Florida State University researchers have discovered in a new study that people who were verbally abused in their childhood grow up to be self-critical men & women who are prone to depression and anxiety.

According to the study’s lead author, people who were the victims of verbal abuse had 1.6 times as many symptoms of depression and anxiety as those who did not receive verbal abuse and were twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

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

She co-authored the new study, which is 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 research team analyzed data from 5,614 people aged 15-54 – a subset of the National Co-morbidity Survey. The average age of the multiethnic sampling was 33.

Researchers say the findings of the study are significant because of the clear implications for clinical treatment. Data shows self-critical people can benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach that helps people identify their irrational thought patterns and replace them with more rational thoughts, Sachs-Ericsson said. As well, they are taught new behaviors to deal with uncomfortable situations.

The researchers were surprised to find that around 30% of the study participants reported they were sometimes or often verbally abused by a parent. Verbal abuse included insults, threats of physical abuse, swearing and spiteful comments or behavior.

Sachs-Ericsson said 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. They may also have a psychiatric or personality disorder that interferes with their ability to properly parent.

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

In order to assess self-criticism, the researchers asked participants to respond to statements like, “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.” Individuals who had suffered verbal abuse were more likely to be self-critical than those who were not.

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

Sachs-Ericsson said, “Childhood abuse of any type has the potential to influence self-critical tendencies. 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.”

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