Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones: The Influence of Parental Verbal Abuse on Peer Related Victimization

Article excerpt

Abstract. Prior research on the effects of childhood maltreatment has focused primarily on the relationship between physical abuse and its impact on delinquent behavior. Although researchers have recently begun to recognize the importance of and to explore the detrimental effects which psychological maltreatment has on children, little empirical attention has been paid to the possibility that maltreatment may also increase the likelihood of future victimization among children. Drawing on the tenets of differential oppression theory, this study examines whether students who are victims of emotional and/or verbal abuse by their parents are more likely to adapt through the use of passive acceptance, as evidenced by low self-esteem, and subsequently become targets for further victimization at the hands of their peers. Findings indicate that parental emotional and verbal abuse is a significant predictor of peer-related victimization.

Keywords: peer victimization; parental maltreatment; emotional abuse; differential oppression.


Despite growing social prohibitions against cruelty to children, child maltreatment continues to be a serious, albeit low profile, problem in the United States. Child maltreatment can take various forms including neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and lower-level forms of aggression such as verbal and emotional abuse. Because acts of maltreatment typically take place indoors, away from the prying eyes of neighbors and public officials, measuring the true extent of the problem is difficult at best. While many studies have examined the effect of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect, very few studies have investigated the impact of psychological maltreatment, such as verbal and emotional abuse on children. In fact, the true extent of this type of maltreatment is more difficult to document than physical and sexual abuse (Hussey, Chang, and Kotch 2006). However, a study by Straus and Field (2000) found that 10 to 20 percent of toddlers and 50 percent of teenagers have experienced severe psychological aggression by parents, which included acts such as cursing, threatening to send the child away, calling the child dumb, or otherwise belittling them. Given these numbers, it is disturbing that this type of maltreatment is understudied.

Historically, when measures of verbal and/or emotional abuse have been examined, they commonly get lumped into a battery of independent variables rather than isolated as specific topics of interest (see Loos and Alexander, 1997; Finkelhor et al., 2005). Because different types of maltreatments tend to occur simultaneously, that is, they are bundled together as a package, it becomes important for researchers to unravel the specific effects of verbal abuse from other sources of trauma (Browne and Finkelhor, 1986; Finkelhor et al., 2005). It is this type of research that will help to unravel the true effects of verbal and emotional abuse on children, and upon which this study focuses.

The present study is designed to build on current knowledge about child maltreatment by exploring the impact that emotional/verbal abuse has on childhood experiences. Drawing on differential oppression theory (Regoli and Hewitt, 2003), the study seeks to understand whether children who are victims of emotional and/or verbal abuse by their parents are more likely to adapt to the oppression through the use of internalization. The study examines whether these children passively accept their inferior status, suppress their hatred for the abuser, and internalize the hatred. Specifically, the study focuses on examining the common internalizing disorder of low self-esteem to determine the impact of the emotional and verbal abuse; the impact being measured by whether these children are more likely to be victimized by their peers.

Previous Research

A review of the extant literature indicates that a linkage between parental maltreatment and the development of emotional and behavioral problems among children has been established (Brown, 1984; Duncan, 1999; Gross and Keller 1992; Hart, Binggeli and Brassard, 1998; Heck and Walsh, 2000). …