In general, there are four types of maltreatment: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). Verbal abuse is one form of emotional abuse in which delivered verbally, such as: swearing, name-calling and insulting. This theoretical review focuses on the development of attachment among verbally abused children.
Children are the most dependent members in the society and they rely on their parents or other caregivers. For most children in the fully functioning family, the support for their physical and emotional well-being is reliable and consistent (Daro, 1988). Mothers and other people around the children tend to spontaneously stimulate the children, by imitating their children expressions and sounds (Howe et al, 1999). By doing so, the children feel that they can begin to affect their own family – the smallest form of community – and appreciate themselves as active participants in family life.
For verbally abused children, the emotional support is inconsistent or absent. Abusive mothers who are hostile, rejecting and verbally abusive seem to have deep impact on their children behaviors. One study by The Minnesota Mother-Child Interaction Project (Egeland & Erickson, 1987) gave details of children at the age of 42 month who lacked of enthusiasm and persistence, noncompliant, negativistic and showed little affection to their mothers. They were reliant on their mothers, but avoided her except when seeking help. It showed the consequence when children are not accepted by their parents or caregivers, trust does not develop, because relationship between children and caregivers has the most important influence on children development.
Sometimes parents fail to differentiate between applying discipline and abusing their children. Parents want their children to show respect and being submissive toward adult authority and society. Some parents believe that their verbally aggressive behavior motivates children to try harder to do better (Solomon & Serres, 1999). In everyday life, it is normal for people to yell at each other, express anger and call people names sometimes. But emotional abuse occurs when the yelling and the anger gone too far or when parents perpetuate verbal hostility until the children self-esteem and feeling of self-worth are damaged (Lyness, 2004).
The sources of abuse are typically those who have close relationship with the children, such as parents or parents substitute and teachers at school. Gil (1988 ) showed that the majority of the perpetrators of adult survivors of childhood abuse (78%) are the member of her clients’ immediate family. It seems that child abuse occurs as an integral part of the family. Abusive parents are those who are inadequate, frightened, incapable parents who do not like what they are because they know that they are neglecting but they do not know how to stop it (Fontana, 1977). Abusive parents are afraid that their children, even their newborn baby, do not love them. Abusive parents also have tendency to invert the relationship from their own children. For them, children have responsibility to look after their parents instead of their parents looking after the children (Bowlby, 1988).
Beside parents as perpetrators, schools also engage in various forms of verbal abuse. For example: a teacher who ridicules and humiliates students when they give incorrect answers; a coach who taunts smaller, frailer students and encourages others to hurt them; a teacher who uses sarcasm and verbal put-downs, screams at students and shows inconsistencies toward students (Nunno, Holden & Leidy, 1997).
Shumba (2002) examined the extent and effect of emotional abuse on primary school students in Zimbabwe. Data were collected from 150 primary school teacher trainees and 300 primary school teachers using The Teacher Trainees Questionnaire and The Teacher Questionnaire. The study found that verbal abuse occurred in schools including: shouting at the students; scolding for mistakes; using vulgar language; humiliating students publicly; and negatively labeling students as stupid, ugly, foolish and many more. Surprisingly, the majority of teacher trainees (84.7%) and teachers (80.7%) believe that shouting or scolding at students for making mistakes are not acceptable. However, there is one possibility to explain the reason why verbal abuse still occurs: that in some cultures the form of verbal abuse is viewed as part of routine child-rearing practices.
Attachment is very important in the life of every human being. It is the very foundation of healthy individual development because it is created by ongoing reciprocal interactions between children and their primary caregivers motivated by protection and safety needs (Pearson, 2003). A young child is not capable to survive independently, therefore, as the first social institution, family should provide safety from external dangers. A family should provide the optimal environment for the children to develop their physical, mental and social capacities to the full.
Unfortunately, it is within family that verbal abuse most often takes place. Victims of verbal abuse in many forms are unable to develop and sustain relationship with others during childhood as well as in adulthood (Fatout, 1990); produce prolonged psychological damage (Rosenthal, 1987) and emotional damage (Lynnes, 2004). Following are the core features of secure attachment according to Bowlby (1979) and the comparison with the condition of abused children:
a) Specificity. Attachment behavior is directed toward one or few specific individuals.
Infants and young children should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with their mothers (or permanent mother substitute) in which both parties find enjoyment and satisfaction. In the case of abused children, their parents usually show a general attitude of resentment and rejection toward children.
b) Engagement of emotion. Many of the most intense emotions rise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption and the renewal of attachment relationship.
When ‘good-enough’ mothering is not available, children are at risk to detachment (Fatout, 1990). This detachment further erodes the parent-child relationship, providing additional impetus for abuse to occur. Caregivers who attach poorly are unable to be adequately emphatic and sensitive to the needs and states of the growing children, and consequently misperceive and misinterpret or disregard their behavioral and vocal signals (Steele, 1986).
c) Learning. Learning to distinguish the familiar from the strange is the key in the development of attachment.
When children feel familiar with their parents or caregivers, it will strengthen the adaptive attachment behavior between them. In the case of abused children, Egeland and Erickson (1987) found that mothers in hostile/verbally abusive group of their study, chronically found fault in their children behavior and criticizing them in harsh manner. They engaged in constant degrading and harassment of their children. The repeated abuse experiences could hamper the attachment between the children and mothers or caregivers, because it is difficult for the children to recognize the assault and defend themselves from many forms of verbal abuse from their caregivers (Ney et al, 1986). Children believe that they are not accepted as part of their family, because their parents or caregivers show constant rejection through verbally abusive behavior.
d) Organization. Initially attachment behaviors are mediated by responses organized on fairy simple lines, including sight or sound of mother-figure and, especially, happy interaction with them.
The interaction quality of mothers and their children is important and could affect the children quality in later development. Steele (1986) specified the negative effects of verbal abuse by mothers or caregivers. Abusive caregivers are unable to provide appropriate or adequate vocal and emotional interaction with the growing children and fail to give them the necessary stimuli for language development, as the basic for social aptitude. This lack of social ability will drive into a deeper problem of communication in their later stages of development.
Every child who lives in abusive family or environment will become accustomed to the believe that they are not worth enough to get involved as an important part of the family and not capable to be a fully functioning person. They will constantly trap into feeling of rejection, unlovable and unacceptable. When the attachment -as their primary need in childhood period- with their parents or caregivers is not fulfilled, the children will grow up with fear and anxiety because they know that no one wants to have a good and mutual relationship with them. The attachment is needed not just in their early age of childhood, but as the essential part of mature and pleasant adult relationship.