For Coaches
Choose your words carefully: The wrong ones sting athletes deeply

Choose your words carefully: The wrong ones sting athletes deeply


As coaches and parents it’s important to choose your words carefully when interacting with young athletes, as emotional abuse to children may be as harmful as physical abuse and neglect, according to a new study.

This finding, led by a team of researchers at McGill University in Montreal, complements previous imaging research showing that emotional and physical pain both activate the same parts of the brain.

So as you’re talking to young athletes about their performance, correcting techniques or doing your best to motivate them, make sure that you’re doing it in a way that doesn’t demean kids, puts them down or makes them feel like they’re disappointing you.  

Emotional abuse, which includes behaviors such as ridicule, intimidation, rejection and humiliation, is much more common than physical abuse and neglect. Estimates suggest that approximately one-third of children experience emotional abuse.

“Although people assume physical abuse is more harmful than other types of abuse, we found that they are associated with similar consequences," says David Vachon, a McGill professor in the Department of Psychology and the study's first author. "These consequences are wide-ranging and include everything from anxiety and depression to rule-breaking and aggression."


Vachon and Robert Krueger, used data from a study by Dante Cicchetti (University of Minnesota) and Fred Rogosch (University of Rochester) that was conducted through the Mt. Hope Family Center. Cicchetti and Rogosh have been running a summer research camp for over 20 years to study low-income, school-aged children ages 5-13 years.

About half of the camp goers had a well-documented history of child maltreatment. Various types of child-, peer- and counselor-reports were used to assess psychiatric and behavioral problems, and the camp counselors were not told which campers were abused.

Using their data, Vachon studied 2,300 racially and ethnically diverse boys and girls who participated in the summer camp.

"We also tested other assumptions about child maltreatment," adds Vachon, "including the belief that each type of abuse has specific consequences, and the belief that the abuse has different consequences for boys and girls of different races."

Once again, the study produced surprising findings: "We found that these assumptions might also be wrong. In fact, it seems as though different types of child abuse have equivalent, broad and universal effects."

The study may significantly change how the public thinks about child abuse.

When asked about next steps, Vachon said, "One plan is to examine the way abuse changes personality itself -- does it change who we are? The point is to go beyond symptoms and ask whether abuse changes the way we tend to think, feel and act."

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