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Psychological Abuse Just As Damaging As Physical Abuse

Psychological Abuse Just As Damaging As Physical AbusePsychological 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

Parents yelling at child photo by shutterstock.

Psychological Abuse Just As Damaging As Physical Abuse

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Psychological Abuse Just As Damaging As Physical Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 31 Jul 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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