Verbal abuse can be harmful to the development of children and might result in a greater risk of self-harm or drug use.
Trigger Warning: This article contains themes of abuse that some readers may find distressing.
A new study that took 166 earlier studies under its umbrella and reviewed them has found that screaming at children can be as harmful as other forms of child abuse. This form of verbal abuse includes insults, threats, putdowns and name-calling. Verbal abuse itself has not been recognized as a form of child abuse but many people feel it should be, as it can lead to depression, anger, substance abuse and physical problems such as obesity.
Researchers in the U.S. and the U.K. in the new study titled "Childhood verbal abuse as a child maltreatment subtype: A systematic review of the current evidence" believe that it is important to identify verbal abuse as a form of maltreatment. They also called for a “need for consistency” in defining childhood verbal abuse so that its “prevalence and impact can be appropriately measured and interventions developed.” “Childhood verbal abuse desperately needs to be acknowledged as an abuse subtype because of the lifelong negative consequences,” said Professor Shanta Dube, the study’s lead author and director of Wingate University’s Master of Public Health Program, in a statement.
Jessica Bondy, the founder of Words Matter, stressed the importance of grasping “the true scale and impact of childhood verbal abuse.” “All adults get overloaded sometimes and say things unintentionally,” she said to the outlet. “We have to work collectively to devise ways to recognize these actions and end childhood verbal abuse by adults so children can flourish.” Currently, child maltreatment is divided into four categories — physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Verbal abuse comes under emotional abuse but experts feel that verbal abuse should be in its own category as it is “overt” and “warrants special attention.”
According to The Guardian, Professor Shanta R Dube believes that adults are often "unaware of how their shouting tone and criticising words, such as ‘stupid’ and ‘lazy’, can negatively impact children, particularly if that is how they experienced being parented.” There are lasting effects of childhood verbal abuse which can affect their development and manifest as mental distress later in life. Such adults can suffer from depression and anger issues as well as externalizing symptoms, such as committing crimes, substance use or perpetrating abuse. It can even affect their physical health such as developing obesity or lung disease.
Prof Peter Fonagy, a co-author of the paper and the head of the division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London (UCL), as well as the chief executive of the Anna Freud center added, “Children are genetically prepared to trust what adults say. They take us grownups seriously. If we betray that trust by using words to abuse rather than teach, this can leave children not just ashamed, isolated and exclude, but also unable to engage with their community and draw the full benefit of social learning.”
The study is a reminder of how important it is for a parent to be supportive and nurturing while speaking to a child. What parents can start doing is to work on their own emotional regulation: breathwork and thinking before speaking goes a long way. Avoid insulting or putting down children. Even if you do yell, it's important to get to a calmer state and talk through the issue with the kids.