We live in an incredibly violent society. From the time we are born to the time we die we are subject to repeated assault and disregard. This article helps to highlight the profoundly deleterious consequences of violence on our precious and powerful Physical Unit. If you want to realize your full potential, stop the violence against you.

Working Class Hero

As soon as you're born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool
Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can't really function you're so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

John Lennon


We live in a surprisingly violent world. It used to be that we entered violently, with Western doctors slapping a child on the backside as soon as it passed out of the womb. That is not done anymore, but other forms of violence are still prevalent. We experience physical assault, emotional and psychological attack, and even the intellectual violence of manipulation and indoctrination. For most people it doesn’t stop until we die.

As we’ll see in the main body of this research note, psychology is becoming increasingly aware not only of the prevalent violence, but also of the profoundly deleterious impact of said violence on the human mind and body. It is definitely not a case of what doesn’t kill you leaves you stronger, it is a case of what doesn’t kill you leaves you diminished. Sociology has been a bit slow on the uptake, however. Socialization, or our experiences at the hands of agents of socialization, is a key concept in sociology. Every introductory sociology text that is printed devotes and entire chapter to a discussion of socialization and related concepts, like nature nurture, biological determinism, primary and secondary socialization, agents of socialization, looking glass self, family, peer groups, school, mass media, and so on (Steckley and Letts, 2013). However rarely, if at all, is there any indication that sociologists are aware of the significance of interpersonal violence in the socialization process. This research note seeks to alleviate this lacuna by providing a concept, toxic socialization, by which sociologists can more readily discuss the problem of a violent socialization process.

Toxic Socialization

'''Toxic Socialization''' is a socialization process characterized by various forms of emotional, psychological, social, political, and economic violence. Toxic socialization fractures attachments, undermines self esteem, destroys ego boundaries, disables the body's ability to function emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually, and generally undermines the health and human potential of the individual human victim. Toxic socialization is characterized by:

  • Violence and abuse. Violence and abuse includes physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual violence.
    • physical abuse: hitting, biting, corporal punishment, prenatal exposure to drugs. sexual abuse: sexual contact or non-contact, sexual interference (Behl, Conyngham, & May, 2003)
    • psychological abuse: abuse that impairs the mental life of the individual, including impairment of intelligence, memory, perception, attention, imagination, and moral development (O'Hagan, 1995).
    • emotional abuse: abuse that impairs/damages the emotional life of the individual, including their ability to properly regulate emotions, and to take responsibility, be confident, be open to others when appropriate, maintain appropriate boundaries, and trust. Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse, excessive demands, excessively harsh judgments, and other abuse patterns that impact the child’s ability to feel happy and healthy in their own skin (O'Hagan, 1995).
    • Intellectual abuse: socialization/educate with the intent to control behaviour. Indoctrination, in a word.
  • Neglect
    • failure to nurture and support human development
    • child neglect, failure to meet nutritional needs, inadequate food, shelter,
    • emotional neglect, abandonment, failure to provide supervision, support, protection
    • medical neglect/psychological neglect/educational neglect (Behl et al., 2003)

Violence and Abuse

It is not hard to identify the gross negative outcomes of violence and abuse. Studies in recent years flag a host of negative emotional, psychological, and physical sequelea of toxic socialization. People who experience various forms of physical violence develop unhealthy and risky behaviours (Annerbäck et al., 2012), adolescent delinquency (Trickett et al., 2011), depression (Blain et al., 2012, Hosang et al., 2013, Liu et al., 2012, Kendler et al., 2004, Heim and Binder, 2012), adult and adolescent alcohol dependence and abuse (Oberleitner et al., 2015, Shin et al., 2015, Danielson et al., 2009), anxiety (Blain et al., 2012), eating disorders (Burns et al., 2012), personality disorders (Wingenfeld et al., 2011), and post-traumatic stress disorders (Heim and Nemeroff, 1999, Zanarini et al., 1997) . Toxic socialization leads to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (De Sanctis et al., 2012), non suicidal self injury (NSSI) (Swannell et al., 2012), lower grade performance in school (Strøm et al., 2013), lower IQ scores (de Oliveira et al., 2012, Bee et al., 1982), dysfunctional personal relationships (i.e. fear of intimacy, lack of closeness, lack of affection, and intimacy in relationships) (DiLillo et al., 2007) and even increased incidence of physical disease (Cuijpers et al., 2011, Hager and Runtz, 2012), angina (Eslick et al., 2011), and heart trouble (Fuller-Thomson et al., 2012, Fuller-Thomson et al., 2010, Hosang et al., 2013). Ironically, people who experience violence in their childhood are “almost three times more likely than matched controls to perpetrate child abuse” (Milaniak and Widom, 2015).

Of course, violence and abuse does not have to be physical. Verbal and emotional abuse contributes to the same sorts of emotional, psychological, and physical damage as noted above (Wang and Kenny, 2014). In addition, simply witnessing violence in toxic households can cause problems. As one author notes, “Witnessing high levels of discord and conflict increases children's risk for a wide array of psychological problems including internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing (e.g., aggression, conduct problems) problems” (Davies et al., 2014). And note, the family is not the only site where toxic socialization processes impact child and adolescent development and health. Exposure to peer victimization is also an important stressor (Solberg & Olweus, 2003), as is bullying by teachers, and even toxic competitive environments (Kohn, 1986 [1992]). Peer victimization and abuse can be physical (e.g., hitting), verbal (e.g., name calling), or relational (e.g., social ostracism) (Card and Hodges, 2008) and encompasses emotional, psychological, and also spiritual abuse. Be aware, this is not an innocuous part of growing up. It is not just “boys being boys” and “girls being girls.” Victimization at school (by peers or by teachers) can have adverse effects on multiple aspects of development (Rudolph et al., 2014). Toxic socialization at school exacerbates the impact of toxic environments at home and is associated with academic maladjustment, absenteeism, low academic ability, lower scores on standardized tests, school avoidance, and destruction of self-esteem (Glover et al., 2000). The risk of witnessing violence and discord should not be downplayed since the “risk conferred by frequent interparental hostility and discord is almost twice the size of the risk associated with divorce!” (Davies et al., 2014). Indeed, interparental aggression and conflict “contributes unique Variance to the prediction of child conduct disorder, personality disorder, inadequacy-immaturity, and clinical levels of problematic child behavior…“ (Jouriles et al., 1989).


Actual emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual violence and abuse causes profound damage to the human body, but simple lack of care and neglect causes profound damage as well. When children are neglected, basic needs, like the need for safe housing, food, and rest, are not met. Lack of safety and the biological stress associated with deprivation undermines the physical and mental development of the child, but the damaging impact of neglect can arise from lack of physical contact and love as well. For example, studies all the way back into the 1980s demonstrate the critical biological and psychological significance of touch, caress, love, and human contact. Children who get their needs met, including their need for human contact, do better, They weigh more, are more physically active, have higher IQs (Chisholm, 1998), demonstrate superior cognitive ability, and had better language function (Bee et al., 1982). By contrast, children and adults who do not receive sufficient human touch are stunted and damaged. Goleman (1988), a New York Times reporter summarizing extant research, noted that “In some of the most dramatic new findings, premature infants who were massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than others who were left alone in their incubators - the usual practice in the past. The massaged infants also showed signs that the nervous system was maturing more rapidly: they became more active than the other babies and more responsive to such things as a face or a rattle.”

Lack of appropriate parental contact and neglect also leads to growth impairment, risk of metabolic syndrome (Johnson and Gunnar, 2011), impaired/altered neuroendocrine functioning, and altered cortisol responses (stress hormone) levels (Dozier et al., 2006). As Dozier et al. (2006) note, “Low cortisol levels have been associated with conduct disorder among children, emerging antisocial behaviors among adolescents, and psychopathy among adults….Thus, our results suggest the possibility that conditions associated with foster care may foster a neurobiology that predisposes to conduct disorder and psychopathy.” Notably, the alteration and impairment that results from fractured attachment and neglect may persist for at least several years (Dozier et al., 2006). As one author notes, neglect is so serious that children who are not provided with physical contact may even die as a result of their neglect. “About 1/3 of babies placed in the barest orphanages can actually die as a result” (Perry and Szalavitz, 2010, Szalavitz, 2010). Even if death is not the result, people experience a lifetime of struggle and increased challenges into their old age. As Miller et al. (2011b) note, those who are exposed to major psychological stressors in early life suffer “elevated rates of morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases of aging.” As they note “The most compelling data come from studies of children raised in poverty or maltreated by their parents, who show heightened vulnerability to vascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and premature mortality.” The most notable, and frightening, negative impact of neglect is the impact on human empathy, attachment, and social functioning that arises. One study found that “key brain neurobiological mechanisms of emotion, empathy, attachment, and social functioning [were] seriously damaged by simple lack of physical contact (read emotional, psychological, and physical neglect) in early infanthood.”(Fries et al., 2005). In other words, lack of appropriate and copious parental contact leads to problems empathizing, attaching, and connecting with others.


Researchers are still working to determine neurological and biological pathways between abuse, violence, neglect, and emotional, physical and psychological damage. However, one of the pathways that is rapidly being established is a hormonal pathway. Stressful and abusive environments lead to what researchers call allostatic load. Allostatic load is essentially the wear and tear on the body’s biological systems that results when the body is exposed to chronic and repeated stress. Allostatic load thus represents the physiological, psychological, and emotional consequences of amplified neuroendocrine responses resulting from toxic socialization. Chronic stress caused by abuse, assault, insecure environments, insecure attachments, unmet needs, and so on leads to allostatic load which in turn leads to damaging alterations in the hormone system of the physical body, for example causing dysregulated patterns of cortisol output (Miller et al., 2011a). Cortisol is a hormone important in a number of areas of biological function, including the body’s response to stress and risk. Cortisol is implicated in the body’s “fight or flight” mechanisms and acute release of cortisol in response to stress is short term positive. Cortisol helps maintain mental alertness and make energy available in the bloodstream for use in stressful situations (Conradt et al., 2014). However, chronic activation of the body’s endocrine systems causes wear and tear, and increases the likelihood of disease (Conradt et al., 2014) metabolic syndrome, chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and weight gain (Weber-Hamann et al., 2002), suppressed immune function, and gastrointestinal problems, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Aronson, 2009), and other physical dysfunctions. As one author notes, the physical consequences of allostatic load are severe: “Allostatic load leads to impaired immunity, atherosclerosis, obesity, bone demineralization, and atrophy of nerve cells in brain. Allostatic load is seen in major depressive illness and may also be expressed in other chronic anxiety disorders such as PTSD and should be documented” (McEwen, 2003).

Notably, it is not the just the physical body that is harmed by the stress and violence of toxic socialization. Brain damage occurs as well. When experimenters stress rodents by restraining them for six hour periods, rat brains change. Neurogenesis (i.e. the building of new brain cells) is suppressed and the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus declines (McEwan, 2003). Besides suppressing neurogenesis, daily stress reduces branching and length of dendrites and neurons in the brain (McEwan (Lupien et al., 2009), 2003). Stress thus causes structural changes (i.e. damage) to the human brain, and these structural changes have many behavioural, psychological, emotional, and physical effects (Sousa et al., 2000). As McEwen (2006) notes: “Allostatic overload resulting from chronic stress in animal models causes atrophy of neurons in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, brain regions involved in memory, selective attention, and executive function, and causes hypertrophy of neurons in the amygdala, a brain region involved in fear and anxiety, as well as aggression. Thus, the ability to learn and remember and make decisions may be compromised by chronic stress, and may be accompanied by increased levels of anxiety and aggression.” McEwan continues: “The cognitive impairment is likely to be related to the structural changes in the hippocampus…whereas the anxiety, fear, and aggression may be due to changes in the amygdala” (McEwen, 2003). Notably, the greater the stress, greater the effect (Moss et al., 1999)

Stress impacts throughout adulthood, but is particularly damaging to children. “Early life experiences perhaps carry an even greater weight in terms of how an individual reacts to new situations. Early life physical and sexual abuse imposes a life-long burden of behavioral and pathophysiological problems. Cold and uncaring families produce long-lasting emotional problems in children. Some of these effects are seen on brain structure and function, and in the risk for later depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (McEwen, 2006).

Toxic environments also impact sleep patterns in a negative way, adding to allopathic load. When stressful environments are present in the home, at school (i.e. physical abuse, fighting, yelling, assault, walking on egg shells, etc.), or at work, sleep problems ensue. Sleep deprivation increases blood pressure, increases cortisol and insulin levels, increases appetite, and has been associated with obesity (McEwen, 2006). Sleep deprivation also leads to cognitive impairments (McEwen, 2006). Sleep deprivation has also been associated with increases in fighting behavior (de Paula and Hoshino, 2002), impaired physical, psychological, and emotional health, stress, increased cortisol levels, temporal lobe atrophy (Cho, 2001), chronic disease, elevated mortality risk (Carroll et al., 2016), senescence, accelerated aging (Carroll et al., 2016), structural changes to the brain, and cognitive impairment (Rosenberg et al., 2014).


It is difficult to assess the prevalence of toxic environments. One researcher estimates that between 30% and 60% of children at school experience peer victimization (Card and Hodges, 2008). Nationally representative Canadian data have indicated that 32% of the adult population in Canada has experienced child abuse, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and exposure to Inter Personal Violence (IPV) (Afifi et al., 2015). Wang and Kenny (2014) note that “nearly half of the mothers and fathers reported that they had directed harsh verbal discipline at their adolescent children in the past year.” Similarly, “recent findings indicate that one in eight children in the United States will experience maltreatment severe enough to be substantiated by CPS between birth and age 18” (Putnam-Hornstein et al., 2015), but researchers argue that incidence numbers “seriously underestimate the prevalence of maltreatment” (Swahn et al., 2006). Indeed Swahn et al. (2006) notes that “Only 1 in 4 study participants who reported needing medical treatment as a result of maltreatment also had a court record of such abuse or neglect.” Putnam-Hornstein et al. (2015) go on to indicate that “Available data suggest that the rates of child maltreatment in the United States may be 2 to 3 times higher than the number of identified victims in any given year.” Indeed, these are conservative estimates and often these don’t include measures of emotional and psychological victimization, or neglect, which if included would send the numbers skyrocketing. Annerbäck et al. (2012) note that when definitions of abuse are liberal, just about everybody on the planet becomes a victim of abuse at some point, a fact which most can anecdotally confirm simply by examining their family life, school, and work life. This is not a revelation that should be taken lightly since even single instances of emotional violence perpetrated by trusted adult figures can have long term debilitating consequences. My own daughter suffered a single instance of emotional trauma at the hands of a speech pathologist when she was four and this even undermined her self-esteem and contributed to debilitating performance anxiety, both of which threatened not only her school performance, but her mental an emotional wellbeing as well. As a family we have struggled for over a decade to undo the damage done by a single individual, in a single “therapeutic” session.

And note, we need to take this seriously not just because of the personal and familial damage it causes, but because of the cost involved. Toxic socialization that leads to physical, psychological, and emotional debility and dysfunction costs society huge money. In terms of lost productivity, it costs governments in higher than necessary medical costs, and it costs society in lost creativity. For the United States alone the estimates are dramatic. As Fang et al. (2012) note:

The estimated average lifetime cost per victim of nonfatal child maltreatment is $210,012 in 2010 dollars, including $32,648 in childhood health care costs; $10,530 in adult medical costs; $144,360 in productivity losses; $7,728 in child welfare costs; $6,747 in criminal justice costs; and $7,999 in special education costs. The estimated average lifetime cost per death is $1,272,900, including $14,100 in medical costs and $1,258,800 in productivity losses. The total lifetime economic burden resulting from new cases of fatal and nonfatal child maltreatment in the United States in 2008 is approximately $124 billion. In sensitivity analysis, the total burden is estimated to be as large as $585 billion.

Of course, there is a problem with liberal definitions of toxicity. Liberal definitions make research difficult. How do you do grouped statistical analysis, for example, when you have one group, the abused. Narrow definitions however do not reflect the seriousness of the issue since even “moderately” toxic environments lead to long term damage and debility, but resistance to more liberal definitions can be anticipated. Open definitions are politically and economically explosive. For example, when one provides a liberal definition, even the experience of poverty may be included as abuse. Liberal definitions of toxicity are also personally damming, and so sociologists may be reluctant to talk about it, or they may even actively work to suppress it, as psychoanalysts did with Freud (Masson, 2003). As Masson notes, Freud originally argued that females were being sexually abused at very high rates in his button down Viennese society. This original revelation fits with what we now know to be the truth about childhood sexual assault. However, this revelation likely made his colleagues (some of whom, given the high rates of sexual assault, must have been involved in the crime) uncomfortable. As a result of professional resistance, and perhaps to preserve his career path, Freud eventually revised his theories to argue that children’s recollections of sexual abuse were oedipal and electoral fantasies and nothing more (Masson, 2003)! Thus the very core of psychoanalysis is corrupt! In order to avoid the type of unprofessional suppression that damaged the very core of psychoanalyses, we should avoid personal and professional judgment, and we shouldn’t shy away from the truth. I myself will admit that I, perpetuating patterns of violence that I experienced in my own childhood, was horribly abusive to my first child. The ugly truth is, most (if not all) of us have been abused, and we’ve all gone on to be abusers. Those that have escaped the cycle have done so by acts of will and healing, but there escape does not obviate the desperate need to focus sociological attention on this issue.

What does this mean for Sociology?

To some, it might seem odd to be discussing a toxic and violent socialization process, but it shouldn’t be. Sociology has a long, if somewhat subterranean, engagement with violence. One of the founding fathers, Karl Marx, is infamous for inciting global revolution (Marx and Engels, 2008). While modern sociology does not actively promote violence, neither does it have anything to say against it. Women's studies of course has a lot to say about the deleterious effect of violence, so we know that discussing the deleterious impact of toxic socialization is important; but their focus is exclusively on male perpetrated violence against women. Feminists have little to say about female perpetrated violence (Graham-Kevan, 2007, Straus, 2010, Straus, 2007), which does occur at significant rates. Given the precedent set by feminists and given growing research detailing the the personal, social, and medical costs of violence, it is something that sociologists should be talking about.

Introducing the concept of toxic socialization in this paper is an attempt to get sociologists focusing on and talking about toxic socialization experiences and their impact on health, well being, identity, and even human potential. To recall, toxic socialization is a damaging socialization process characterized by violence, neglect, stress. Toxic socialization has deleterious personal, social, political, and economic impacts all of which that we, as sociologists, have not even begun to analyze and discover.


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