The Scars No One Sees: Children Harmed By Psychological Abuse, Report Finds

Neglecting, belittling, ridiculing, threatening kids may be the most prevalent type of child abuse.

Psychological abuse is under-recognized and under-reported, a paper in the journal Pediatrics finds. (Photo: KidStock/Getty Images)

Jul 30, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Heaping psychological abuse on a child can be as harmful as physical abuse, but that type of cruelty can be tough to identify and treat, a report says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a position statement today that updates a previous paper on the subject. Few studies have focused on the frequency of psychological abuse, and information on prevention and intervention programs is somewhat lacking, making children especially vulnerable.

“The effects of psychological maltreatment during the first three years of life can be particularly profound,” Dr. Harriet MacMillan, a co-author of the paper, said in a news release.

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“We are talking about extremes and the likelihood of harm, or risk of harm, resulting from the kinds of behavior that make a child feel worthless, unloved or unwanted.”

Examples of psychological abuse include ridiculing a child for showing normal emotions, restricting social interactions, putting them in chaotic situations, and offering no warmth or nurturing during critical developmental phases.

Large studies done in the U.S. and the U.K. found that about eight to nine percent of women and four percent of men said they were exposed to severe psychological abuse as children.

The paper said that although psychological abuse cuts across all demographics, it’s more often linked with family issues such as conflict, plus parental substance abuse and mental health problems in adults.

This type of abuse isn’t to be confused with parents who occasionally yell at their children—it goes deeper than that: “Yelling at a child every day and giving the message that the child is a terrible person, and that the parent regrets bringing the child into this world, is an example of a potentially very harmful form of interaction,” she said.

MORE: Child Abuse Climbs Along With Home Foreclosures

The authors singled out The Nurse Family Partnership, a home-visit program that works with low-income first-time mothers, as being effective in preventing child abuse in general.

Pediatricians are encouraged to take note of signs of psychological abuse and work with families who may be at risk for abuse. The paper was published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

How has childhood psychological abuse touched you or someone you know? Let us know in the comments.

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