The Importance of Identifying Childhood Verbal Abuse: A Systematic Review and Call for Action

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Childhood Verbal Abuse Highlighted as a Standalone Subtype of Child Maltreatment

A recent systematic review conducted by researchers at UCL (University College London) and Wingate University has emphasized the significance of identifying and addressing childhood verbal abuse by adults as a distinct subtype of child maltreatment. The study emphasizes the need for targeted prevention and intervention to mitigate the lasting harm inflicted by verbal abuse.

Child maltreatment encompasses four categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. These classifications guide interventions and monitoring efforts in affected populations. However, the study, published in Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal and commissioned by the charity Words Matter, reveals a lack of focus on childhood verbal abuse as a separate subtype.

The researchers examined a total of 149 quantitative and 17 qualitative studies to assess the definitions and measurements of child verbal abuse. They discovered inconsistencies in how verbal abuse is defined, with cultural norms playing a role in how it is perceived. Verbal abuse, including actions such as belittling, shouting, and threats, can lead to emotional and psychological harm.

The nature of childhood verbal abuse can have long-term consequences on a child’s well-being. The study found that verbal abuse can increase the risks of anger, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, and obesity. However, the researchers noted the need to acknowledge childhood verbal abuse as a distinct maltreatment subtype to effectively address and prevent its occurrence.

Professor Peter Fonagy from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences stated that preventing the maltreatment of children is key to reducing child mental health problems. The focus on childhood verbal abuse by the charity Words Matter, along with this systematic review, will contribute to significant changes in identifying and responding to this risk.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that emotional abuse now surpasses physical and sexual abuse as the most prevalent form of child maltreatment. However, the term “emotional abuse” was found to be ambiguous and focused on the victim. Introducing the term “childhood verbal abuse” shifts the focus onto the actions of the adults, laying the groundwork for targeted prevention strategies.

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The study also highlighted the need for standardized terminology in defining verbal abuse, as various terms such as “verbal aggression,” “verbal hostility,” and “verbal abuse” were used across different studies.

The review revealed that parents were the main perpetrators of childhood verbal abuse, followed by other adult caregivers in the home and teachers. Shouting and screaming were the most commonly documented characteristics of verbal abuse. However, the study emphasizes the importance of considering not just the words used but also the intent, delivery, and immediate impact on children when defining childhood verbal abuse.

Further research is needed to understand the effects of verbal abuse on specific age groups. Leading author Professor Shanta Dube from Wingate University states that acknowledging childhood verbal abuse as a distinct maltreatment subtype is crucial due to its lifelong negative consequences. She emphasizes the need to develop actions that can prevent childhood verbal abuse, ultimately breaking intergenerational cycles.

Jessica Bondy, the founder of Words Matter, stresses the need to recognize and end childhood verbal abuse by adults to ensure the overall health and wellbeing of children. She emphasizes the power of words, stating that they can either uplift or destroy, and calls for collective efforts to build children up instead of knocking them down.

In conclusion, this systematic review highlights the importance of recognizing childhood verbal abuse as a standalone subtype of child maltreatment. By doing so, targeted prevention efforts can be implemented, and the lifelong harm caused by verbal abuse can be addressed more effectively.

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