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Verbal abuse can be as harmful to children as physical abuse

Verbal abuse towards children by adults, such as shouting, belittling, or making threats, can be as harmful to their growth as physical or sexual mistreatment, according to a recent study published in the journal Child Abuse Neglect

By analyzing 166 previous studies, offering a comprehensive overview of the existing data on the subject, the scientists argued that verbal abuse during childhood should receive its own maltreatment category in order to bolster prevention and intervention efforts.

Child maltreatment 

Currently, child maltreatment falls into four main groups: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse – with verbal abuse being a subset – and neglect. 

Different from other emotional abuse types like indifference, silent treatment, or exposure to domestic violence, verbal abuse should be considered as more overt and thus warranting special attention, according to the experts.

Curbing verbal abuse 

Sponsored by Words Matter, a UK-based charity focusing on enhancing children’s well-being by curbing verbal abuse, the research was conducted by specialists at Wingate University in North Carolina and University College London (UCL).

“Childhood verbal abuse desperately needs to be acknowledged as an abuse subtype because of the lifelong negative consequences,” said lead author Shanta Dube, the head of Wingate University’s Master of Public Health Program.

Long-term impacts

Examining the ramifications of adults – like parents, educators, and coaches – raising their voices, the scientists cited a variety of previous studies indicating that the long-term impacts of verbal abuse during childhood cause mental distress. 

The consequences of this distress can lead to issues such as depression, anger, criminal behavior, substance abuse, inflicting abuse, and health issues including obesity or respiratory diseases.

Understanding the true scale and impact 

Jessica Bondy, the founder of Words Matter, emphasized the need to understand “the true scale and impact of childhood verbal abuse.”

“All adults get overloaded sometimes and say things unintentionally,” she said. “We have to work collectively to devise ways to recognize these actions and end childhood verbal abuse by adults so children can flourish.”

Interestingly, this study suggests that the nature of child abuse may be evolving. While rates of physical and sexual abuse appear to be on the decline, emotional abuse seems to be on the rise, as pointed out by the World Health Organization in 2014 and four other research papers highlighted in the study.

Establishing effective interventions 

According to the researchers, there is a “need for consistency” in how childhood verbal abuse is defined in order to measure its prevalence and aftermath accurately and to establish effective interventions.

Words Matter’s online resources advise adults to steer clear of shouting, derogatory comments, belittling remarks, or name-calling when addressing children. They also recommend reflecting before speaking and making amends with the child if hurtful words are used.

Study implications 

Furthermore, Elizabeth Gershoff, a scholar in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, has stressed that when raising one’s voice, one should avoid criticizing.

Moreover, she argued that the age of the child is significant too: while toddlers might only register the anger and not the message, children’s reactions to shouting can vary.

However, further research is needed to clearly understand all the ramifications of verbal abuse and to devise specific strategies to combat this type of abuse in order to ensure children’s wellbeing and healthy development.

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