Emotional vs. Physical: Study Compares Abuse Types and Their Damage on Children

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Newman_201015_2According to a new study, emotional abuse can be just as damaging to children as physical abuse or neglect.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that emotional abuse of children resulted in the same consequences as physical abuse, with emotionally abused children equally as likely to suffer from mental health and behavioral issues.

Emotional abuse includes insulting, humiliating, and inappropriately shaming children. According to the researchers, emotional abuse of children is over four times as common as physical abuse, with 36.3% of children affected worldwide. Furthermore, emotional abuse is much more common than sexual abuse or neglect.

David Vachon, co-author of the study and a psychology professor at McGill University, suggests that the study’s findings show how emotional abuse needs to be taken more seriously.

“Although people assume physical abuse is more harmful than other types of abuse, we found that they are associated with similar consequences,” Vachon said.

Researchers conducted the study over a 26-year period by looking at 2,300 children who attended a summer camp for low-income children. About half of the children were known to have been emotionally abused. The researchers compared the group of children with a history of emotional abuse to the group that did not have a history of emotional abuse. They analyzed reports from both camp staff and the children themselves to look for mental health or behavioral issues.

The study found that children who were emotionally abused were more likely to suffer from psychiatric problems directed both inwards (internalizing) and outwards (externalizing).

Internalizing behavior would include feeling excessive anxiety, depression, shame, or guilt, whereas externalizing refers to acting out, aggressive behavior, and breaking rules. According to Vachon, the findings show that “maltreatment seems to have widespread effects on children.”

The race, ethnicity, or sex of the child was not found to have any bearing on the results, despite common belief.

“We also tested other assumptions about child maltreatment,” said Vachon, which included “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.”

The findings also did not show a difference in symptoms based on the type of abuse. While common assumption has been that emotional abuse would be more likely to result in depression, the findings showed that the negative effects were wide-ranging.

“We found that these assumptions might also be wrong,” said Vachon. “In fact, it seems as though different types of child abuse have equivalent, broad, and universal effects.”

Based on the findings, researchers believe that there should be more treatments geared towards emotional abuse. As well, prevention strategies should place more of a focus on emotional abuse so that it is treated similarly to physical and sexual abuse.

As well, Vachon would like to see more studies that further explore the effects emotional abuse can have on our mental health and personality: “One plan is to examine the way abuse changes personality itself—does it change who we are?” Vachon said. “The point is to go beyond symptoms and ask whether abuse changes the way we tend to think, feel, and act.”

Sources for Today’s Article:
“Different types of child abuse: similar consequences,” McGill University web site, October 14, 2015; https://www.mcgill.ca/channels/news/different-types-child-abuse-similar-consequences-256068.
Scutti, S., “Neglect May Be As Harmful As A Slap To A Child: Emotional Abuse Has Real Consequences,” Medical Daily web site,October 14, 2015; http://www.medicaldaily.com/neglect-may-be-harmful-slap-child-emotional-abuse-has-real-consequences-357164.
Welch, A., “Emotional abuse in childhood as harmful as violence or neglect,” CBS News web site, October 14, 2015; http://www.cbsnews.com/news/emotional-abuse-in-childhood-as-harmful-as-violence-or-neglect/.