What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

Bad behavior punishment

 istockphoto / Getty Images

What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

Emotional abuse, which is sometimes called psychological abuse, is a pattern of behavior that damages a child's sense of self-worth and negatively impacts their emotional development. In addition to withholding love and support, the person emotionally abusing the child also may reject, criticize, threaten, demean, and berate the child. They also may humiliate the child, engage in name-calling, and insult them.

Emotional abuse can occur in conjunction with physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect and is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize. Often, it is subtle and insidious, slowly chipping away at the child's self-esteem and sense of safety and belonging.

Like other forms of abuse, emotional child abuse is about power and control. The perpetrator manipulates and controls the child by using words and actions that are emotionally hurtful and damaging. Experiencing emotional abuse is linked with devastating lasting effects, including increased rates of disease and mental health disorders.

In 2017, 2.3% of children in the United States experienced psychological or emotional maltreatment, according to a report prepared by the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families.

Authorities can confirm cases of maltreatment (including emotional and other types of abuse) in 1 in 8 children, or 12.5%, during their lifetimes. However, many cases are never reported. Researchers estimate that 40% of children will ultimately experience childhood maltreatment.

Signs of Emotional Child Abuse

Emotional abuse can be harder to detect than other forms of child abuse. Typically, it takes place in the confines of a child’s home, often with no outside witnesses. There might not be any obvious, outward signs that abuse is taking place (as there would be with physical abuse). Sometimes, a child's behavior is the only thing that indicates that there is a problem.

Developmentally inappropriate behavior, such as acting very immature or too mature for their age, can be a sign of abuse, as can dramatic behavioral changes. For example, a child who used to be self-assured and did not seek extra attention might suddenly become clingy to non-abusive adults. Additionally, a child might start acting out or having trouble socially or academically.

Identifying Emotional Abuse

Behaviors that can be signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Anxiety, depression, and/or avoidance
  • Declining performance at school
  • Delayed emotional development
  • Desire to hurt themselves or other people
  • Desperately seeking affection from other adults
  • Developmental regression (for example, bedwetting)
  • Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other somatic symptoms with no known cause
  • Loss of interest in social activities or other interests
  • Low self-esteem

You might assume that a child being abused wouldn't be attached to the adult caregiver who is abusing them—but this is not always the case. Children often remain loyal to the person who is abusing them. Parent-child relationships are complex and children typically want the approval and love of their parents, even if their caretaker is abusive. Plus, they may be afraid of what will happen if they disclose the abuse.

An emotionally abused child also might think that being called names, heavily criticized, or denied affection is a normal way of life. They might not tell anyone about the abuse because they believe their experiences represent normal family behavior. Additionally, they may be embarrassed or think it is their fault.

Traits of Perpetrators

While perpetrators of emotional abuse can be hard to identify, there are potential signs that may indicate an adult is abusing a child. Belittling the child in public, openly admitting to disliking or hating the child, applying severe punishments, having unrealistic expectations, and being emotionally distant or indifferent are emotionally abusive behaviors. Some people who abuse children have a history of violence and aggression or have substance use disorders.

However, if you believe a child is being emotionally abused, don't automatically assume that the abuse is being perpetrated by the child's parents. While a child is more likely to be abused by a caregiver or family member, any authority figure can be abusive. For instance, a coach, a daycare worker, teacher, pastor, or even an older sibling could be abusing the child. Also, there could be other causes of a child's changes in behavior.

Types of Emotional Child Abuse

Emotional child abuse can take several forms. At one end of the spectrum are insults or belittling words or actions, while the other end can be total indifference and neglect. A caregiver who is emotionally abusive often uses words, but their actions also can be abusive—and sometimes, it's a lack of action that is abusive.

When a parent or caregiver doesn't show a child love or make them feel wanted, secure, and worthy, these actions result in emotional deprivation. People who are abusive also may withhold physical affection or loving touch, both of which are essential to a child's emotional development and feeling of security and belonging.

Any person in a child's life can be emotionally abusive and the abuse can take many forms. Examples of emotional abuse include a babysitter who constantly screams at the kids and makes threats, exposure to domestic violence at home, a step-parent who says that they wish a child didn't exist, a teacher who makes fun of a child in front of the class, or a parent with alcohol use disorder who gets angry when they drink.

Risk Factors for Emotional Abuse

Experiencing emotional abuse as a child increases the risk that a person may engage in emotional abuse of a child. Other risk factors include social isolation or separation from extended family, having a physical or mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, using drugs or alcohol, or dealing with financial stress, unemployment, or poverty.

Other risk factors may include a family crisis or family stress such as being victimized by domestic abuse or having marital conflicts; feeling jealousy, anger, or resentment toward the child or childcare responsibilities; lacking parenting skills or an understanding of child development; or raising a child who is developmentally or physically disabled.

Of course, not all people in these situations are emotionally abusive. And children do not cause another person to be emotionally abusive. Engaging in the emotional abuse of a child is a choice—intentional or not—that the perpetrator makes. While these risk factors may increase the likelihood that abuse might occur, the person being emotionally abusive still has agency and can learn to make better, less damaging choices.

Impact of Emotional Abuse

Experts use a rating scale called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) to categorize and measure the impact of child abuse and other traumas. In this system, a higher score means more exposure to abuse and trauma. Research shows that a higher ACE score is linked with a greater risk of adverse physical and mental health impacts and behavioral issues later in life.

The consequences of child abuse in any form can be severe and often persist well into adulthood. A child often believes that they are responsible for the abuse and that it means they are unloved, unlovable, and unwanted.

Attachment Issues

Emotional abuse can interfere with a child’s ability to form and maintain healthy attachments. Attachment issues in early childhood have been linked to insecure attachments in adulthood. Children also might be at an increased risk for poor peer relations, trouble with intimacy, difficulty with conflict resolution, and relational aggression.

Behavioral and Social Problems

Emotional abuse in childhood also has been linked to delinquency and sexually aggressive behavior in young adults. Problems at school and with peers are also more common in these children.

Repeating the Cycle of Abuse

Without appropriate intervention, people who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their kids than people who did not experience abuse. Stopping the abuse and helping the child cope and process the trauma they experienced can reduce the likelihood of the cycle of abuse continuing to the next generation.

Suicide and Mental Illness

Teens who experienced emotional abuse as children are more likely to be diagnosed with at least one mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, which can persist into adulthood. People with a history of emotional abuse are also at an increased risk of self-harm, including attempting suicide.

If you or a child are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Societal Harm

Emotional abuse doesn't just have a negative effect on individuals and families; it also strains society as a whole. The consequences of abuse burden the health and social care systems, and is costly because of increased educational failure, crime, and the need for mental health services.

Not everyone who has a history of emotional abuse experiences lifelong scars, though. The duration, severity, and age of onset of the abuse as well as the personal coping skills and resources of support available to the child are influential factors. For example, having other supportive adults in their lives also can offset the impact.

What to Do

Mandated reporters are people who encounter children through their occupation, including child daycare providers, educators, legal and law enforcement personnel, and medical personnel. These reporters have an obligation to report suspected emotional abuse just as they do physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect.

Even if you are not a mandated reporter and you suspect that a child is being emotionally abused, report it to child protective services. A child who might be experiencing abuse needs to be evaluated by social services to ensure they are being treated appropriately.

If you're a parent and think your child is being emotionally abused by someone else—such as a teacher, a pastor, or coach—take steps to intervene. You might need to enlist professional help, such as from the person's boss, social services, and/or police, to keep your child safe.

If you have emotionally abused your child, or if a partner is emotionally abusive, it's important for both your mental health and your child's that you ask for help. Working with a therapist can be beneficial for you and your family.

Treatment for Emotional Abuse

If a child is being emotionally abused, the first course of action is to ensure the child’s safety. Then, appropriate treatment can begin. The perpetrator might require treatment—especially if it’s a parent. Examples of treatment for a perpetrator include individual therapy, parenting classes, and social services.

Those who have experienced emotional abuse often benefit from therapy with a licensed mental health professional. Once they have processed what they went through emotionally, they can begin the healing process and learn healthy coping mechanisms, social skills, and conflict resolution.

Coping With Emotional Abuse

Although coping with the effects of emotional abuse can take some time, there are some factors that can have a protective effect, such as having a positive relationship with another adult. For example, a nurturing parent, grandparent, or the support of a teacher or coach can buffer some of the negative effects of emotional abuse.

If you have a relationship with a child who has experienced abuse, you can help them cope by being a supportive and caring adult in their lives.

Be a consistent, loving presence in their lives by spending time with them, encouraging them, and reminding them of their value and worth. Help them see that they are not defined by the words and actions of the person abusing them. Instead, empower them to see their strengths and to set goals for the future.

A Word From Verywell

If you know a child who is being emotionally abused, or you suspect emotional abuse, it's important to let someone know your concerns. Reporting suspected abuse prompts an investigation followed by interventions, if needed.

In the meantime, do what you can to be an encouraging and supportive person in that child's life. Some of the damage caused by emotional abuse can be offset by the kind and empowering actions of others. Let the child know you love them and believe in them. If they learn to identify what they are good at and set goals, they can learn to offset the negative words and actions of others.

Was this page helpful?
17 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms.

  2. Lippard ETC, Nemeroff CB. The devastating clinical consequences of child abuse and neglect: Increased disease vulnerability and poor treatment response in mood disordersAm J Psychiatry. 2020;177(1):20-36. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2019.19010020

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child maltreatment 2017.

  4. Austin AE, Lesak AM, Shanahan ME. Risk and protective factors for child maltreatment: A reviewCurr Epidemiol Rep. 2020;7(4):334-342. doi:10.1007/s40471-020-00252-3

  5. Riggs SA. Childhood emotional abuse and the attachment system across the life cycle: what theory and research tell us. J Aggress Maltreat Trauma. 2010;19(1):5-51. doi:10.1080/10926770903475968

  6. Chen E, Brody GH, Miller GE. Childhood close family relationships and healthAm Psychol. 2017;72(6):555-566. doi:10.1037/amp0000067

  7. Shin SH, Lee S, Jeon SM, Wills TA. Childhood emotional abuse, negative emotion-driven impulsivity, and alcohol use in young adulthoodChild Abuse Negl. 2015;50:94-103. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.02.010

  8. Zeanah CH, Humphreys KL. Child abuse and neglectJ Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2018;57(9):637-644. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.06.007

  9. Lai YH, Carr S. A critical exploration of child-parent attachment as a contextual constructBehav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(12):112. doi:10.3390/bs8120112

  10. Prevent Child Abuse America. Long term effects of child abuse and neglect.

  11. Stork BR, Akselberg NJ, Qin Y, Miller DC. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and community physicians: What we've learnedPerm J. 2020;24:19.099. doi:10.7812/TPP/19.099

  12. Kerns KA, Brumariu LE. Is insecure parent-child attachment a risk factor for the development of anxiety in childhood or adolescence?Child Dev Perspect. 2014;8(1):12-17. doi:10.1111/cdep.12054

  13. Zurbriggen EL, Gobin RL, Freyd JJ. Childhood emotional abuse predicts late adolescent sexual aggression, perpetration and victimization. J Aggress Maltreat Trauma. 2010;19(2):204-223. doi:10.1080/10926770903539631

  14. Taillieu TL, Brownridge DA, Sareen J, Afifi TO. Childhood emotional maltreatment and mental disorders: Results from a nationally representative adult sample from the United States. Child Abuse Negl. 2016;59:1-12. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.07.005

  15. Angelakis I, Gillespie EL, Panagioti M. Childhood maltreatment and adult suicidality: a comprehensive systematic review with meta-analysis. Psychol Med. 2019;49(7):1057-1078. doi:10.1017/S0033291718003823

  16. McTavish JR, Kimber M, Devries K, et al. Mandated reporters' experiences with reporting child maltreatment: a meta-synthesis of qualitative studiesBMJ Open. 2017;7(10):e013942. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-013942

  17. Kumari V. Emotional abuse and neglect: time to focus on prevention and mental health consequencesBr J Psychiatry. 2020;217(5):597-599. doi:10.1192/bjp.2020.154

Additional Reading