Childhood exposure to parental psychological abuse — name-calling, intimidation, isolation, manipulation, and control — appears to be more damaging to children’s future mental health than witnessing physical violence between parents, according to a new study conducted at the University of Limerick (UL), Ireland.

The researchers investigated how young children’s exposure to domestic violence between their parents affected them in their late teens and early 20s. The study is unique in that the researchers looked at the impact of psychological abuse separated from physical abuse — when both are present — and compared their impacts. Previous research has only looked at the impact of one or the other.

The findings, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, show that young people who grew up in homes with psychological abuse only tended to have poorer long-term mental health than those exposed to both psychological and physical violence.

The long-term effects of children seeing one parent being psychologically cruel to the other include anxiety, low mood, and low social functioning.

For the study, Dr. Catherine Naughton of UL’s department of psychology interviewed 464 young people (aged 17-25) who were attending the university. The participants were asked about two types of intra-parental domestic abuse: physical abuse (hitting, punching, kicking, and use of a weapon) and psychological abuse (arguing, name-calling, or behavior that is intimidating, isolating, manipulating, or controlling).

Naughton found that while 20 percent had grown up in homes where physical violence was perpetrated by one parent on the other, 60 percent had experienced intra-parental psychological abuse.

None of the participants had been exposed to physical abuse without psychological abuse. In other words, psychological abuse was always present with physical abuse.

“What this research highlights is that growing up in a home with domestic abuse, in particular the psychological dimension of it, has long-term consequences for the well-being of young people,” Naughton said.

“Importantly, our findings show that it was young people’s exposure to the psychological dimension of domestic abuse, which had a detrimental impact on their psychological well-being. Exposure to the physical dimension did not have any additional negative effect on well-being,” she said.

“We know that social support is important for recovery from traumatic childhood events. However, our findings evidence that exposure to high levels of psychological domestic abuse was associated with a decrease in young people’s satisfaction with their social support.”

In contrast, exposure to high levels of physical domestic violence appeared to have a surprisingly protective effect on how young people felt in terms of feeling socially supported when they had also been exposed to high levels of intra-parental psychological abuse.

“When children were exposed to physical violence in the home as well as psychological domestic abuse, they were more likely to be happier with the social support they were able to access. Psychological domestic abuse when it occurred alone seems to be the most damaging, perhaps because people are unable to recognize and speak out about it,” she said.

Although the study highlights the devastating impact of psychological abuse in the home, it also shows a significant need for more research in the area to assess the impacts of exposure to all types of domestic violence and abuse on younger children, Naughton concluded.

Naughton conducted the study with co-researchers Aisling O’Donnell and Orla Muldoon.

Source: University of Limerick