NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young adults who had been criticized, insulted or threatened by a parent growing up were more likely to be anxious or depressed, in a new study.
Even when the same or another parent expressed plenty of affection, researchers found the apparent harmful effects of having a verbally aggressive mother or father persisted.
"There's a fair amount of data out there that says that parental verbal aggression toward a kid is very damaging," Byron R. Egeland said.
"In many instances, people find it to be as damaging as actual physical abuse," he told Reuters Health.
Egeland has studied child maltreatment and development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and was not involved in the new research.
Past research has linked verbally aggressive parenting to changes in children's brain development and to personality disorders later in life, researchers led by Ann Polcari write in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
Polcari, from Northeastern University in Boston, and her colleagues wanted to see whether also receiving affection from parents would lessen those impacts.
Their study included about 2,500 young people, ages 18 to 25. They each took a series of online surveys as part of being screened for in-person tests and interviews for other research.
Participants reported both on their current mental health and wellbeing and on their experiences with their parents growing up.
They rated each of their parent's verbal aggression on a scale from zero to 105, based on how often mothers or fathers yelled at, scolded, insulted and blamed them as kids. More verbally aggressive parents got higher scores.
Study participants gave their mother's verbal aggression an average score of 22. They scored fathers between 26 and 29.
Verbal affection was measured from zero to 84, with higher scores reflecting a parent who expressed more affection and engaged in more meaningful conversations with the child.
Participants scored their mothers between 65 and 66 on that scale, on average, and their fathers between 54 and 55.
Young adults tended to have more psychiatric symptoms like anxiety and depression when either their mother or their father was verbally aggressive.
What's more, although having a verbally affectionate parent seemed to have a positive impact on young people's wellbeing, it didn't make up for having a second parent who was verbally aggressive, Polcari's team found.
And having one parent who was both affectionate and aggressive wasn't any better for a young person's psychiatric health than if that parent was only aggressive.
"It isn't as if one cancels the other," Timothy Moore, from York University in Toronto, told Reuters Health.
"Whatever the benefits of positive expressions may be, the negative association between verbal aggression and adjustment persisted," Moore said. He has studied the effects of verbal aggression in childhood but wasn't involved in the new study.
"It certainly is important that there be somebody there that the kid can count on, starting at an early age," Egeland said.
"But a large amount of verbal abuse or for that matter having a parent who is emotionally unavailable or physically abuses the kid - those kids will grow up with the idea that they can't count on others. Those are kids that oftentimes don't benefit from the support of a neighbor or coach or relative," he said.
"If the abuse starts at a very early age, it's likely that kid is not going to have trust in much of anybody."
Egeland said the fact that verbal aggression is more common in poor families means children who experience it are also more likely to have single parents and lower quality schools - compounding their risks.
One limitation of the study, the researchers noted, is that participants recalled their parents' verbal aggression from years earlier to the best of their memories. They also reported their own symptoms and weren't checked by a doctor for psychiatric illness.
SOURCE: bit.ly/18otSO8 Child Abuse & Neglect, online November 21, 2013.
Major depression is increasingly recognized as a serious U.S. health problem. Experts are trying to identify at-risk children and adults and treat depression in its earliest stages.