Psychologically abused children go undetected

Psychologically abused children go undetected

A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) found psychologically abused children suffer from “similar and sometimes worse mental health problems” as those who had been physically or sexually abused, yet childhood psychological abuse is “rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims”.

Researchers at the Trauma Centre at Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts, analysed the cases of 5,616 youths who had experienced one or more of three types of abuse:

  • psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse or emotional neglect);
  • physical abuse;
  • sexual abuse.

The study defined psychological maltreatment as: “care-giver inflicted bullying, terrorising, coercive  control, severe insults, debasement, threats, overwhelming demands, shunning and/or isolation.”

Findings from the study show that children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality “at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate” than children who were physically or sexually abused.

Study lead at the Trauma Centre, Dr Joseph Spinazzola, expressed his concern for the lack of training surrounding childhood psychological abuse and the difficulty social services face when dealing with such a case: “Child protective service case workers may have a harder time recognising and substantiating emotional neglect and abuse because there are no physical wounds,” he said. “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.”

N.B. A 2012 NSPCC educational document concerning the emotional abuse experienced by children aged 0 – 6 years (Core Info: Emotional neglect and emotional abuse in pre-school children),  aims to help those involved on the frontline of safeguarding children to understand the signs and risks of emotional and psychological childhood abuse. This document acknowledges that many practitioners may “lack confidence in identifying emotional neglect or abuse” at a pre-school age, therefore helpfully lists the signs and risks involved as well as the steps a concerned party may take to ensure further safeguarding.