With an M.B.A. degree under her belt, 24-year-old "Jaime" (not
her real name) should have glowing job prospects in Chicago. But she harbors
memories that erode her self-confidence and make her bristle with
anger—memories of her father shouting at her, during drunken rages, that
she was ugly and of little value.
Indeed, verbal abuse during childhood can scar people deeply, a new study
suggests. It was headed by Martin Teicher, M.D., Ph.D., director of the
Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital, which is
affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Results were published in the June
American Journal of Psychiatry.
Although the injurious effects of child physical and sexual abuse have been
the subject of considerable inquiry, not much attention has been paid to the
possibly noxious effects of verbal abuse on children.
More than 500 young adults were recruited via advertisements to participate
in the study. Each subject was evaluated for childhood exposure to verbal
abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. Each subject was
also assessed for current anxiety, depression, anger-hostility, and symptoms
The researchers then looked to see if there were any associations between
verbal abuse during childhood and current anxiety, depression,
anger-hostility, and symptoms of dissociation; between other types of abuse
during childhood and these current psychological problems; and how any
associations for verbal abuse might compare with associations for other types
of childhood abuse.
The strength of the association between maltreatment history and current
psychological difficulties was determined by calculating the effect sizes and
95-percent confidence intervals for the differences between subjects who had
no exposure to maltreatment and subjects exposed to the maltreatment
categories. "Effect size is a more valuable measure for assessing the
impact of an experience than the p value, which is strongly affected by group
size," Teicher and his coworkers explained in their report.
Childhood verbal abuse had a relatively weak association with current
anxiety, the investigators found, but it had moderate to strong links with
current depression, anger-hostility, and dissociative symptoms.
Moreover, these links were stronger than those for being a victim of
physical abuse during childhood. They were comparable to those for witnessing
domestic violence during childhood and for being sexually abused by a
nonfamily member during childhood.
The only form of child abuse that had a stronger link with current
depression and dissociative symptoms than childhood verbal abuse was being
sexually abused by a family member. And even it had a weaker connection with
current anger-hostility than did childhood verbal abuse.
These results, of course, do not prove that childhood verbal assaults can
cause psychological consequences in early adulthood since the investigation
was of a retrospective rather than a prospective nature. Nonetheless, Teicher
and his coworkers believe that it may well be the case. As they concluded in
their report, childhood verbal abuse is "a potent form of
But perhaps the most interesting findings to emerge from their study came
when they examined the links between more than one type of child abuse and
current psychological difficulties.
They found, for example, an extraordinarily powerful link between the
combination of verbal abuse and witnessing domestic violence and current
dissociative symptoms. "This finding is consonant with studies that
suggest that emotional abuse may be a more important precursor of dissociation
than is sexual abuse," Teicher and his team said.
Indeed, the connections that Teicher and his group found between various
combinations of child abuse and current psychological difficulties were so
potent that they often equaled or exceeded the link between familial sexual
abuse during childhood and current mental health. "This is of great
importance," the researchers noted, "as it suggests that combined
exposure to less blatant forms of abuse may be just as deleterious as the most
egregious acts we confront."
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the
National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"Sticks, Stones, and Hurtful Words: Relative Effects of
Various Forms of Childhood Maltreatment" is posted at<http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/163/6/993?>.▪