The damage caused by psychological violence in the early years

The damage caused by psychological violence in the early years - CALDA Clinic
Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

When we think of abuse, we often automatically assume it to be physical harm, such as sexual abuse or being hit, punched, kicked, slapped, restrained and so on. We rarely hear the word abuse and think of it not being a physical act of harm. But abuse is often emotional, or psychological, too. It is just as, if not more, damaging.

In her book, Stalking the Soul, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr Marie-France Hirigoyen, explains that while emotional abuse isn’t as visible as physical abuse it is equally as violent and more widespread.1 It is also more likely to go unchallenged, because, Hirigoyen says, “society turns a blind eye to this insidious form of violence”, which she likens to “a virtual murder of the soul.”

Psychological abuse can be harder to spot – there are no cuts, bruises or physical marks to prove an abuse took place, but the damage caused by psychological violence is deep.

Here we consider the impact of psychological violence on the young. What becomes of the adult when he or she experiences emotional abuse and trauma in childhood? What damage is done?

What is psychological violence?

Psychological violence involves words and non-physical actions used with the deliberate purpose to manipulate, hurt, weaken, or frighten a person mentally and emotionally. Such abuse includes the intent to distort, confuse or influence a person’s thoughts and feelings to the detriment of their wellbeing.

There are many actions that can be considered psychologically violent. These include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Or the abuser may deliberately try to scare, humiliate, isolate or ignore a child. They may call the child names, make them the brunt of jokes, blame and scapegoat them, shout at them, or even make a child perform degrading acts.

Not allowing a child to have friends, controlling them, pushing a child too hard, or failing to promote a child’s development also constitute a form of emotional abuse.

There are many ways adults psychologically abuse children. Some emotionally abusive acts are overt and cruel, while others are much more subtle. Invading the privacy of a child or teen, for example, is emotionally abusive.

The long-term consequences of psychological violence

Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genomics, developmental psychology, epidemiology, sociology, and economics are shifting our understanding of health and disease across the lifespan. Research into the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress shows that early experiences can leave a lasting signature on brain architecture and long-term health.2

Psychological violence towards a child impairs emotional development and sense of self-worth. Such maltreatment in childhood has physical, psychological, and behavioural consequences. It also incurs costs to society as a whole. The more damaged we are, the more dysfunctional we become.

Psychological problems

Abuse experienced in childhood can have serious long-term effects on social, emotional and physical health and development. It can cause anger issues, difficulty expressing or controlling emotions, higher risk of depression, anxiety and health problems, and difficulty in maintaining healthy relationships.

Maltreatment in childhood also poses a significant risk factor for the development of PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD can include angry outbursts, being easily startled, negative thoughts, nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks and physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat.

Attachment disorder

When children are abused, they can display disturbed forms of attachment and abnormal patterns of emotional response. It impacts how the child and subsequent adult interacts with others. Such an experience in childhood can stunt the development of neural pathways for language and higher cognitive functions.3

This insecure attachment impairs emotional regulation, fosters negative views of self, and interferes with social functioning and the capacity for intimate adult attachments.4

Behavioural consequences

Research into the behavioural consequences of child abuse identifies “ongoing problems with emotional regulation, self-concept, social skills, and academic motivation, as well as serious learning and adjustment problems, including academic failure, severe depression, aggressive behaviour, peer difficulties, substance abuse, and delinquency.”3

Abnormal behaviours in adults who were emotionally abused in childhood can include being too clingy with friends and partners, deliberately behaving in way that makes people dislike them, not caring what happens to them, or taking risks, such as substance use. Childhood trauma has been linked to several negative outcomes later in life, including alcohol dependence.5

Abuse victims are also more likely to go on to develop eating disorders, self-harm, and/or have suicidal thoughts. Research shows that emotional child abuse has a strong comorbid psychopathological relationship with eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa.6

The impact on physical health

Recent research indicates there is also considerable room for concern about less visible adverse effects on a child’s physical health, for decades into his or her future.2 Investigation into the disruptive impacts of toxic stress in childhood offers intriguing insights into causal mechanisms that link early adversity to later impairments in learning, behaviour, and physical and mental wellbeing. Research suggests that many adult diseases are associated with the developmental disorders that begin early in life.

The insidious nature of emotional abuse

A European-wide research project into psychological abuse by UK charity SafeLives surveyed over 600 practitioners and 400 psychological abuse survivors.7 Survivors revealed that ‘psychological violence’ is extremely hard to recognise as abusive. They described its ‘creeping nature’, and many said they felt they were ‘walking on eggshells’.

90% of practitioners responding to the survey conferred that psychological violence is usually interspersed with warmth and kindness to create emotional confusion.

Treatment at CALDA

Deep-rooted traumas, such as emotional abuse suffered in childhood, require an intensive rehabilitation process. In almost all cases of emotional abuse there are feelings of shame and guilt, which make it extremely difficult for a person to open up.

At CALDA Clinic, we help clients remove the mask they have been shielding themselves with through a professional and personalised therapeutic program of psychiatry, psychotherapy and orthomolecular medicine.

Our holistic and interdisciplinary approach explores the root causes of our patients’ chronic stress. We offer a safe, therapeutic setting for mental recovery and our luxury private atmosphere supports the highest levels of discretion.

Please contact us for a discreet, non-binding discussion.