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The Social Abuse
Children are young and impressionable, and the things said to them, along with the beliefs they derive from such statements, will mean more than just about anything done to them. Verbal abuse is like a gun; it doesn’t take much to squeeze the trigger, but that doesn’t prevent it from causing some serious damage. Verbal and emotional abuse is a form of social abuse. The three terms are virtually interchangeable. Verbal abuse consists of socially threatening statements to a child; comments that attack a child’s need for love, acceptance, and positive regard from their caretakers. It either attacks a child’s sense of attachment with their caretakers, or it attacks their social identity and self-worth; and quite frequently both. Either way, it attacks the two biggest foundations for a child’s life: attachment and social belonging.

Dickerson & Kemeny (2004) make the argument that threats to the social self (such as being ridiculed, humiliated, called names, cut down or judged) are so potent biologically that they rival threats to our very survival in terms of their stress-inducing properties. Such experiences attack the core of one’s self-worth. After all, as the brain equation goes, if we are judged to be undesirable, we may suffer complete rejection, which is a threat to one’s very life and happiness. Children, whose very survival depends on being accepted and cared for by adults, are all the more sensitive to such ridicule. When they find themselves the source of harsh judgment by the people they depend on for love and affection, it is a profoundly painful experience. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that registers both social and physical pain, and there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two. Social hurts have been shown to be just as bad as physical pain. (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004)

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)

The forms verbal and emotional abuse take are many and varied. These are each covered on additional pages.

  • Direct attack & name calling
  • Subtle put-downs
  • Negative Comparisons
  • Blaming or criticizing
  • Psychological control
  • Intimidation
  • Withholding
  • Putting kids down
  • Humiliation



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