In Western society, we tend to diminish social or emotional pain as less important, yet research reveals it to be far more harmful in most situations than any physical actions. When a child is physically abused, for example, it's the emotional impact of this aggressive action, not the physical pain, that contributes to harmful outcomes. After all, children experience pain on a regular basis: falling off a bike, scraping their knee, getting shots, banging their head on the door, having headaches or stomachaches, etc. Childhood is certainly no stranger to pain. The difference between these physical pains and physical abuse is the social element. One experience, because it is aggressive in nature, delivers social pain and results in the child internalizing destructive messages about themselves. The other does not. This social injury is why one experience can produce a severely damaged child, whereas the other types of pain do not. In fact, it is social injuries (not actions) which underlie the damage caused to a child by any type of abuse.
Research has shown, for example, that verbal abuse (mere words) is 7-times more correlated with lasting harm than childhood sexual abuse. (Ney et al., 1994) In fact, in our book, Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison, we explore dozens upon dozens of studies which have repeatedly demonstrated that social/emotional elements matter far more to kids than specific actions. (See the Cross Comparison Chapters). Even something so seemingly minor as a parent having higher levels of narcissism (which translates into various social messages the child internalizes about their own place in life) can outperform something like childhood incest in terms of causing negative outcomes for kids. (Moor, 1993) Many people react incredulously towards such a statement at first, especially since news and drama shows are filled with misinformation that will lead us into believing the exact opposite. But if you look past our labels about abuse to examine the elements of abuse according to what we know is harmful, these facts suddenly start to fall into place.
Child Abuse: A Problem of Social Messages