WINGATE — Verbal abuse of children is a large and growing problem, and Dr. Shanta Dube says it’s high time to treat it as the health deterrent it is.
Dube, director of Wingate University’s Master of Public Health program, led systematic research that found that childhood verbal abuse — shouting at, denigrating, belittling and shaming children, among other forms of maltreatment — is at least as prevalent, and has just as many long-term impacts, as other forms of child abuse.
“If we don’t get childhood verbal abuse on the radar of detection and as its own subtype of maltreatment, it’s going to get worse,” she says. “We’ve got to stop it now.”
Dube emphasizes that childhood verbal abuse by adults, a subset of one of four recognized forms of child maltreatment, needs to be brought to the forefront, discussed and dealt with.
In early 2022, Dube began a systematic review of 166 child-abuse studies at the behest of Jessica Bondy, founder of the UK-based charity Words Matter, on whose advisory board Dube now sits. Dube, who spent much of her early professional career working with the Centers for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, worked with students and professors from University College London (UCL) to do an in-depth evaluation of all 166 studies. This month, their peer-reviewed research was published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
“A key attribute of childhood emotional abuse is the underlying adult-to-child perpetration of verbal abuse, which is characterized by shouting, yelling, denigrating the child, and verbal threats,” the research states. “These types of adult actions can be as damaging to a child’s development as other currently recognized and forensically established subtypes of maltreatment such as childhood physical and sexual abuse.”
Research shows that verbal abuse is on the rise, as other forms of abuse, such as physical and sexual abuse, have stabilized over the years, thanks to mitigating measures. According to research by Dube and her team, almost half of kids have experienced verbal abuse from an authority figure (parent, teacher or coach). She says that such maltreatment can lead to many problems for the child down the road, including unwanted physical conditions (obesity, high blood pressure) and mental-health problems, such as suicidal ideation. A recent study of 20,556 UK residents found that those who had been verbally abused were almost twice as likely as those who had not to use cannabis and end up in jail.
Dube says it’s time to realize that verbal abuse has become a major problem. Her mantra is that verbal abuse needs to be made into its own, distinct category of child maltreatment, joining sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.
“We’re seeing shifts in the prevalence, likely due to hard-hitting campaigns to build awareness around sexual abuse and physical abuse,” she says. “While they have not disappeared – sexual abuse and physical abuse still occur – we believe that increases in childhood verbal abuse may be replacing physical abuse.
“And it’s not recognized as a form of abuse. You can’t prevent it if you don’t know about it.”
So what can be done? Dube says that providing support and help for adults is step No. 1, to break the cycle of abuse.
“The way we’re positioning it, especially through Words Matter, is we’re really saying that the adults need support,” she says. “Typically, these adult behaviors are a result of the parenting they received or something they’ve experienced or learned.”
For now, Dube is going to continue to build awareness about childhood verbal abuse and the devastating impact it can have as its victims get older.
“This whole ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me’ just is not true,” she says.
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