UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


New report launched following world’s first international conference on childhood verbal abuse

18 June 2024

A new report following on from the world’s first ever international conference on childhood verbal abuse by adults has been published this week.

image of summary report front cover

Hosted by the Words Matter charity, University College London (UCL) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the Words Matter: Impact and Prevention of Childhood Verbal Abuse conference was held on 11 April 2024 and marked the first time leading experts in this field from around the world have come together.

The aim of the event, which has culminated in the official report, was to focus attention on the lifetime damage of childhood verbal abuse and the vital need to develop preventive solutions.

Childhood verbal abuse by adults consisting of behaviours such as belittling, shouting and threatening language towards children, can cause lasting harm to children’s mental and physical health and development. Previous research from experts at UCL and Wingate University1 found that childhood verbal abuse can be as harmful as other forms of abuse and have significant adverse impacts including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse and even suicide.

The new report summarises all the compelling presentations and new research studies shared by the 12 speakers during the conference including from Harvard Medical School and WHO.

Topics covered everything from the prevalence and impact of verbal abuse versus other forms of childhood adversity, the effect of verbal abuse on the developing brain, to the $300 billion a year globally economic burden of not addressing it, to practical evidence-based solutions to prevent it.

Chairs Professor Peter Fonagy, Head of the Division of Psychology & Language Sciences, UCL and CEO, Anna Freud and Dr Manasi Kumar, Research Professor at the Institute for Excellence in Health Equity, NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Affiliate Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Nairobi, Kenya, and Jessica Bondy, Words Matter charity founder, highlighted why it is so imperative that this issue is addressed.

Professor Peter Fonagy said: “Verbal abuse of children by adults is all too common, but is one of the most significant modifiable causes of life-long mental health disorders.

“Tackling it gives us a powerful lever to prevent mental health disorders and their enormous cost to both the UK and global economy.”

Dr Manasi Kumar said: “In my own research on adverse childhood and community experiences in diverse regions such as Asia and Africa, I have witnessed how childhood verbal abuse represents the tip of the iceberg. Yet, its significance cannot be understated.

“In acknowledging the power of words to wound, we must also recognise their potential to heal and foster resilience.”

Jessica Bondy, Founder of the Words Matter charity, the world's first organisation dedicated solely to addressing childhood verbal abuse said: “This conference served as a catalyst for collaboration and dialogue among stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to address verbal abuse of children by adults. We must act now, given the lifelong impact on children’s mental and physical health and wellbeing and the monumental cost to society. Together, we have the power to effect meaningful change and create a world where every child feels valued, respected, and heard. Let’s build children up, not knock them down, and create a better future for children.”

The new Words Matter: Impact and Prevention of Childhood Verbal Abuse Summary Report is published and available here: https://wordsmatter.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/Words-Matter-Conference-2024-Summary-Report.pdf

The link to Words Matter conference page is here: https://wordsmatter.org/events/

For further information contact jessicabondy@wordsmatter.org