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Parental verbal affection and verbal aggression in childhood differential influence psychiatric symptoms and wellbeing in young adults


Overview of Study

Parental verbal interactions with their children can be a source of comfort and care or ridicule and abuse. Along with other types of neglect or abusive childhood experiences, emotional abuse in the form of verbally aggressive parenting has been shown to have lasting effects on development. Previous research has shown that exposure to parental verbal aggression is common and associated with increased levels of depression, anxiety, dissociation, and drug use. A question that has not been addressed is if verbal affection from the same or opposite parent can attenuate the effects of verbal aggression. This study examined the effects of parental verbal aggression and affection during childhood on measure of psychopathology and wellbeing. The goal of this study was to determine the statistical association between exposure to parental verbal aggression and affection and the mental and physical wellbeing in young adults. In addition, this study wanted to determine if positive factors such as verbal praise and affection could undo some of the consequences of exposure to harmful verbal interactions.


 The sample consisted of 2,518 participants of which 948 were males and 1,570 were females. They were recruited from a community with many nearby universities which showed that 40% of the participants had some college education. Data was collected from 2004 to 2012. Potential participants were only informed that we were assessing the influence of early experiences on brain development and not told about the interest in any specific types of maltreatment. This was done to prevent any bias or fabrication. Participants responded to published advertisements and the questionnaires underwent Institutional Review Board by Mclean Hospital. The age range was 18-25 to prevent parental consent to prevent any mandatory reporting of child abuse or neglect. All questionnaires were answered on line on an approved and secure URL link. Once the participants completed them, they submitted as complete.

Several measures were conducted for this study including Verbal Abuse Scale, Parenting Bonding Instrument, Verbal Affection Questionnaires, Symptoms questionnaire, Maltreatment and Abuse Chronology Exposure, Report of Abuse, and Perceived financial sufficiency. A moderator was used to analyze the data. This is a variable that affects the direction and/or strength of the relation between and independent or predictor variable and a dependent or criterion variable.  Respondents were placed into four verbal affection groups consisting of low verbal affection from both parents, high verbal affection from mother, but not father, high verbal affection from father, but not mother, and high verbal affection from both parents. Structural equation modeling (SEM) was used to assess direct and indirect influences of maternal and paternal verbal aggression and affection ratings on psychiatric symptoms and wellbeing scores.


The test modules identify robust effects of maternal and paternal verbal aggression on symptom measures. For all symptom ratings there was at least one significant interaction between maternal or paternal verbal aggression scores and the exposure to parental verbal affection. Verbal aggression on symptoms of depression and anxiety was significant in these interactions according to the results of the study. In addition, high levels of verbal affection from one parent did not increase the impact of verbal aggression from the other parent, but also did not generally result in significant attenuation of the effects of verbal aggression.


The study confirmed that parenting practices of both mother and father influence symptom scores. The potential effects of parental affection and aggression appeared to be more independent than interactive. The relationship between verbal aggression appearing to influence symptom scores and verbal affection appearing to influence wellbeing ratings emerged as a powerful finding. This is worthy of further exploration and is an important component of healthy development.

Strengths and Limitations

Self report and self report symptoms can have certain biases and can result in questions about the lack of external assessment. Using a cross-sectional group may have different results if the study was based on a group of persons over time for longer period of time. In addition, the temperament of the participants at the time they were completing the questionnaires could be influenced by that temperament. Finally, cultural beliefs influencing family life also added to the complexity of the data and should be viewed with caution.


Polcari, A., Rabi, K., Bolger, E., Teicher, M.H. (2012). Parental verbal affection and verbal aggression in childhood differentially influence psychiatric symptoms and wellbeing in young adulthood. Child Abuse and Neglect, 38, 91-102.