A pioneering systematic review on the impact of childhood verbal abuse by adults was unveiled this week. This study, published in the October issue of Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal, underscores the imperative to identify childhood verbal abuse as a standalone subtype of child maltreatment, ensuring targeted prevention and addressing the lasting harm it can inflict.
Presently, child maltreatment is classified into four subtypes: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. These classifications guide the creation of interventions and the monitoring of affected populations. However, the study pinpoints that the emotional abuse category, which encompasses verbal abuse, remains ambiguous in its definition. As a result, specific assessment methods and directed interventions are insufficient.
Childhood verbal abuse, as delineated in the study, consists of behaviours such as belittling, shouting, and threatening language towards children. Despite the fact that such behaviours can be equally, if not more, detrimental to a child’s well-being as the currently recognised maltreatment subtypes, there’s a noticeable void in acknowledging childhood verbal abuse by adults as a distinct maltreatment category. This revelation comes amidst a declining trend in the prevalence of childhood physical and sexual abuse, as based on adult surveys. The decline suggests that extensive prevention and awareness campaigns over the years have effectively reduced these forms of abuse. However, emotional abuse, inclusive of verbal abuse, is on the rise, now topping the charts as the most prevalent form of child maltreatment.
An important insight from the paper is the framing of terminology. While “emotional abuse” centres on the victim, the term “childhood verbal abuse” zeroes in on the adult’s actions – a vital starting point for prevention. In numerous cultural contexts, verbal abuse is often dismissed as ‘discipline’, offering it a degree of social sanction. But it is crucial to remember that children not only deserve physical safety and care but also require communication that nurtures and fosters positive self-worth and development. This comprehensive systematic review studied the profound effects and nuances of childhood verbal abuse. The review examined 7,893 records, assessed 564 full articles, and delved deeply into 166 studies, offering an unprecedented analysis on the topic.
The study was commissioned by Words Matter, a newly established charity with a clear mandate: to enhance children’s overall health and well-being by curtailing verbal abuse by adults in their lives.
At the helm of this ground-breaking research is Professor Shanta Dube, a highly respected lead researcher from the renowned CDC-Kaiser ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study and current Director of the Master of Public Health Program at Wingate University. She joined forces with the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London to execute this study.
A surprising discovery was the varying terminology associated with verbal abuse. Terms such as ‘verbal aggression’, ‘verbal hostility’, and ‘verbal abuse’ peppered the reviewed studies. Notably, ‘verbal abuse’ emerged as the predominant term, featuring in 65% of the papers. This fact underscores the urgent need for standardised terminology in this area. The main perpetrators of childhood verbal abuse by adults were identified by the review, as parents, other adult caregivers in the home, and teachers, however, other adults noted were coaches and law enforcement. While shouting and screaming were the most documented characteristics of verbal abuse, it’s the underlying emotional and psychological repercussions on children that are of paramount concern. The research emphasises that definitions should not only consider the words used but also the intent, delivery, and the immediate impact on children.
The study delineated a host of adverse outcomes stemming from childhood verbal abuse, from emotional turmoil like anger and depression to externalising symptoms such as substance abuse, self-harm tendencies, and even physical consequences like obesity. However, there’s a pressing need for consistent research targeting specific age groups to further understand the effects.
Professor Shanta Dube, the lead author of the study, said: “Childhood verbal abuse desperately needs to be acknowledged as an abuse subtype, because of the lifelong negative consequences. We’ve seen tremendous strides in increased awareness and interventions targeting physical and sexual abuse perpetrators leading to the reduction in these forms of maltreatment. If we focus on ‘verbal abuse’ by perpetrators rather than just ‘emotional abuse’ among victims, we may develop similar actions to prevent childhood verbal abuse and the consequences. Breaking the intergenerational cycles starts with the adults.”
Meanwhile, Jessica Bondy, the founder of Words Matter, stressed: “It’s paramount to grasp the true scale and impact of childhood verbal abuse. All adults get overloaded sometimes and say things unintentionally. We have to work collectively to devise ways to recognise these actions and end childhood verbal abuse by adults so children can flourish. Words have weight, they can uplift or destroy. Let’s build children up, not knock them down.”