The Impact of Psychological Maltreatment

By Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich

What is psychological maltreatment?

Hard To Stop Crying…, Peter Käuflin, Flickr, 2011

The term psychological maltreatment (PM) includes both emotional abuse and emotional neglect, and can represent a diminished attachment between the caregiver and the child, resulting in a lack of development in essential capacities such as self-regulation or self-acceptance. PM is different from dysfunctional parenting, which may be characterized by inconsistent or chaotic parenting. PM represents a chronic, escalating pattern of emotional abuse and neglect [1]. Psychological maltreatment can be difficult to determine. As the authors point out, there is not a strong social taboo associated with emotional abuse or emotional neglect and therefore it may be under reported.

Using the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set (CDS) a sample of 5,616 children with a lifetime exposure to physical abuse, sexual abuse, or psychological maltreatment were divided into distinct categories and assessed according to PTSD, externalizing and internalizing behaviors, trauma history, and severity.

Findings from the study supported earlier research which showed that PM produced adverse outcomes in children that were the same or even more severe than the outcomes of children who had been physically or sexually abused. The researchers noted that there was some evidence that PM was the most consistent predictor of internalizing problems and the strongest indicator of substance abuse when compared with physical or sexual abuse. Indicators of PM were associated with externalizing problems at a level similar to that of physical abuse, and was even a stronger predictor than sexual abuse.

In practice, determining that PM is occurring can be challenging, but it is important not to disregard PM in assessing children and adolescents because it plays such an important role in the child’s development. As this study highlights, symptoms of PTSD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, substance abuse, or attachment problems can be the result of emotional abuse or emotional neglect (PM), and could potentially be even more damaging to child development than physical or sexual abuse.

References

[1] Spinazzola, J., Hodgdon, H., Liang, L.J., Ford, J.D., Layne, C.M., Pynoos, R.S., Stolbach, B., & Kisiel, C. (2014). Unseen wounds: The contribution of psychological maltreatment to child and adolescent mental health and risk outcomes in a national sample. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(Suppl 1), S18-S28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037766

This post was written by Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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