological abuse “can be as harmful as other types of maltreatment.”

The new study also finds that this kind of abuse can interfere with the way a child develops as they grow, and has been linked to attachment disorders and developmental and educational problems.

“The effects of psychological maltreatment during the first three years of life can be particularly profound,” writes Dr. MacMillan.

The study also found that psychological abuse is more prevalent in homes with “multiple stressors,” such as depression, mental health issues, physical violence and substance abuse.

According to Alec Miller, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, many parents who psychologically abuse their children were abused themselves. Miller did not participate in the report.

"I often ask parents if in their own childhoods, they experienced things like this. And a lot of them say, 'Of course, and I just pulled myself up by my boot straps,´” said Miller in an interview with USA Today.

James Hmurovich, president of Prevent Child Abuse America, hopes that this study will make the issue more well known in America, saying, "We need to make this a national issue.” Both Dr. Hibbard and Mr. Hmurovich suggest calling the child-abuse hotline whenever clear abuse is displayed.