Psychological abuse can be just as damaging to a child’s physical, mental and emotional health as physical abuse, according to experts. And it may be the most prevalent form of child abuse, according to a position statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Psychological abuse may be difficult to pinpoint, but it includes belittling, denigrating, exploiting or neglecting a child, said Harriet MacMillan, M.D., a professor in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences and pediatrics at McMaster University.
“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,” she said, giving the example of a mother leaving her infant alone in a crib all day or a father involving his teenager in his drug habit.
A parent raising their voice after asking a child for the eighth time to put on their shoes is not psychological abuse, MacMillan said. “But, yelling at a child every day and giving the message that the child is a terrible person, and that the parent regrets bringing the child into this world, is an example of a potentially very harmful form of interaction,” she explained.
First described 25 years ago, psychological abuse has been underrecognized and underreported, according to MacMillan, who said that its effects “can be as harmful as other types of maltreatment.”
Psychological abuse interferes with a child’s development. She noted it has been linked with attachment disorders, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems and disruptive behavior. “The effects of psychological maltreatment during the first three years of life can be particularly profound,” she said.
Although there are few studies on the prevalence of psychological abuse, the position statement notes that large studies in both Britain and the U.S. found that about 9 percent of women and 4 percent of men report they were exposed to “severe” psychological abuse during childhood.
The statement goes on to say that pediatricians need to be alert to the possibility of psychological abuse, even though there is little evidence on potential strategies that might help.
Source: McMaster University