Verbal abuse does hurt

Emotional child abuse has negative effects on cognition and the structure and functioning of the brain, as Leiden PhD-student Anne-Laura van Harmelen has discovered. Her PhD defence is on 10th of December.

Negative feelings and thoughts

PhD-student Anne-Laura van Harmelen argues that ‘children who are often jeered at by their parents, threatened, constantly ignored or isolated, react differently to stress in later life’. They often have a more negative image of themselves, which can evoke and strengthen negative feelings and thoughts in new situations. Their memories of their youth are also affected. ‘This makes them more susceptible to developing depressions or anxieties’, says Van Harmelen.

Effects established only in the last few years

Emotional child abuse is the most common form of child abuse. During the last few years it has become increasingly clear that emotional abuse causes serious effects in adulthood. Van Harmelen: ‘ The precise effects of emotional child abuse on cognition and the brain have long been unknown. For a long time the assumption was that the effects were negligable. The Dutch expression “Schelden doet zeer” (“Verbal abuse hurts”) is well-known, yet our research shows a very different picture.’

Reaction to threats more severe

De mPFC in the brain (image: Van Harmelen, Van Tol et all., 2010, Biological Psychiatry).

De mPFC in the brain (image: Van Harmelen, Van Tol et all., 2010, Biological Psychiatry).

Brain research carried out by Van Harmelen has shown that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain which is important for the functioning of cognition and behaviour, is smaller in people who have been emotionally abused. The mPFC also responds differently when they remember things and it reacts differently to stress. In order to test this, Van Harmelen measured the brain activity of test persons, while they were shown photographs of positive, negative and neutral facial expressions. On the basis of these results Van Harmelen established that, in the case of emotionally abused people, their amygdala, the area of the brain that signals the feeling of threat, was more active. These results suggest that emotionally abused people consider all the various facial expressions as threatening, regardless of the expression.

Raising awareness

Ann-Laura van Harmelen

Ann-Laura van Harmelen

Van Harmelen’s research findings are an important first step towards gaining a better understanding of the negative effects caused by emotional child abuse. Van Harmelen: ‘It is extremely important that we increase our knowledge and raise more awareness of the negative effects of emotional child abuse. My research has underlined the importance of being able to identify emotional child abuse. This will hopefully lead to more intervention so as to reduce the number of cases of abuse and its effects.’  At the moment Van Harmelen is carrying out research at the University of Cambridge, examining whether positive factors, such as close friendships, can reduce the negative effects of emotional child abuse.

(4 December / MLH)

See also

Studying in Leiden



Last Modified: 05-12-2013