Study Suggests Emotional Abuse is as Damaging as Physical and Sexual Abuse

By Sara Oon

“I wish you were never born.”

Such a simple phrase, yet capable of causing deeper, long-lasting scars in children than bruises and broken bones, according to a study published in January.

The study, conducted by Casey Family Programs and the Richard H. Calica Center for Innovation in Children and Family Services, examined emotional maltreatment in children’s association with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and illegal activity as an adult. However, the report argued, the child welfare system is currently more focused on the prevention of physical and sexual abuse than on the assessment and mitigation of emotional trauma.

“Many cases of emotional abuse do not come to the attention of Child Protective Services (CPS) because when we think about what triggers a CPS call, it is not a parent calling their child mean names or saying they wished the child had never been born,” said Paul Sterzing, an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare whose research includes bullying problems among vulnerable adolescent populations. “More empirical data on the long term effects of emotional abuse is needed to shift our national discourse towards understanding this as a preventable public health problem.”

The researchers analyzed data collected on 846 maltreated and at-risk children and youth over a 14-year period from the time each child entered the database at the age of four through the age of 18. While previous research has evaluated the potential effects of specific forms of emotional maltreatment, this is the first study to follow children over the course of their childhood up through adolescence in order to evaluate the long-term effects across all forms of emotional abuse.

Overall, the study found that emotional maltreatment of children was a predictor of both trauma symptoms and risky behaviors. The most common form of emotional abuse was found to be attacks on children’s psychological safety and security, which refers to behaviors that cause a child to feel threatened and unsafe, including violence towards other family members and abandonment. Adolescents who had experienced psychological threats as children were found to be more likely to exhibit anger and irritability, anxiety, depression and an increased frequency of suicidal thoughts, arrests, cigarette smoking and use of illegal drugs.

This study builds on a growing body of existing research that has contributed to an improved understanding of the emotional and behavioral consequences of maltreatment, which has in turn been reflected in the increase in detection and reporting of emotional abuse cases over the last two decades. Nevertheless, the child welfare system still lacks a consistent protocol for identification and reporting of cases, with definitions and practices that still vary widely across states.

According to 2012 data collected by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, 18 states had reported that less than 1 percent of reported child victims were found to have experienced emotional maltreatment, while in six states, over a quarter of reported child victims had been found to have been emotionally mistreated. The researchers suggest that the significant discrepancy across states is attributed to a variation in how emotional maltreatment is defined and assessed as opposed to a variation in actual rates of abuse.

In addition to being able to improve assessment and prevention of emotional abuse, ongoing research also seeks to build a more holistic understanding of how emotional maltreatment interacts with physical and sexual abuse. “Forms of violence cluster together, yet most research is conducted in silos,” Sterzing said. “We need to break down the research silos of emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to family violence, and bullying to identify the profiles of children who are at the greatest risk for one or more forms of abuse in the future.”

Sara Oon is an MBA candidate at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. She wrote this story as part of the Journalism for Social Change class at U.C. Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

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1 Comment

  1. This article frustrates me. I wish people would understand even through there well intentions sometimes the uninitionally emotionally abuse children.
    How do you think a child feels being ripped away from their entre family. To be told their parents and family are bad. In essence youve just told that child they were bad (even if thats not what you intended)
    This is the mind of a child, they havent developed reasonable rationals. They are feeding on emotion and fear and creating judgement based on those hightened feeling.
    If you want to talk about emotional abuse look to the way foster care deals with kids. Thats LARGE scale emotional abuse.

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