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Research Finds Emotional Abuse Is As Destructive As Physical Abuse To Children

Research Finds Emotional Abuse Is As Destructive As Physical Abuse To Children

It’s widely known that physical child abuse has long-lasting and far-reaching consequences for people, from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression to toxic relationships.What few realize is that emotional abuse in children can be as damaging and insidious as physical violence.

Recent research demonstrates that emotional maltreatment destroys a child as thoroughly as physical harm.Utilizing data from a previous study, David Vachon concluded that “although some people assume physical abuse is more harmful than other types of abuse, we found that they are associated with similar consequences.” A pair of doctors at the University of Minnesota and the University of Rochester validated the study, finding, through working at a summer camp for low-income families, that different types of abuse share “equivalent, broad, and universal effects.”

What is emotional abuse, and how can it be identified?

Child abuse falls primarily into three categories: Physical, sexual, and emotional. While each chief form of abuse is addled with consequences that often shadow a person for life, identifying emotional abuse in a child presents complications.Far less evident than physical abuse, emotional maltreatment involves a broader spectrum of actions and often encompasses undetected violence. Unexplained sadness, angry outbursts, withdrawn behavior, and poor performance in school are just a few of the symptoms that a child is being abused emotionally, which can be caused from shaming, indifference, emotional and physical withholding of love, as well as unjust punishment and neglect.

Andrew Vachss, a lawyer and advocate who has devoted his life to protecting children, describes emotional powerfully and poignantly here:

“…of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest–lasting of all.

Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self–concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection.

Emotional abuse can be as deliberate as a gunshot: “You’re fat. You’re stupid. You’re ugly.”

Emotional abuse can be as random as the fallout from a nuclear explosion. In matrimonial battles, for example, the children all too often become the battlefield. I remember a young boy, barely into his teens, absently rubbing the fresh scars on his wrists. “It was the only way to make them all happy,” he said. His mother and father were locked in a bitter divorce battle, and each was demanding total loyalty and commitment from the child.

Emotional abuse can be active. Vicious belittling:

“You’ll never be the success your brother was.” Deliberate humiliation: “You’re so stupid. I’m ashamed you’re my son.”

It also can be passive, the emotional equivalent of child neglect—a sin of omission, true, but one no less destructive.

And it may be a combination of the two, which increases the negative effects geometrically.

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Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioral, active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often as painful as physical assault. And, with rare exceptions, the pain lasts much longer. A parent’s love is so important to a child that withholding it can cause a “failure to thrive” condition similar to that of children who have been denied adequate nutrition.”

Sound terrifying? Read on.

The sweeping, long-lasting impact of emotional abuse

To think that emotional abuse has a statute is faulty: The Journal of Pediatric Care found that of 3,000 adults with a history of major depression, a staggering 93% reported emotional maltreatment, while 31% were determined to have suffered both emotional and physical abuse.

“Emotional maltreatment, even more than physical and sexual abuse, may predispose a person to developing depression or anxiety.”

Troublesome? Certainly. While the enduring impact of emotional abuse has not been studied widely, reports across the board have determined the devastating effects it can have on an individual. Reactive Attachment Disorder–or RAD–is just one manifestation of the traumatic impacts of early childhood emotional maltreatment. Defined as “markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness that usually begins before the age of 5,” RAD is a rare, but potentially catastrophic, disorder. As infants and children, those with RAD cling indiscriminately to strangers and demonstrate developmental delay and disabilities; as adults, RAD can present itself as a failure to socialize appropriately.

More common than RAD, however, are a list of problems that are just as damaging: Anxiety, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress, and depression–not to mention substance abuse, obesity, suicidal ideations, and interpersonal complications. As one emotionally abused woman remarked, “I keep looking for the affection I was denied as a child in men.” Her choice in partners, she confessed, was “wildly inappropriate and careless,” and led to physical abuse, psychological torment, and too many heartaches to count.

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The effect of emotional abuse on intimate relationships

Indeed, interpersonal relationships seem to take the biggest toll when it comes to adults who were emotionally abused as children. In some cases, the abused adult will shy away from intimacy out of fear of the unfamiliar, while others–like the woman mentioned above–will develop indiscretion, anger, and aggression towards those with whom they become involved. Why? Because a healthy precedent has not been set. As one study put it,

“being exposed to emotional abuse is a predictor to developing ‘overt forms of aggression.'”

In other words, the anger an individual experienced but didn’t know how to express as a child builds over time and is released in the unhealthiest of manners–through outrage and violence.

The indiscriminate nature of emotional maltreatment

Certain socio-economic classes determine, in part, the rate of emotional abuse in children. Parents with limited means–or none at all–are more likely to be stressed out and financially strapped, and that anger and anxiety is often exerted on their children. However, a study at Midwestern University revealed that

“emotional abuse and neglect each continued to exert an influence on later symptoms of anxiety and depression even after controlling for gender, income, parental alcoholism, and other forms of child abuse.” (Wright, Crawford and Del Castillo, 2009).

This corroborates the findings of Vachon about the widespread effects of emotional abuse regardless of gender, race and/or ethnicity.

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Healing emotional wounds

Despite these recent discoveries–which might make many who spot a child that is alone and frozen in watchfulness think twice–the indiscriminate nature of emotional abuse and its lasting consequences need not deter individuals who have either suffered from it or witnessed it in another. Prompt identification and appropriate invention are assuredly key, but treating it after-the-fact has also shown to make a tremendous impact on one’s ability to heal. Vachss points out that,

“if you are a victim of emotional abuse, there can be no self–help until you learn to self–reference. That means developing your own standards, deciding for yourself what “goodness” really is. Adopting the abuser’s calculated labels—”You’re crazy. You’re ungrateful. It didn’t happen the way you say”—only continues the cycle.

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have only two life–choices: learn to self–reference or remain a victim. When your self–concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.”

Whether you are the victim, the abuser, or the witness to an unfortunate child, one fact remains the same: Scars are not just skin-deep, and there exists a salve in our souls.

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Last Updated on December 3, 2019

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they’re learned in retrospect, long after we needed them. The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

Here’re 10 important life lessons you should learn early on:

1. Money Will Never Solve Your Real Problems

Money is a tool; a commodity that buys you necessities and some nice “wants,” but it is not the panacea to your problems.

There are a great many people who are living on very little, yet have wonderfully full and happy lives… and there are sadly a great many people are living on quite a lot, yet have terribly miserable lives.

Money can buy a nice home, a great car, fabulous shoes, even a bit of security and some creature comforts, but it cannot fix a broken relationship, or cure loneliness, and the “happiness” it brings is only fleeting and not the kind that really and truly matters. Happiness is not for sale. If you’re expecting the “stuff” you can buy to “make it better,” you will never be happy.

2. Pace Yourself

Often when we’re young, just beginning our adult journey we feel as though we have to do everything at once. We need to decide everything, plan out our lives, experience everything, get to the top, find true love, figure out our life’s purpose, and do it all at the same time.

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Slow down—don’t rush into things. Let your life unfold. Wait a bit to see where it takes you, and take time to weigh your options. Enjoy every bite of food, take time to look around you, let the other person finish their side of the conversation. Allow yourself time to think, to mull a bit.

Taking action is critical. Working towards your goals and making plans for the future is commendable and often very useful, but rushing full-speed ahead towards anything is a one-way ticket to burnout and a good way to miss your life as it passes you by.

3. You Can’t Please Everyone

“I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby.

You don’t need everyone to agree with you or even like you. It’s human nature to want to belong, to be liked, respected and valued, but not at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Other people cannot give you the validation you seek. That has to come from inside.

Speak up, stick to your guns, assert yourself when you need to, demand respect, stay true to your values.

4. Your Health Is Your Most Valuable Asset

Health is an invaluable treasure—always appreciate, nurture, and protect it. Good health is often wasted on the young before they have a chance to appreciate it for what it’s worth.

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We tend to take our good health for granted, because it’s just there. We don’t have to worry about it, so we don’t really pay attention to it… until we have to.

Heart disease, bone density, stroke, many cancers—the list of many largely preventable diseases is long, so take care of your health now, or you’ll regret it later on.

5. You Don’t Always Get What You Want

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

No matter how carefully you plan and how hard you work, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to… and that’s okay.

We have all of these expectations; predetermined visions of what our “ideal” life will look like, but all too often, that’s not the reality of the life we end up with. Sometimes our dreams fail and sometimes we just change our minds mid-course. Sometimes we have to flop to find the right course and sometimes we just have to try a few things before we find the right direction.

6. It’s Not All About You

You are not the epicenter of the universe. It’s very difficult to view the world from a perspective outside of your own, since we are always so focused on what’s happening in our own lives. What do I have to do today? What will this mean for me, for my career, for my life? What do I want?

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It’s normal to be intensely aware of everything that’s going on in your own life, but you need to pay as much attention to what’s happening around you, and how things affect other people in the world as you do to your own life. It helps to keep things in perspective.

7. There’s No Shame in Not Knowing

No one has it all figured out. Nobody has all the answers. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. It just makes you neurotic to keep up the pretense of manufactured perfection.

We have this idea that there is some kind of stigma or shame in admitting our limitations or uncertainly, but we can’t possibly know everything. We all make mistakes and mess up occasionally. We learn as we go, that’s life.

Besides—nobody likes a know-it-all. A little vulnerability makes you human and oh so much more relatable.

8. Love Is More Than a Feeling; It’s a Choice

That burst of initial exhilaration, pulse quickening love and passion does not last long. But that doesn’t mean long-lasting love is not possible.

Love is not just a feeling; it’s a choice that you make every day. We have to choose to let annoyances pass, to forgive, to be kind, to respect, to support, to be faithful.

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Relationships take work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. It is up to us to choose how we want to act, think and speak in a relationship.

9. Perspective Is a Beautiful Thing

Typically, when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. Everything that is happening in our lives seems so big, so important, so do or die, but in the grand picture, this single hiccup often means next to nothing.

The fight we’re having, the job we didn’t get, the real or imagined slight, the unexpected need to shift course, the thing we wanted, but didn’t get. Most of it won’t matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s hard to see long term when all you know is short term, but unless it’s life-threatening, let it go, and move on.

10. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone: that includes your health, your family and friends, your job, the money you have or think you will have tomorrow.

When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. You have the money to spend, or you think you’ll have it next month, but you might not.

Nothing in your life is not guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.

This is a hard life lesson to learn, but it may be the most important of all: Life can change in an instant. Make sure you appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

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Featured photo credit: Ben Eaton via unsplash.com

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