Dr Justin Coulson
Rae is a funny, bubbly, precocious, and remarkably talented 13 year-old girl. She is talkative, clearly intelligent, and insightful.
She is also a victim of psychological and emotional abuse. She is regularly yelled at, called names, threatened, and shamed. Rae’s step-father uses his physical presence to instill fear in Rae, even when she has done nothing. She lives with continual concern that he will hurt her. Rae is consistently called the vilest of names, including “f*#!ing idiot”, “little [email protected]%*”, and more.
When I spoke with Rae, she had left home, following in the footsteps of her 15 year-old sister, Mia. After two months with relatives, Mia had decided to try living at home again. Rae had been gone for two weeks, and had no intention of returning.
“Don’t you want to live in that new house your parents bought?” I asked. Rae’s mother and step-father had just spent a significant amount of money building a beautiful home in a beachside suburb of Sydney. Her comments were piercing:
“It doesn’t feel nice to be there. All mum does is yell at us and get angry at us and call us names. She treats us like slaves. It doesn’t matter how nice the house is. It’s the people in the house that make it good to live in.”
At the time I talked with Rae, she told me that her mum had not asked her where she was staying in the two weeks since she left home. Rae took that as a sign that “mum doesn’t care.”
Rae showed me her mum’s social media profile (instagram and Facebook). Ironically, it was filled with pictures of mum doing things with her kids.
“If my family was like it is on Facebook in real life, it would be awesome” Rae told me. “But it’s not. Mum makes out that she’s devoted. But she makes us feel like she hates us when there’s no one watching.”
Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.
Researchers compared 5,616 youths with lifetime histories of one or more of three types of abuse: psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse or emotional neglect), physical abuse and sexual abuse. Children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused.
Among the three types of abuse, psychological maltreatment was most strongly associated with:
- general anxiety disorder,
- social anxiety disorder,
- attachment problems,
- and substance abuse.
According to the researchers psychological maltreatment that occurred alongside physical or sexual abuse was associated with significantly more severe and far-ranging negative outcomes than when children were sexually and physically abused and not psychologically abused. Moreover, sexual and physical abuse had to occur at the same time to have the same effect as psychological abuse alone on behavioral issues at school, attachment problems and self-injurious behaviors, the research found.
What do children need?
I asked Rae what three things she wished her mum would do so she felt loved. Her answers were so simple it almost left me weeping:
- I just want her to actually listen to me. She won’t listen. Ever. She just tells me to get over it when I have a problem and she’s never interested.
- If she would talk to me nicely. She doesn’t have to yell all the time.
- I wish she would hug me.
Rae then mentioned a fourth item. “My dad doesn’t live with us. He hasn’t called to say hi or ask me how I’m going for more than a month. It’s not that hard to pick up the phone and say hi.”
A parent who is abusive AND offers love and care will not solve the problem. The abuse will undermine any trust that may be built up through the expression of love. But when parents can be pervasively loving, caring, and ‘present’, their children are far more likely to flourish.
The impact of psychological abuse and neglect is significant.
Ultimately, it can be overcome with three simple things: A parent who listens, a parent who cares enough to be involved, and a parent who can give those hugs that soothe, welcome, and help a child feel loved.
Dr Justin Coulson speaks to professionals and parents about positivity and happiness – at work, at home, and in life. He and his wife are the parents of six children.