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Youth Sports: Abuse Takes Many Forms

Emotional, physical, sexual abuse and neglect surprisingly common

Emotional abuse: the damage is no less real

Perhaps because the damage caused by emotional abuse is not obvious, like sexual abuse, or immediately apparent, like a physical injury, its effect is often overlooked and minimized. But, says San Francisco child psychologist Maria Pease, the damage is no less real, and, in fact, may be much more damaging and long-lasting:

  • Children are deeply affected by negative comments from parents, coaches and other adults to whom they look up and respect. One comment can turn a child off to sports forever.
  • Children are much more sensitive than adults to criticism: being yelled at, put down, or embarrassed is much more likely to have negative psychological consequences and to cause the child to feel humiliated, shamed and degraded and to damage her feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.
  • If the abuse becomes chronic, a pattern of negative comments can destroy a child's spirit, motivation and self-esteem. Over time, the young athlete will begin to believe what adults say about him. Abusive comments intended to improve athletic performance are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.
  • Children who experience screaming on a regular basis will react in certain ways to protect or defend themselves. This may be adaptive in the moment to survive the screaming, but ultimately be maladaptive and constrict their ability to be psychologically healthy over time.
  • A more anxious, sensitive child may be intolerant of screaming very early on, and remove himself from the sport (he maybe the lucky one). However, he is also more likely to endure the screaming without telling a parent or responding to the coach directly out of fear of reprisal from the coach. A more sensitive child who stays in this situation may be more affected physiologically with overall heightened arousal levels as discussed above.
  • A more secure child will likely have the same physiological responses but be less vulnerable to them. He may find a way to tune out the coach, but this may come at a cost of emotional sensitivity. As the child becomes less sensitive to his own fearful feelings, he can become less sensitive to the feeling of others, leading to loss of empathy. He will also become less sensitive to emotions in general, and have a loss of sensitivity to positive emotions as well. He is also likely to resent the coach for putting him in such a psychologically vulnerable position.
  • Children involved in sports often make strong connections and develop a special trusting relationship with their coaches and instructors, and if the coaches’ power is abused, children can suffer severe psychological injuries that may last a lifetime. In a 2004 study of emotional abuse of elite child athletes in the United Kingdom, for instance, athletes reported that the abuse by their coaches created a climate a fear and made them feel stupid, worthless or upset, lacking in self-confidence, angry, depressed, humiliated, fearful and hurt, and left long-lasting emotional scars.

Adapted from the chapter "Preventing Child Abuse in Youth Sports: What mothers can do" from the book Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (New York: HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench, editor-in-chief of MomsTeam.com .