Wednesday, May 29, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Fostering healthy minds

It is essential that we recognize the profound impact of childhood verbal abuse on mental health. What children need is care and reassurance, not verbal assaults

Update : 14 Oct 2023, 11:02 AM

Recent research conducted by Shanta R Dubey and her associates at Wingate University in the US sheds light on a pressing issue often overlooked -- childhood verbal abuse (CVA) and its pernicious effects. 

Their findings reveal that CVA, a key component of emotional abuse, is as harmful as physical or sexual abuse to children. This form of maltreatment, though prevalent, has not received the attention it deserves. The consequences of verbal abuse are profound, leading to low self-esteem, obesity, and various psychological disorders.

Verbal abuse takes many forms, including belittling, berating, blaming, threatening, ridiculing, and constant criticism. Shockingly, these practices are all too common among parents and caregivers in Bangladesh. 

The abusive acts encompass shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, humiliating, disrespecting, scolding, swearing, blaming, yelling, ridiculing, cursing, teasing, scapegoating, criticizing, verbal putdowns, negative prediction, negative comparison, and other derogatory language.

What children need is care and reassurance, not verbal assaults. Children make mistakes as they learn and grow, and during their formative years, they require guidance and support, not shouting and punishment. 

Regrettably, well-meaning parents often inadvertently engage in child abuse when they resort to name-calling and derogatory remarks, even for the smallest of mistakes, like dropping a pencil. The adults responsible for child rearing are often oblivious to the lasting impact these abusive words can have on the children in their care.

"Just as children require nurturing, safe, and supportive physical environments from adult caregivers, they also require communication from adults that does not denigrate but promotes a healthy self-concept and development," emphasized Dube and her colleagues in a recent article published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect (Vol 144, October 2023).

In Bangladesh, the concept of communication between children and adults is relatively new. Many adults still believe that children should merely obey them and not participate in meaningful dialogue. This hierarchical, one-way form of communication may underlie the authoritarian personality traits so commonly observed.

Tragically, children raised in an environment filled with verbal abuse often grow up to perpetuate the cycle of abuse when they become adults. Dube and her colleagues found that this pattern is part of the broader concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which can have long-lasting negative effects.

This does not imply that parents should abandon discipline. Discipline is essential but must be coupled with love, following the age-old Freudian advice on child rearing.

While many associate mindfulness with Eastern meditative traditions rooted in Buddhism and Taoism, it is also a crucial aspect of psychological interventions. Mindfulness-based interventions, as recognized by professional psychologists, have proven effective in addressing a wide range of biopsychosocial conditions, from depression, anxiety, stress, and addiction to insomnia, psychosis, pain management, weight control, cancer-related symptoms, and the promotion of prosocial behaviours. Psychologists regard mindfulness as a specific form of mental training and therapy.

What parents and caregivers need is mindfulness in their child-rearing practices. Children are not mere recipients of commands; they possess minds and language-processing abilities. Children respond to both insults and praise, making a positive self-image crucial for their personality development.

Schools play a pivotal role in shaping children's socialization. If schools become breeding grounds for abusive language, children will be affected and may normalize such behaviour in their interactions.

"Mental health is a basic human right for all people. Everyone, whoever and wherever they are, has a right to the highest attainable standard of mental health," states the World Health Organization, underscoring the importance of World Mental Health Day observed on October 10.

In 2019, WHO reported that one in every eight people, approximately 970 million worldwide, lived with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression being the most prevalent. This number has likely increased due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is reasonable to estimate that approximately one billion out of the world's eight billion people currently grapple with some form of mental disorder.

In the United States, about 65 million individuals live with mental health conditions, with more than half not receiving the necessary treatment. In Bangladesh, a significant number of people with mental disorders remain undiagnosed. 

The misconception that mental illness is exclusive to affluent individuals or countries must be debunked. Mental illness is not a lifestyle choice; it is ubiquitous. It may be visible in some contexts and hidden in others, but in a globalized world, mental disorders have transcended borders.

Anxiety and depression are prevalent in Bangladesh as well. In low- and middle-income countries like Bangladesh, nearly 18.7% of adults and 12.6% of children suffer from mental health disorders, primarily depression, anxiety, and stress, one study found.

It is essential that we recognize the profound impact of childhood verbal abuse on mental health, and the need for mindfulness in our interactions with children. By fostering an environment of respect and communication, we can break the cycle of abuse and promote healthier, happier generations. 

The well-being of our children is not only a moral imperative but a vital investment in building a decent society.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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