Why is my father verbally abusing me?

Many people know such feelings: For years some of them are tormented by this one nasty sentence from mother or father that they cannot forget. Others still suffer as adults because their parents scoffed at them or humiliated them with words. A large study has now confirmed what individual researchers have repeatedly suspected. Emotional abuse of children has similar negative effects on mental health as physical violence and neglect (Jama Psychiatry, online).

The research team led by David Vachon from McGill University and Dante Cicchetti from the University of Minnesota relies on data collected from around 2,300 girls and boys between the ages of five and 13 who attended a week-long summer camp for social events sometime between 1986 and 2012 visited disadvantaged children. The specially trained social workers employed there had ample opportunity to observe the behavior of their protégés and to identify any psychological abnormalities. In addition, the children had to provide information about themselves and their playmates in questionnaires. These surveys were compared with data from the youth welfare offices and information from structured interviews with the mothers - "a very well-controlled collection of data," praises Christine Heim, director of the Institute for Medical Psychology at the Charité in Berlin.

The results of the study are all the more serious: "Although most people assume that physical abuse is more harmful than other forms of abuse, we have found that they all have similar consequences," says the psychologist Vachon. Violence, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse would have numerous effects on many children, "it leads to anxiety disorders and depression, rule violations and aggression." It is less surprising that the effects accumulate if the children have experienced several forms of abuse in their lives and these have increased.

Anyone who constantly humiliates his child with words hurts him as much as with beating

According to the authors, the study shows once again that child abuse is still not taken seriously enough. The results made it clear that, in particular, emotional violence in society and in court is not yet sufficiently perceived. Only those who physically beat their child are liable to prosecution. "If parents keep arguing, not giving their child love, constantly insulting them, viewing them as a failure, overburdening or overcontrolling them, then they can harm them just as much," says Christine Heim from the Charité. The statistics show that emotional violence is very common.

A team led by Marije Stoltenborgh from the University of Leiden estimated in a highly regarded meta-analysis from 2012 that allegedly 36.3 percent of all children in the world experience emotional abuse (Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma). According to the WHO, the figures for physical violence (8.0 percent) and sexual abuse (1.6 percent) are significantly lower. Definitions and unreported cases can certainly be discussed here for a long time.

In addition, the study by Vachon and Cicchetti shows only a snapshot from childhood. Questions remain: What is the significance of the point in time of the experience of violence? So it is probably not true that the earlier a life event occurs, the more serious it is. Presumably there are time windows in which the brain reacts particularly sensitively to certain experiences. And how are the children when they grow up? "The study situation suggests that early trauma dysregulate the stress hormone system in the long term and increase the susceptibility to mental disorders," says Heim. "But more longitudinal studies would be needed to properly investigate such questions."