Threats and Humiliation: When Children Are Marked Forever - Parenting violence is not just a beating


Threats and Humiliation: When Children Are Marked Forever - Parenting violence is not just a beating

kicks. punches. Squirting blood. The term violence is often primarily associated with such images. Before the day of non-violent upbringing next Sunday (April 30), experts want to raise awareness that there is much more behind it. The Child Protection Association announces that it will focus on the topic of psychological violence with posters in large cities as part of the "Violence is more than you think" campaign. The posters can already be seen in some places in Germany.

Accordingly, humiliation and threats such as “You will never become anything” are to be considered psychological violence. Or: "If you don't sleep now, there will be a bang!" But it's not just about words: Among other things, prolonged silence or ignoring the child, isolating at home ("You have two weeks house arrest!") and extreme pressure to perform are also classified as psychological violence.

"Children are not only harmed when they are hit," says Claudia Buss, a professor at the Institute for Medical Psychology at the Charité in Berlin. "Neglect and emotional abuse can also have a negative impact." Many are affected: about every third child becomes a victim of abuse or neglect.

It is not only those affected who often carry these experiences with them for the rest of their lives. Apparently they also pass on risks. Researchers looked at the health of the next generation and found connections with maternal abuse experiences. A team led by Buss reported on this in the journal The Lancet – Public Health. They evaluated data from over 4,300 mother-child pairs.

According to the study, the offspring of women who had been abused or neglected as children had a higher risk of various diseases: pre-depression and anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorder ADHD, autism and asthma. The daughters of these mothers were also found to be overweight more often than their sons. Although the authors can only establish connections, they cannot prove the abuse as a direct cause of the diseases. Buss sees the thesis that risks are passed on over generations but also supported by other studies, for example on animals.

"Research shows that the more serious and the more different experiences of abuse and neglect a child has, the worse the health consequences are. Both for the victim himself and for the next generation," says the scientist.

She calls for a better support system to recognize that parents are overwhelmed and, ideally, to help two generations at the same time. "Unfortunately, we know that parents who abuse or neglect their children have often experienced it themselves and are overwhelmed by it. Instead of blaming them, you have to see how you can support these people as much as possible."

Even if the exact mechanisms of the transmission of the risk to the following generation have not yet been fully deciphered: if possible, repentance is expected to help even before pregnancy. "The question of mental stress should be included more in general medical care, for example in gynecology and paediatrics."

Just as pregnant women are advised to eat healthily and breastfeed, expectant parents need to be educated about the importance of their own mental health for the healthy development of their child. Especially in women who are pregnant for the first time, their own childhood trauma could resurface.

So far, there has been no space to discuss this with specialists. "If prevention is unsuccessful, you have to identify victims of abuse in childhood as early as possible and help them. The longer a child is in such a situation and the longer it is under chronic stress, the more serious the consequences are," says Buß. She speaks of impending biological scars: changing brain structures and changes in the long-term regulation of various genes that could form the basis for later health consequences.

A study by the University Hospital Ulm on attitudes towards corporal punishment and parenting behavior from 2020 showed that there is still a lack of awareness of the topic in Germany. "The fact that a modern concept of violence also includes emotional pressure, emotional degradation and gestures that are above all humiliating (a slap in the face or a slap on the bottom) has often not been understood." Psychological violence leads to no less bad long-term consequences than physical and sexual violence.

However, many factors must come together for the development of diseases, Buss makes clear. "It cannot be assumed that a child will break up or become ill if it experiences from time to time that the parents are not doing so well." Parents are not infallible. It is important to be aware: "If you, as a parent, notice that you have made a mistake, you can apologize to the child and explain the situation." Anyone who notices permanent stress in themselves should seek help.

In any case, the observational study shows that not every child born to a mother who has experienced abuse suffers from health consequences. This points to some protective circumstances. Close caregivers, for example, with whom a child feels safe, can buffer negative consequences from the point of view of experts.

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