Emotional Abuse

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse constitutes approximately 8% of child abuse reports. So how would you define this term? How do you know if you, or someone you love, is being emotionally abused?

Emotional abuse can be interpreted as the systematic tearing down of another human being. It encompasses several categories, as follows:

  • Rejecting: Blatantly telling a child that he or she is unwanted, unloved, and/or unimportant. It is the act of discrediting the child as a human being and degrading him or her with looks, words, or actions.
  • Ignoring: Lack of acknowledgement of the child’s presence, pretending he or she is not even there. Typically, when parents ignore their children, it is because their emotional needs were not met when they were young; in turn, they will oftentimes deprive their own children of attachment.
  • Corrupting: Allowing children to harm themselves and others. This includes permission to use drugs and alcohol, watch pornography, or witness violence and other equally destructive behaviors. This can also be exposing a child to dangerous or inappropriate environments.
  • Terrorizing: Singling a child out to punish, defame, and criticize. The child may be threatened or disciplined harshly. They may have unreasonable demands placed upon them and their self-worth is attacked.
  • Isolating: Severe restriction from healthy activities and/or people. A parent may lock a child in the closet, not allow them to leave their room, or, as would be the case more with a teenager than a younger child, prevent the child from having extracurricular activities. (1)
  • Verbally assaulting: This involves constantly belittling, shaming, ridiculing, or verbally threatening the child (2).
  • Denying: When the abuser has said or done something to wrong the child, and when confronted about this, he lies and says, “I never said that,” or “I never did that.” This makes it extremely difficult for a child who is aware of the abusive situation to bring things to light or to let someone else know. Another form of denying is when the parent refuses to listen to any other opinions or viewpoints. It is what some call a “closed door.”
  • Minimizing: A lesser form of denial, in which the abuser will not wholly disclaim their wrongful actions, but will downplay their fault in the situation. The abuser will discredit the emotions of the child, considering them to be inappropriate (3).

Why does this happen?

Emotional abuse is not limited to any particular stereotypical family or parental figure. It can happen in any environment, regardless of income or ethnicity. Oftentimes, however, an emotional abuser was abused himself, physically, sexually, or emotionally, when he was a child as well, and therefore treats his child in the same ways.

Parents who emotionally abuse their children may be doing this because of stress, poor parenting skills, social isolation, lack of available resources, or inappropriate expectations of their children (2). However, contrary to the victim’s belief, it is never their own fault. An emotional abuser will try to make the child believe that he or she is the problem, when in reality the problem lies inside of himself. Children seem to be the most accessible way to rid adults of their own feelings of unease. They either don’t realize, or don’t care about the way they are severely destroying their child’s cognitive development.

How can we tell?

Although an emotionally abused child is not physically displaying signs of their mistreatment, there are many indicators of this form of abuse. First, there are observable symptoms, in which you can see by the child’s appearance that there is something wrong. These are as follows:

  • Child rocks, sucks, bites self
  • Inappropriately aggressive
  • Destructive to others
  • Suffers from sleep or speech disorders
  • Demonstrates compulsions, obsessions, and phobias (3)

Next, behavioral indicators of emotional abuse show through in how a child acts out their pain:

  • Negative statements about self
  • Shy, passive, compliant
  • Lags in physical, mental and emotional development
  • Self destructive behavior
  • Cruel to others
  • Overly demanding (3)

Drug and alcohol abuse is common in emotionally abused individuals. This form of acting out sometimes starts in the very young years, sometimes even before the age of 12. Teenagers have a hard time keeping jobs, and some may also develop suicidal tendencies.

Emotional abuse is a difficult trial for anyone, but especially for children, whose psychological development depends a lot on environment and on adults whom they can trust. An emotional abuser is not someone who the child can rely on and they learn to develop a sense of distrust with everyone around them, which makes it even harder for anyone to intervene and offer help. But, like any other form of abuse, it is possible to mediate, and needs to be addressed. While the damage cannot be reversed, there are professionals who can help children, as well as adults, to work through these issues.

Emotional Abuse Sources:

  1. preventchildabuse.com
  2. americanhumane.org
  3. studentaffairs.cmu.edu/
  4. safechild.org