Childhood Verbal Abuse Is Just as Damaging as Physical or Sexual Abuse

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Did you or a close friend have a parent who frequently yelled or used threatening language when you were a child? For people who experience it, even from nonparental caregivers or teachers, the fallout of childhood verbal abuse may continue into adulthood, and is associated with an increased risk of anger, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, and obesity.

Because of the immediate and long-term impacts, verbal abuse needs to be viewed and studied as a stand-alone form of childhood maltreatment, according to a systematic review published in the October 2023 edition of Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal. This change could ensure targeted prevention and address the lasting harm that words can inflict, the authors wrote.

“Looking across studies, it is clear that childhood verbal abuse by adults has an immediate impact, leaving children feeling unloved, abandoned, and humiliated, which extends across the life span, leading to depression, anxiety, and suicidality,” says the lead author of the study, Shanta Dube, PhD, a researcher and the director of the master of public health program at Wingate University in North Carolina. This “hidden problem” can lead to a host of problems in adulthood and needs to be on the radar of detection, she adds.

The study stresses the need for attention to verbal abuse, because the consequences are just as significant as those of physical or sexual abuse, says Hilit Kletter, PhD, a psychiatrist at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health and the head of the Stanford Stress and Resilience Clinic in California. “It’s not really recognized to be as serious as some other forms of maltreatment — these findings add strong support to why that needs to change,” she says.

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