Yelling at Children Is Verbal Abuse, Defining It Will Help Prevent Harmful Parenting


A recent research paper found that verbal abuse of children, including yelling at them and calling them names, is linked to poor mood, drug abuse and delinquency (antisocial behavior). The authors of the new study argue that since verbal abuse is considered a part of emotional abuse (a category that includes many different types of harmful behavior toward children, such as imposing one’s will on them, belittling them, and Not talking) is therefore often ignored and has become a hidden problem. They say that verbal abuse in childhood should be recognized as a separate category of child abuse. Although the research study has limitations, it is well designed and important, especially in helping to define this type of emotional abuse.

Understanding Maltreatment Children who are maltreated – those who experience abuse and neglect – are more likely to suffer problems such as poor mental health later in life. One study has suggested that a 25 percent reduction in abuse globally could prevent 80 million cases of anxiety and depression worldwide. Governments have attempted to reduce abuse by making some harsh parenting practices illegal. For example, spanking is banned in Scotland and Wales. However, spanking is a fairly easily defined behavior. It is less easy to deal with behavior that causes emotional abuse. But when we ask adults if they experienced abuse or neglect while growing up, more than a third will say they experienced emotional abuse.

This makes it the most common type of abuse reported by adults. The study authors argue that by defining the behavior of adults that counts as verbal abuse in childhood, this behavior can be changed – for example through training programs in this regard for parents. Defining the Problem A research study is a systematic review – a methodical study that gathers together and summarizes the results of existing research findings on a particular topic. Individual research studies may reach different conclusions. This can be confusing, especially when there are hundreds of studies in a research area. A systematic review helps to understand all the available evidence and find patterns. The authors included 149 quantitative and six qualitative studies on the topic, and found that they used 21 different terms to define child verbal abuse.

The most common behavior involves yelling. Threatening words, name calling, and criticism were other common behaviors. Rarely have any studies included behaviors where adults did not speak loudly. The authors also identified the most common standardized questionnaires used by researchers to measure verbal abuse. The advantage of standardized measures is that they have been tried and tested as reliable measures – for example, whether people will respond in the same way when given the same questionnaire twice within a few weeks. One problem identified by the researchers was that half of the studies they surveyed used a non-standardized questionnaire, where it was not clear how accurate the measurement was.

Because the results of research studies can be affected by other factors such as genetic risk or other types of abuse, it is important that multiple studies come to the same conclusion if scientists are to make recommendations. In this research study, only four studies in the age group of children and young adolescents linked verbal abuse to delinquent behavior. Across all age groups, eight studies reported an association between verbal abuse and depression. It is therefore important that more research is done to support these findings. Another problem is that most studies were cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. Cross-sectional studies only assess people at one time.

From these studies, we can’t really tell what came first – verbal abuse or mental health problems. It may be that parents do not know how to deal with certain types of behavior, for example, delinquent behavior, and may use harsh parenting techniques as a result. My own research with Dr. Valerie Brandt examined the relationship between child maltreatment and symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. We found that this works in two directions. Abuse increased these symptoms, but these symptoms also increased the likelihood that the child would experience abuse in the future. However, overall, this well-designed systematic review is an important step toward an integrated approach to child verbal abuse.

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