The Line Between Punishment and Abuse

August 15th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

A new report sheds light on psychological abuse.

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The Responsibility Project

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that belittling children is as harmful as physically abusing them. And while these results may seem intuitive to many parents and caregivers, the report went into more detail than many previous studies on psychological abuse and yielded some interesting statistics and suggestions.

In the study, three pediatricians teamed with several committees on child psychiatry and child abuse to assess the long-term consequences of emotional or psychological mistreatment of children. The co-authors posed the question in surveys in both the US and Great Britain, and as many as 9 percent of women respondents and 4 percent of men reported severe psychological abuse in childhood. The surveys suggested that psychological abuse is the most common form of child abuse.

Pediatricians should know how to look for psychological abuse, the report says, just as they would look for signs of physical or sexual abuse. However, a Time magazine article detailing the study described how difficult it is to identify psychological abuse: because there is no universal definition, the co-authors break down abuse into categories, including “spurning” (belittling children or making fun of them), “terrorizing” (placing kids in unpredictable circumstances), or “isolating” (confining them in a space or restricting them socially). 

As Roberta Hibbard, director of Child Protection Programs at Indiana University’s School of Medicine and one of the report’s authors, told The Huffington Post, parents can have a difficult time knowing the difference between acceptable punishments and abuse. "Many are things that parents may, very appropriately, do in isolated circumstances," she said. “For example, it's often appropriate to send children to their room and put them in time-out," she said. "But at what point does three minutes become five minutes, and five minutes becomes 10 hours?"

What the report doesn’t answer is if nonprofessionals should speak up. Armed with the results of the study, Pediatrician Claire McCarthy (who was not involved in the original report) writes in the Boston Globe that people shouldn’t mind their own business when witnessing a child being mistreated. But intervene in a helpful way, she advises. If you suspect something truly awful is going on, call the Department of Children and Families. Otherwise, take a supportive stance, she says, like holding a crying baby so a parent can attend to a toddler, carrying bags, or saying something like “Parenting is so hard sometimes, isn’t it?” while you offer help. 

At what point do you speak up when you see a child being mistreated? Or do you? At what point does a parent cross the line from punishment to abuse?