THE WORD “violence” conjures up images of things like beatings, bruises and spilled blood. But when it comes to their children’s upbringing, parents can be violent without laying a hand on them. This is psychological violence, also called psychological or emotional abuse.
It includes threats of physical abuse, such as: “If you don’t go to bed immediately, you’ll get a lashing you won’t forget!” or saying humiliating things like: “You’ll never amount to anything!”
Child emotional abuse isn’t only verbal though. Ignoring or giving a child the silent treatment, punishing a child with home confinement, and putting a child under extreme pressure to do well at school fall under this category as well.
”Children are harmed not only when they’re struck. Neglect and emotional abuse can have adverse effects as well,” says Dr Claudia Buss, a professor at Charite University Hospital’s Institute of Medical Psychology in Berlin. Roughly one in three children are a victim of abuse and/or neglect, she says.
Being maltreated as a child can have serious lifelong health consequences that may even be passed on to the next generation.
A recently published study in The Lancet Public Health found that children of mothers who had experienced childhood abuse (physical, emotional or sexual) or neglect were more likely to have mental and/or physical health problems.
In the long-term, US-German study of some 4,000 American mothers and their children, children of mothers who reported childhood maltreatment were at higher risk of asthma, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, and also had a higher incidence of symptoms and behaviours associated with depression and anxiety disorders.
Daughters in this group were also at higher risk of obesity.
Effects of childhood maltreatment
While the researchers showed a link between a mother’s maltreatment in childhood and her children’s health problems, it’s no proof the latter was directly caused by the former. Buss, the study’s corresponding author, nonetheless sees the findings as further support of the hypothesis - backed by other studies, including on animals - that childhood maltreatment of future mothers can negatively affect their children.
”Research shows that the more experiences of abuse and neglect a child has, and the greater their severity, the worse the health consequences are for both the victim and the next generation,” says Buss, who calls for a better support system to identify these mothers and children early on.
”Unfortunately, it’s known that many parents who abuse or neglect their children experienced the same themselves and are unable to cope. Instead of blaming them, we should try to give these people maximum support.”
Although the precise mechanisms by which an elevated risk of health problems is passed on to the next generation aren’t yet fully understood, Buss thinks support should begin before pregnancy.
”The subject of psychological stress should be more strongly incorporated into general health care, for example in gynaecology and paediatrics,” she says.
Pregnancy and psychological health
Just as pregnant women are advised to maintain a healthy diet and breastfeed, so too should expectant parents be informed about the importance of their own psychological health for the healthy development of their child, remarks Buss, noting that first-time mothers are especially likely to relive any childhood traumas they had.
As yet there’s no forum in which this can be discussed with specialists, she says.
”Should prevention fail, child abuse victims must be identified and helped as soon as possible. The longer a child is in such a situation and under chronic stress, the more severe the consequences are,” says Buss, who warns of possible “biological scars”: altered brain structures and changes in the long-term regulation of various genes that could lead to later health problems.
A 2020 study on corporal punishment and parenting by Ulm University Hospital in Germany showed that awareness of this issue was still lacking in that country.
”It’s often not understood that a modern concept of violence also includes emotional pressure, emotional degradation and gestures that above all humiliate (boxing the ears or smacking the buttocks),” says Buss, stressing that the long-term effects of emotional abuse are just as serious as those of physical and sexual abuse.
However, many factors have to come together to cause illness, she points out. “It can’t be assumed that a child will be shattered or become ill if they occasionally see that their parents are having troubles.”
Parents, after all, aren’t infallible. What’s important, she says, is awareness. ”If a parent realises they’ve used the wrong tone, they can apologise to the child and explain the situation,” advises Buss, and says parents who are conscious of being chronically stressed should seek professional help.
On the bright side, the long-term, US-German study also showed that far from all children of mothers abused in childhood have health problems, which points to ameliorating factors in some cases. In the view of experts, attachment figures to whom a child feels particularly close, for example, could serve as a buffer. – dpa