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Warning over child psychological abuse

31st July 2012

The largest paediatric health group in the US has warned that the psychological abuse of children is common, but under-reported, among Americans.

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Psychological abuse--which takes the form of belittlement, terrorising or neglect, can cause lifelong harm to victims, much like physical and sexual abuse.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), doctors need to be more alert to the signs of psychological maltreatment in children.

Study co-author Roberta Hibbard, who works at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana, said that psychological maltreatment often occurs alongside other forms of abuse, but not exclusively.

She said that while physical injuries can heal, the experience of being neglected, terrorised or belittled by a loved one, especially a parent, can affect the way people feel about themselves later in life.

It could affect their ability to form attachments and influence other aspects of their development for the rest of their lives, she said.

Hibbard and her team at the Riley Hospital's child protection programme evaluate about 2,000 cases of suspected child abuse every year.

While experts have not agreed on a universal definition of psychological abuse, most cases lead to a belief on the part of the child that she or he is unloved or unwanted.

The pattern of typical behaviours in an abusive parent or carer could include derogatory forms of criticism, belittling a child, or placing a child in a dangerous situation.

Threats to harm a child if unrealistic expectations are not met also form part of the typical pattern, as well as confining or imprisoning a child, or restricting their opportunities for social interaction.

Other reported behaviours considered highly damaging and abusive include encouraging behaviour that is not age-appropriate, or encouraging anti-social behaviour.

Severely detached parents can also be experienced as abusive, including parents who only interact with their child when necessary, and who fail to nurture or praise them.

Harriet MacMillan, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at McMaster University in Ontario said that while all parents do things they may regret from time to time, a chronic pattern of belittling, denigration or neglect a child amounts to psychological abuse.

There are no clear estimates of the extent of psychological abuse, but about 9% of women and 4% of men reported severe psychological abuse during their childhoods in a large recent study in the US and the UK.

Previous surveys have found that emotional abuse is the most frequently reported form of victimisation in the US.

In one large study conducted in the U.S. and U.K., about 9% of women and 4% of men reported exposure to severe psychological abuse during childhood.

Other surveys conducted in the U.S. found emotional abuse to be the most frequently reported form of victimisation.

The report by the Riley-based researchers was published in the journal Pediatrics.



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