A new Canadian study finds that emotional abuse may be as harmful as physical abuse and neglect.
Researchers from McGill University say their findings complement previous imaging research showing that emotional and physical pain both activate the same parts of the brain.
Emotional abuse includes behaviors such as ridicule, intimidation, rejection, and humiliation. This form of abuse is much more common than physical abuse and neglect. Worldwide prevalence estimates suggest that approximately one-third of children experience emotional abuse.
The impact of emotional abuse may come as a surprise.
“Although people assume physical abuse is more harmful than other types of abuse, we found that they are associated with similar consequences ,” said Dr. David Vachon, a McGill professor in the Department of Psychology and the study’s first author.
Investigator believe the new findings may pave the way for more effective means of addressing how different forms of child abuse should be recognized and treated.
Vachon, working with his former postdoctoral mentor Dr. Robert Krueger, used data from a study by Dr. Dante Cicchetti (University of Minnesota) and Fred Rogosch (University of Rochester) that was conducted through Mt. Hope Family Center.
Cicchetti and Rogosh have been running a summer research camp for over 20 years to study low-income, school-aged children ages five to 13 years. About half of the camp-goers had a well-documented history of child maltreatment.
Various types of child-, peer-, and counselor-reports were used to assess psychiatric and behavioral problems, and the camp counselors 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.
The investigators discovered different types of child abuse have similar consequences and effects.
“We also tested other assumptions about child maltreatment,” said 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.”
Experts believe the new findings suggest a need to rethink beliefs about child abuse.
“One implication,” Vachon said, “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.”
When asked about next steps, Vachon said, “One plan is to examine the way abuse changes personality itself — does it change who we are? The point is to go beyond symptoms and ask whether abuse changes the way we tend to think, feel, and act.”
Source: McGill University/EurekAlert