Childhood Trauma, Trauma for Life a Growing Arm of Research Is Pointing to the Impact of Psychological and Emotional Abuse Later in Life

By Templeton, David | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

Childhood Trauma, Trauma for Life a Growing Arm of Research Is Pointing to the Impact of Psychological and Emotional Abuse Later in Life


Templeton, David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


One 58-year-old woman from Indiana, Pa., still struggles daily from memories of her father forcing her, her mother and siblings at gunpoint against a wall while he shot a ring of bullets around them.

Robin, 43, of the North Hills, still lives with her mother, who she says has verbally abused her since childhood. Robin said she has repeatedly been told she's worthless and a big disappointment. Now she's undergoing weekly therapy, while seeing an abuse counselor, and taking medications to help her function.

Still another 28-year-old woman of Washington, Pa., who asked that her name not be published, says she's so emotionally terrorized by her mother that she's adopted a survival strategy: "They say that time heals all wounds, but I've found distance to be more helpful."

It has long been clear: Childhood abuse of any kind - physical, sexual or psychological - has profound impacts on children, adversely affecting mental and physical health throughout life. The chronic levels of stress hormones kill off brain cells and shrink the hippocampus, the brain's emotional center.

Now a growing arm of research is pointing at the impacts of psychological and emotional abuse - the constant pronouncements that the child is worthless, stupid or doomed to failure, with chronic neglect causing its own dire impacts.

A study published last month in the American Psychological Association journal, Psychological Trauma, Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, analyzed 5,616 youths in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set with lifetime histories of one or more of the three types of abuse - psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse or emotional neglect), physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Most (62 percent) had a history of psychological maltreatment and 24 percent of all cases were exclusively that type of abuse, which included "inflicted bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, severe insults, debasement, threats or overwhelming demands" from a caregiver. Neglect includes a child being shunned or isolated.

Psychological abuse during childhood becomes encoded in the brain. The memories become tyrannical, heightening the risk of high rates of depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem or post- traumatic stress. Suicides among these victims occur at the same rate, and sometimes at a higher rate, than among children who were physically or sexually abused, the study says.

The psychological effects also can lead to chronic health problems including heart disease and diabetes. Impacts also can include problems dealing with others, isolation or desensitization or difficulty in dealing with authority. Some resort to self- injury.

*

Tamika, 35, of Bellevue, stepped forward to tell her story about persistent childhood abuse she experienced that has forged a difficult adulthood.

She said her mother, who now lives in California, called her ugly and worthless, once impulsively cutting off her bun of hair to give her an uneven chop, only to deride her for being bald. She also would cut off her ponytails for no reason. The African-American child was verbally abused on a daily basis, with her mother chiding her dark complexion, she said.

There was also some physical abuse, she said. Based on lifelong self-analysis, Tamika says she believes she was mistreated because she resembled her father, who disappeared from the family in Mississippi when she was a young child.

"The problem with my mother is that she had such evil intent toward my father, and I looked like him. So she tortured me because she wanted to torture him," said Tamika, who spent years in foster homes and now is a single mother of two. "There were negative comments - that I would amount to nothing, that I would always be on the street, that no one wanted me.

"To this day you still feel that no one will ever want you," she said.

Robin of the North Hills said her mother was controlling and never once said, "I love you. …

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