Warning Signs of Emotional Child Abuse

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Scars and bruises can be seen, but the wounds of emotional abuse are not always visible. Although an emotionally abused child might not end up in the hospital with a broken bone or a concussion, the effects of emotional abuse can be damaging and long-lasting.

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

This estimate is likely low because emotional abuse can be harder to detect than other forms of child abuse. Here's what you need to know about the consequences of emotional child abuse as well as the signs to look for.

How to Identify a Child Who Is Being Emotionally Abused

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

However, emotional abuse can be more difficult to identify because it typically takes place in the confines of a child’s home and there might not be any obvious, outward signs that abuse is taking place. Sometimes, a child's behavior indicates that there are problems at home.

Inappropriate behavior (either very immature or a little bit too mature for the child’s age) can be a sign of abuse, as can dramatic behavioral changes. For example, a child who used to be slightly aloof and did not seek attention might all of a sudden become clingy to non-abusive adults or compulsively seek affection from them.

Potential Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse

A child who is being emotionally abused may demonstrate behaviors that can be signs of abuse, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Attempts to avoid certain situations (such as going to an activity or another person’s house)
  • Declining performance at school
  • Delayed emotional development
  • Depression
  • Desire to hurt themselves or other people on purpose
  • Desperately seeks affection from other adults
  • Developmental regression (for example bedwetting or soiling after previously mastering bladder and bowel control)
  • 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 in any way 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 parent or caregiver who is abusing them because they are afraid of what will happen if they disclose the abuse.

An emotionally abused child might think that being called names or denied affection is a normal way of life. They might not tell anyone about the abuse because they do not realize that it is not "normal" family behavior.

Signs of a Perpetrator of Emotional Abuse

There are also signs in adult caregivers that might indicate they are 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.

If you believe a child is being emotionally abused, do not 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.

Examples of Emotional 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 that causes emotional deprivation.

Emotional abuse can occur in conjunction with physical or sexual abuse or neglect.

A caregiver who is emotionally abusive often uses words, but their actions can also be abusive—and sometimes, it's a lack of action that is abusive. When a parent or caregiver doesn't show a child love and does not make them feel wanted, secure, and worthy, it is emotional deprivation. They may also withhold physical affection or loving touch—both of which are essential to a child's emotional development.

Any adult in a child's life can be emotionally abusive and the abuse can take many forms. For example:

  • A babysitter constantly screams at the kids and makes threats.
  • A child is exposed to domestic violence at home.
  • A grandparent refuses to interact with the children when they visit and instead watches television.
  • A parent with alcohol use disorder gets angry when they drink, often yelling and screaming all night.
  • A step-parent says that they wish a child didn't exist.
  • A teacher makes fun of a child in front of the class when they struggle to read aloud.
  • After a divorce, a parent asks their children to lie to a judge about the other parent to ensure that they will gain full custody.

Consequences of Emotional Abuse and Deprivation

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

Four of the major long-term effects of emotional abuse and deprivation are:

  • 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 might also 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 has also been linked to delinquency and sexually aggressive behavior in young adults.
  • 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.
  • 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 and anxiety, which can persist into adulthood.  People with a history of emotional abuse are also at an increased risk of 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.

However, not everyone who has a history of emotional abuse experiences lifelong scars. The duration, severity, and age of onset of the abuse are influential factors.

Males who experienced abuse before the age of 12 are more likely to exhibit behavior problems than peers who were not abused. If the abuse started at a younger age, they are also more likely to be arrested or exhibit serious delinquency.

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 increased educational failure, crime, and the need for mental health services.

Some factors are protective, 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.

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 can include individual therapy, parenting classes, and social services.

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

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect that a child is being emotionally abused, report it to child protective services. A child who is might be experiencing abuse needs to be evaluated by social services.

If you are 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 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 wellness and your child's that you ask for help. Working with a therapist can be beneficial for you and your family.

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