To many people, the idea of verbal abuse as the most severe form of maltreatment is a tough cookie to swallow. After all, it’s the easiest form of abuse to come by. It only takes a moment to say something hurtful, and it can be done from yards away without ever laying a hand on a child. But think about it for a minute. Read the chapter on sexual abuse: is it the sexual acts, or the ideas about those acts which create problems? A child isn’t harmed in the least should someone play with their genitals or even engage them in other sex acts, so long as the contact is not aggressive or hurtful. This is evidenced by the cultural variations discussed in chapter 3; the only potential damage comes through harmful ideas about those actions. How about physical abuse? Let’s say a parent loses control and strikes a child. While a physical assault may hurt a child physically, it’s the emotional impact of the event that will be the more severe source of harm. That’s the part that will keep hurting. Physical abuse isn’t so much about physical pain. Children will endure all sorts of pain growing up. It’s the hostility, and the meaning it brings. Physical abuse sends a message to the child: I don’t like you and I want to hurt you. Child abuse hinges more on ideas and messages than it does actions. Verbal abuse and psychological abuse are the most blatant delivery of those harmful messages. It is child abuse in its purest form.
The prevalence of verbal and emotional abuse
The verbal and emotional abuse of children is a widespread problem. GlassKirpatrick (1989) identified 18% of her sample as having a psychologically abusive relationship with at least 1 parent figure. Other recent large-scale surveys conducted in both the United States and the United Kingdom have found that approximately 8% to 9% of women and 4% of men report psychological abuse during childhood that they would classify as being severe. (Gilbert et al., 2009; This difference between men and women is likely not actual, but a result of the fact that males are culturalized to repress/discount emotions, and are therefore less likely to see themselves as victims of emotional abuse.) Psychological maltreatment is a common component wherever there is family conflict, family substance abuse, or adult mental health problems (Stromwall et al., 2008), and is particularly common in households with multiple family stressors. (Doyle, 2002) A number of surveys have found psychological maltreatment to be the most frequently self-reported form of victimization. (Reyome, 2010)