Perceived Severity of Childhood Emotional, Sexual, and Physical Abuse: Comparisons Across Psychologists, Students, and the General Public

Viann N. Nguyen-Feng, Linda Zheng, Catherine M. Reich, Elizabeth K. Lee, Caitie Dahl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Childhood emotional abuse has been linked with mental and physical health concerns yet may be perceived as less severe than other forms of childhood abuse. The present study aims to (a) understand perceptions of childhood abuse forms across psychologists, general college-level students, and the general public and (b) investigate whether personal emotional abuse history affects perceptions of emotional abuse. Method: Participants (N =444) completed the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire-Short Form and provided perceived abuse severity and offender responsibility on eight case vignettes of emotional, physical, sexual, and no abuse. Research Question 1 was tested with a two-way (Vignette Type × Participant Type) multivariate analysis of variance performed on perceived severity and offender responsibility scores. Research Question 2 included abuse history as a third factor to examine potential moderation. Results: All three groups perceived scenarios regarding emotional abuse as less severe and the offender less responsible than scenarios regarding sexual or physical abuse. Unexpectedly, psychologists were just as variable in their perceptions of abuse severity across abuse forms, as compared to the general public and college students. However, psychologists with emotional abuse histories provided more severe ratings on emotional abuse items, more in line with general public perceptions. College students’ and the general public’s relative ratings were roughly equivalent regardless of emotional abuse history. Conclusions: The study calls for more attention to emotional abuse in psychologist training programs. Research and training to increase understanding of emotional abuse and its sequelae could move forward related educational outreach and legal proceedings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S302-S312
JournalPsychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy
StatePublished - May 4 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 American Psychological Association


  • child abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • physical abuse
  • psychologist attitudes
  • sexual abuse


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