Researchers at Florida State University recently conducted a study that found that people who were verbally abused as children grow up to be depressed, anxious, self-critical men and women.
People who were verbally abused had 1.6 times as many symptoms of anxiety and depression as people who had not experienced verbal abuse, and were twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety disorder sometime in their lives, according to Natalie Sachs-Ericsson, the study’s lead author and FSU psychology professor.
“We must try to educate parents about the long-term effects of verbal abuse on their children,” she said. “The old saying about sticks and stones was wrong. Names will forever hurt you.”
Sachs-Ericsson co-authored the study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, with FSU 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 studied data from 5,614 people aged 15-54, with the average age being 33.
The study findings were significant because of the clear implications for clinical treatment. Research shows people who are self-critical may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a method allowing people to identify their irrational thought patterns and replace them with more rational thoughts. As well, they are taught new behaviors to deal with uncomfortable situations.
Nearly 30% of study participants reported they had been (sometimes or often) verbally abused by a parent, which surprised the researchers. Verbal abuse included swearing, insults, threats of physical abuse and spiteful comments or behavior.
Sachs-Ericsson said parents may have learned this parenting style from their own parents, or they simply may be unaware of positive ways to motivate or discipline their children. She said they may also have a psychiatric or personality disorder which interferes with their parenting abilities.
Over time, children learn to believe the negative things being expressed to them, and they 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 does not perform well on a test will think the reason is because he or she is ‘no good’ if that is the message they’ve been taught by their parent. This pattern will continue into adulthood and has been shown to make a person more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
In order to assess self-criticism, 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.” Those with a history of verbal abuse were more likely to be self-critical than those who had no such history.
Participants that suffered parental physical abuse (6.6%) or sexual abuse by a stepparent or relative (4.5%) were also more self-critical, but the researchers concluded that self-criticism may not have been as important a factor in the development of anxiety and depression for sexually and physically abused subjects as it was for those who suffered verbal abuse.
“Childhood abuse of any type has the potential to influence self-critical tendencies,” she said. “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.”