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Childhood Psychological Abuse Equally Harmful as Sexual, Physical Abuse

First Posted: Oct 09, 2014 04:10 AM EDT

Children, who are neglected or emotionally abused, experience similar or worse mental health issues as those who are physically or sexually abused, a new study states.

Researchers at the Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, used data retrieved from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set to find that children who are victims of emotional abuse or neglect face similar or worse mental health problems than those who are physically or sexually abused. However, the study found that psychological abuse is rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims.

According to the U.S. Children's Bureau, nearly 3 million U.S. children are victims of some form of maltreatment annually, mostly by parents, family members of other adult caregivers.

"Given the prevalence of childhood psychological abuse and the severity of harm to young victims, it should be at the forefront of mental health and social service training," said study lead author Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts.

The study data included 5,616 youths with lifetime histories of 1 or more types of abuse that include psychological maltreatment, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Nearly 62 percent of the participants had history of psychological maltreatment, i.e. emotional abuse or emotional neglect. Close to 24 percent of the cases were of exclusively psychological maltreatment. The study defines this as care-giver inflicted bullying, terrorizing, severe insults, coercive control, debasement, threats, overwhelming demands, shunning or isolation.

Children who were psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, suicidal tendency and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, in a few cases at a greater rate as compared to children victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Psychological maltreatment that occurred along with physical or sexual abuse was linked with severe and negative outcomes than when they were sexually and physically abused and not psychologically abused.

"Child protective service case workers may have a harder time recognizing and substantiating emotional neglect and abuse because there are no physical wounds," said Spinazzola. "Also, psychological abuse isn't considered a serious social taboo like physical and sexual child abuse. We need public awareness initiatives to help people understand just how harmful psychological maltreatment is for children and adolescents."

The finding was documented in APA Journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.

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