Child maltreatment could cause alexithymia in adults – study

People who experienced childhood maltreatment are more likely to develop alexithymia in adulthood, according to a new study published this month.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletinsought to understand the long-term social and emotional impact of experiencing childhood maltreatment.

What is “alexithymia”?

Alexithymia is a personality trait that used to be considered a disorder, which prevents people from being able to identify how they feel.

People with this trait may also find that they feel physical discomfort when they are emotional, but fail to identify the source of the discomfort.

People with alexithymia are likely to have difficulty in social situations, as they often miss social cues or struggle to identify or understand the feelings of other people and themselves.

Israeli children wearing backpacks. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“One in four children worldwide are abused, yet often go unrecognized,” said Julia Ditzer, lead author of the study.

10% of the general population have clinically relevant levels of alexithymia. It is significantly more evident among men, with a rate of 17% compared to the female rate of 10%.

Alexithymia is associated with a number of other conditions such as autism, depression and schizophrenia.

The long-term impact of experiencing childhood maltreatment

“Our results revealed that childhood emotional abuse and emotional and physical neglect were the strongest predictors of adult alexithymia,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“We can now say with greater confidence that these phenomena – child maltreatment and alexithymia – are to a large extent interrelated,” said Anat Talmon, senior co-author of the study.

In the United States, 656,000 children experienced maltreatment in 2019. Internationally, 1 in 4 children are thought to experience maltreatment.

The researchers identified five types of childhood maltreatment, drawing differences between abuse and neglect, although they weren’t as likely to bare an adult with alexithymia.

The types of maltreatment were classified into emotional neglect, emotional abuse, physical neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.

Researchers defined emotional neglect as the failure to meet a child’s emotional needs such as safety and comfort, while emotional abuse was defined as caregivers who actively belittle children or hold them accountable for adult problems. Similarly, physical neglect was defined as failure to meet a child’s physical needs such as food, while physical abuse was defined as actively inflicting physical harm on the child.

Women who participated in the study were more likely to identify as victims of emotional neglect and general alexithymia.

Adults who experienced physical and sexual abuse as children were more likely to experience alexithymia as adults than those who experienced other types of abuse.

“When someone is sexually or physically abused, they often know, to some extent, that something is wrong,” Talmon explained. Talmon explained that malpractice was harder to identify, and as a result, victims were less likely to seek help.

“Emotional neglect and emotional abuse are extremely devastating experiences for a child,” Talmon said. “No one is meeting your emotional needs, but you lack the ability to identify and recognize your emotions on your own, which increases your likelihood of developing alexithymia.”

It is important to note that not all children who are abused will experience alexithymia. Children react to abuse and neglect in different ways. Some react aggressively, while others dissociate.

“These kids might say, ‘I don’t care. I’m just surviving,’” Talmon said. “They don’t know what they want because they don’t know what their inner voice is and what their true will is.

Researchers have defined dissociation as “a process in which the individual becomes detached from behaviors, thoughts, memories, and feelings.”

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