Words And Silence Can Kill.

Keywords: Psychological abuse, psychological neglect, parentification, silent treatment, externalizing behaviours, failure to thrive.


Words And Silence Can Kill. What is psychological abuse in children? Are there different types of psychological abuse? What is psychological neglect? Brain areas affected by emotional abuse and neglect. Are there causes and risk factors to psychological abuse and neglect? What are the effects of psychological abuse and neglect on the victims? Are there self-help methods to overcome emotional abuse and neglect?  What are the available professional treatments?

Children as they grow, need adults to listen and to validate their feelings. These adults are to guide them as they face life challenges. And they need adults to have appropriate expectations for them.

Psychological abuse and neglect are situations that are difficult to detect. This is because there are no tale tell signs to show them, like physical abuse usually has. There are no visible signs. Yet, words and silence can kill or psychologically maim the child.

It is so unfortunate that African parents indulge so much in psychologically abusing and neglecting their children. Some parents see it as discipline.

No matter the form of emotional abuse, these children are at risk of breaking down with mental illnesses.

What is psychological abuse in children?

Psychological abuse or maltreatment is a repeated pattern of behavior that makes a child feel worthless, unloved and unwanted. It makes the child feel valued only when he or she can satisfy the other person’s needs.

It is also known as emotional abuse. And emotional abuse is a deliberate act of harming another person’s emotions.

Are there different types of psychological abuse?

In one study in Nigeria, 100% of the children in Illorin reported that they experienced emotional abuse at home. Some of the emotional abuse types they experienced include parents threatening to hurt or kill them and threatening to evoke evil spirits on them. Some parents even wish that they are dead. Their parents also scream or shout on them and even embarrass them before people. Some parents even lock them out of their houses, while others threaten to abandon them. The parents even watch as their siblings bully and insult them.

Other forms of emotional abuse include parents belittling or criticizing and rejecting their children.  These parents belittle their children by calling them all sorts of degrading names such as idiot, stupid, olodo, etc. Some even call their children coconut head or big head. Some parents curse their children by telling them that thunder will strike them dead.

Sometimes, parents blame their children for things that happened to adults. Some children are even ridiculed for showing normal emotions. For example, a boy cries, he may be called a sisi, or a girl cries and is called a crybaby.

Some children are exposed to watching their fathers or eldest brother beat their mothers. There are parents who instruct their children to get involved with certain vices such as going to destroy another’s property.

Parentification is a form of psychological abuse. In this, the child is made to take up adult responsibilities and thus to grow up fast. An example of this can be seen in child house maids or child labour. Parentification can also be seen when the mother is sick or unavailable and can no more take up her responsibilities. So one of her children, especially the oldest female, will become parentified.

What is psychological neglect?

Child psychological or emotional neglect, is emotional unavailability from the parents to the child. Emotional neglect occurs when parents fail to validate and respond to their child’s emotional needs as the child is raised. It is actually a failure to do something, so it is an omission and not a commission.

So, the parents are unresponsive or unavailable, and have limited emotional interactions between them and their child. The parents ignore the emotional needs of the child for affection, support, attention, etc.

Types of child emotional neglect.

The parents are never aware of their child’s emotional state. And parents never believe that their child’s point of view in any situation matters. To the parents the child’s emotional needs is of no use. Such parents always ignore and dismisses their child’s emotional feelings.

Inability to show the child affection or praise are forms of emotional neglect. The inability of parents to spend time with child doing activities the child likes, is a form of emotional neglect.

Some parents, don’t allow their children visit or talk to their friends, or relations such as aunts, grandparents, etc. And certain parents do not show their child emotional support when the child needs it.

Another form of emotional neglect is the silent treatment. Some parents make use of the silent treatment as a form of disciplinary measure on their child. They can also use it to manipulate the child to change his or her behavior.

The silent treatment sends the message to the child that he or she is being rejected by the parents. It also makes the child believe that he or she is not good enough for the parents.

Brain areas affected by emotional abuse and neglect.

Yes, the trauma from emotional abuse and neglect negatively affects the brain. One of the brain areas more affected is the amygdala, which is the brain centre for emotions. The amygdala gets enlarged. Other brain areas affected are the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

The hippocampus is the brain area responsible for memory and emotions. This brain area shrinks due to abuse and neglect. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking, judgment, learning, etc. this brain area also gets smaller and under functioning.

Are there causes and risk factors to psychological abuse and neglect?

Emotional neglect and emotional abuse is often passed from one generation to another. So parents who have experienced a lack of love and nurturing and emotional abuse in childhood, parent in similar manners. So if such parents were not shown love by their parents in childhood, they may not show their children love.

Also parents that have mental illness, suffering extreme stress, or pressures from work, can emotionally abuse or neglect their children. Parents facing Intimate Partner Violence, poverty, or in military service, can be forced into emotionally abuse or neglect their children.

Parents practicing authoritarian parenting, are only interested in their children obey their instructions, rather than their children emotions. So they are more likely to emotionally abuse or/and neglect their children.

The parents that are perfectionists in parenting, have extremely high expectations of their children school performances. They don’t care much about their children’s emotions.

Permissive parents, ie. parents who don’t care much about what their children do, are disconnected from their children emotionally. And parents who have narcissistic personality disorder, that focus only on themselves, don’t care about their children’s emotions.

All these are risk factors to children being emotionally abused and neglected.

What are the effects of psychological abuse and neglect on the victims?

Psychological issues:

Child emotional abuse and neglect can lead to child and adult depressive and anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and suicidality.  Children and adults can die by suicide, thus the reason for the title, words and silence can kill. They are also risk factors for the development of post traumatic disorder and low self-esteem. These children also feel shame and worthlessness, including having fear of abandonment.

There can also be externalizing behaviours in children. These include being defiant and having conduct disorder, throwing tantrums displaying aggression, as well as engaging in risky sexual activities. Most of the anger behaviours are directed towards the parents.

Drug and alcohol abuse are also complications of emotional abuse and neglect. Research has also found that emotional abuse can lead to eating disorder in adulthood, especially in women.

In adulthood the children may develop personality disorders such as histrionic personality disorder. So they are dramatic and over display their emotions so as to gain attention and reduce their stress. Such children may also develop narcissistic personality disorder. With this, they have problems with empathizing with others. Some of these children, may also end up with obsessive personality disorder, in adulthood.

Physical issues:

Emotional neglect is very damaging in infancy and can result to failure to thrive, which can be quite fatal. Failure to thrive is seen in an undernourished child. The child’s weight is below the normal weight for the age. The child’s development is delayed, including language development. With failure to thrive, which can be fatal, we can understand how words and silence can kill, even at infancy.

The individual may also develop headaches, stomach pains, etc. which are long lasting. And the parents will be taking the child from one hospital to another for treatment, but all to no avail. Even as adults who were emotionally abused or neglected in childhood, they too may develop chronic headaches and pains.

Social issues:

The children who suffered from emotional abuse and neglect, find it difficult to trust people. They also have problems with forming lasting relationships and this includes relationship with peers. Such children prefer keeping to themselves and not socializing, or may decide to shut down totally.

Adults who experienced childhood neglect are more likely to be involved in divorce and separation issues.

Educational issues:

These children perform very poorly in their academics and some may even drop out of school. This poor academic performance could be due to many factors. These factors include psychological issues already mentioned and also to the fact that they have problem with paying attention. They thus become underachievers and may end up in jobs they do not like.

Are there self-help methods to overcome emotional abuse and neglect? 

Overcoming the effects of emotional abuse and neglect is not something that can be done by words of mouth. It requires actions and dedications.

Acknowledge your pains:

Bring to consciousness the pains that you feel. This is very important. Don’t suppress it or deny them.

Don’t judge yourself:

Never blame yourself for the trauma your parents caused you. It was never your fault. And don’t defend your parents.

There is need to heal your inner child:

So one way to start the healing process is to be kind to yourself.

You can write a letter to your childhood self, praising and supporting your childhood self. In the letter, show yourself all the love that you believe that you should have received from your parents.

Take time to take care of yourself in the manner that you believe that you should have received. So give yourself the comfort and joy that you deserved as a child.

Get the social support that you need:

Your friends and family should be available to give you the social support that you so much need. So spend time with your friends and go out with them to do the things that you enjoy. Joining a religious group could also be of help and also have that spiritual connection with God. In as much as that you have to acknowledge the hurt from your parents, you must forgive them.

Exercise, nutrition and sleep:

It is very important to get exercise and live an active life. Also getting good nutrition and good sleep are quite important.

What are the available professional treatments?

In adulthood, those still struggling from the effects of childhood abuse and neglect need help. After having tried self-help methods without success, then it is time for professional help. Since we know that words and silence can kill, early professional help is important.

Thus it is important to consult a clinical psychologist who will make use of talk therapy. There maybe need to also see a psychiatrist, especially when mental illness is presents.

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