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Invisible scars: Verbal abuse triggers adult anxiety, depression


A new study by Florida State University researchers has found that people who were verbally abused as children grow up to be self-critical adults prone to depression and anxiety.

People who were verbally abused had 1.6 times as many symptoms of depression and anxiety as those who had not been verbally abused and were twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety disorder over their lifetime, according to psychology Professor Natalie Sachs-Ericsson, the study’s lead author.

"We must try to educate parents about the long-term effects of verbal abuse on their children," Sachs-Ericsson said. "The old saying about sticks and stones was wrong. Names will forever hurt you."

Sachs-Ericsson co-authored the study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, with FSU psychology Professor Thomas Joiner and researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The researchers studied data from 5,614 people ages 15 to 54 - a subset of the National Comorbidity Survey. The average age of the multiethnic sample was 33.

The findings are significant because of the clear implications for clinical treatment. Research has shown self-critical people can benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, an approach that helps people identify their irrational thought patterns and replace them with more rational thoughts, Sachs-Ericsson said. In addition, they are taught new behaviors to deal with uncomfortable situations.

The high percentage of study participants who reported that they were sometimes or often verbally abused by a parent - nearly 30 percent - surprised the researchers, Sachs-Ericsson said. Verbal abuse included insults, swearing, threats of physical abuse and spiteful comments or behavior.

Parents may have learned this style of parenting from their own parents, or they simply may be unaware of positive ways to motivate or discipline their children, Sachs-Ericsson said. They may also have a psychiatric or personality disorder that interferes with their parenting abilities.

Over time, children believe the negative things they hear, and they begin to use those negative statements as explanations for anything that goes wrong. For instance, a child who does not get invited to a party or does poorly on a test will think the reason is because he or she is no good if that is the message conveyed by a parent. This pattern of self-criticism continues into adulthood and has been shown to make an individual more prone to depression and anxiety.

To assess self-criticism, researchers asked participants to respond to statements such as, "I dwell on my mistakes more than I should," and "There is a considerable difference between how I am now and how I would like to be." Those who had been verbally abused were more likely to be self-critical than those who were not.

Those who suffered parental physical abuse (6.6 percent) or sexual abuse by a relative or stepparent (4.5 percent) also were more self-critical, but the researchers determined that self-criticism may not have been as important a factor in the development of depression and anxiety for physically and sexually abused participants as it was for those who experienced verbal abuse.

"Childhood abuse of any type has the potential to influence self-critical tendencies," she said. "Although sexual and physical abuse don’t directly supply the critical words like ’you’re worthless,’ the overall message conveyed by these kinds of abuse clearly does."

Natalie Sachs-Ericsson | EurekAlert!
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