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Physical Abuse in Youth Sports Can Leave Emotional Scars

If you think the abuse suffered by many athletes does little harm, think again.

Studies have shown that among the many effects of physical abuse are

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • cognitive and learning difficulties, even a lowering of IQ (especially verbal IQ)
  • disordered sleep
  • flashbacks
  • loss of empathy
  • aggressive behavior
  • chronically high stress levels which can lead to chronic health effects such as high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and
  • inability to maintain relationships.

Experts report that children who have been abused become chronically hyper-aroused, possibly in order to be prepared for the next dangerous thing that might happen to them. As a result, a child may demonstrate less flexibility in responding to changes in his environment and become overly attentive to anger cues at the cost of incorporating other information from the environment. The brain and mind can become overly sensitized in abuse, making a person respond inappropriately to ordinary stimuli, for example, by flying into a rage over a minor disagreement.

Children who have been abused will often display their own aggressive behavior. This is both learned behavior, and an identity the child takes on to protect their fragile psychology and sense of self. Abuse causes such powerful feeling of helplessness that it can destroy a child's capacity to defend against the evil, and effectively destroy their ego functioning, what one expert called "soul murder."

In general, victims of abuse are more likely to develop self-esteem problems, to marry abusive spouses, and to abuse their own spouses because have learned that verbal abuse unleashed for a "good cause" is always justified. According to experts, physical abuse and violence can also lead to:

  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors with regard to excessive training
  • Eating disorders relating to diets imposed in certain sports
  • Self-injurious behaviors or risk-taking resulting in accidents and injury
  • Suicide

Witness abuse can also cause damage

Several studies have shown that witnessing abuse can have similarly devastating effects. Children who witness their mothers' abuse are more likely to abuse their children even if not actually abused themselves.

In extreme cases children who have strong reactions to viewing violence or aggression can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing such symptoms as nightmares or flashbacks, routine avoidance of reminders of the event, increased sleep disturbances, irritability, poor concentration, startle reaction and regressive behavior.

Not only can abuse or witnessing parental misconduct turn off a child to exercise and participation in sports, preventing the development of a healthy adult lifestyle, but it can adversely affect a child's ability to learn, increase the likelihood that the child will engage during adolescence in unhealthy behaviors, including suicidal behavior, and delinquent and aggressive behaviors. It also been linked to adverse health outcomes in adulthood, including mood and anxiety disorders and diseases.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.