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Study says child verbal abuse comparable to sexual, physical abuse

Children are more likely to experience verbal abuse than any other form of maltreatment, and this abuse can have lasting effects.
Study says child verbal abuse comparable to sexual, physical abuse
Posted at 10:35 AM, Oct 04, 2023

A study by researchers from the University College London says that child verbal abuse can be as damaging as physical and sexual abuse. 

The study, which was published this week in Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal said that children subjected to verbal abuse face increased risks of anger, depression, substance abuse, self-harm and obesity.

Behaviors such as belittling, shouting and threatening language can lead to these outcomes, researchers said. Of children who faced verbal abuse, parents were the main perpetrators 76.5% of the time, the study said. Teachers were the main perpetrators 12.7% of the time, while other adult caregivers were responsible in 2.4% of instances. 

The study suggested that verbal abuse should be classified in the same way other forms of child maltreatment are classified, such as physical and sexual abuse. The study noted that the World Health Organization has said that emotional abuse is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment. Researchers cautioned, however, that the term "emotional abuse" was ambiguous and focused on the victim.

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University College London researchers used 166 studies in making their determination. 

"Preventing the maltreatment of children is the most effective way we can reduce the prevalence of child mental health problems," Peter Fonagy, a professor at the University College London, said in a statement. "A sharp focus on childhood verbal abuse by adults around them by the new charity Words Matter, and this review will help make significant change, and support and direct our efforts to identify and respond to this risk in an effective and timely manner."

The researchers said that focusing on child verbal abuse and not just emotional abuse more broadly will make prevention strategies easier. 

“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," said Shanta Dube, a professor at Wingate University, who led the study. "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 its consequences."

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