What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

Bad behavior punishment

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Scars and bruises can be seen, but the wounds of emotional abuse can be long-lasting. Although an emotionally abused child might not end up in the hospital with a broken bone or a concussion, he’ll certainly feel the effects.

A 2008 study published in the journal Lancet, examined the prevalence of emotional abuse. A survey of adults living in the United States and the United Kingdom revealed that between 8 and 9 percent of women and 4 percent of men reported emotional abuse during childhood. There were even higher rates reported in Eastern Europe.

It’s unclear how many children continue to experience emotional abuse, as it’s likely underreported. Emotional abuse can be more difficult to detect than other types of child abuse.

Examples of Emotional Abuse

Emotional child abuse comes in several forms. It could involve insulting or belittling words or actions to the child, or it might be total indifference that results in emotional deprivation. Sometimes emotional abuse occurs in conjunction with physical or sexual abuse or neglect.

While emotional abuse often manifests through words, caregivers’ actions can also play a role. Emotional deprivation occurs when a parent or caregiver doesn’t show the child love or make her feel wanted, secure, or worthy. Often, they’ll withhold affection or touch, which are important parts of a child’s emotional development.

Emotional abuse can come from almost any adult. Here are some possible examples of emotional abuse:

  • A father has a drinking problem. He gets drunk every night and yells and makes threats.
  • A mother spends all of her time on the computer and doesn’t pay any attention to her young child.
  • A step-mother says she wishes the kids didn’t exist.
  • A teacher makes fun of a child because he struggles with reading.
  • A child is exposed to domestic violence in the home.
  • A babysitter constantly screams at the children.
  • Following a divorce, a father asks his children to lie to a judge about their mother so he can gain full custody of them.

How to Identify a Child Who Is Being Emotionally Abused

Mandated reporters have just as much of an obligation to report suspected emotional abuse as they do physical or sexual abuse or neglect—it should be taken just as seriously. Emotional abuse may be difficult to identify because it often takes place in the confines of a child’s home.

A child’s behavior can indicate if there’s a problem at home. Inappropriate behavior that is either very immature or a little bit too mature for the child’s behavior can indicate abuse, as well a dramatic behavioral change. For example, a child who was formerly slightly aloof or didn’t seek attention might all of a sudden become clingy to non-abusive adults or compulsively seek affection from them.

Here are some potential warning signs of emotional abuse:

  • Desperately seeks affection from other adults
  • Decline in school performance
  • Developmental regression (like bedwetting or soiling after previously mastering bladder and bowel control)
  • Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other somatic issues with no known cause
  • Loss of interest in social activities or other interests
  • Delayed emotional development
  • Depression
  • Attempts to avoid certain situations, such as going to an activity or another person’s house
  • Desire to hurt himself or other people on purpose
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem

Although you might assume a child who is being abused—in any form—wouldn’t feel an attachment to the parent; however, that’s not always the case. A child may be loyal to the parent (or to the caregiver who is abusing him) because she is afraid of what could happen if she discloses the abuse.

An emotionally abused child might also think that being called names or denied affection is a normal way of life so she may not tell anyone what is happening.

Signs of a Perpetrator of Emotional Abuse

You might also notice certain signs in the adult that’s perpetrating the abuse, such as that adult belittling the child in public, openly admitting their dislike or hate of a child, applying severe punishments, showing unrealistic expectations of the child and being emotionally indifferent.

Abusers may have a history of violence or aggression or they may experience substance abuse issues.

Don’t assume that it’s always a parent who’s emotionally abusing the child. Though they’re the most likely perpetrator if you suspect something is going on, any authority figure can be the culprit in the situation.

Consequences of Emotional Abuse and Deprivation

As with physical abuse, the consequences of emotional abuse or deprivation are severe and can often last into adulthood. Emotional abuse is likely to be interpreted by a child that she is unloved or unwanted or responsible for the abuse.

Potential effects include:

  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships. Emotional abuse can interfere with a child’s ability to form healthy attachments to adults. Attachment issues in early childhood have been linked to insecure attachments in adulthood. That may lead to a higher risk of poor peer relations, trouble with intimacy, difficulty with conflict resolution, and relational aggression.
  • Increased risk of mental health issues. Adolescents who experienced emotional abuse are more likely to have at least one mental illness. Depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses may last into adulthood. People with a history of emotional abuse are also more likely to attempt suicide.
  • Increased social problems. Emotional abuse has been linked to delinquency and aggression in adolescents.
  • Greater risk of repeating the cycle of abuse. Without appropriate intervention, children who were abused are more likely to abuse their own children when they grow up.

Not everyone who has a history of emotional abuse experiences lifelong scars, however. The duration, severity, and age of onset all play a role.

Boys who experience abuse prior to the age of 12 are more likely to exhibit behavior problems, for example. They are more likely to be arrested or exhibit serious delinquency if the abuse began at a younger age.

Having a positive relationship with an adult, however, can be a protective factor. A loving, nurturing parent, grandparent, or other individual, for example, can help buffer some of the negative effects of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse also strains society as a whole. It places a burden on the health and social care systems, and is costly in terms of the increased educational failure, crime, and need for mental health services.

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 may require treatment, especially if it’s a parent. Treatment may include individual therapy, parenting classes, or other services.

Victims of emotional abuse may benefit from talk therapy with a licensed mental health professional. In addition to processing the abuse, children who have been emotionally abused may benefit from learning new skills, such as healthy ways to cope with emotions and social skills that help them resolve conflict peacefully.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect that a child is subject to emotional abuse, report it to child protective services. An evaluation may be in order to assist a child who is being abused.

If you think your child is being emotionally abused by someone else—a teacher, a pastor, or coach for example—it’s important to intervene. Take steps to keep your child safe and seek professional help when necessary.

If you have emotionally abused your child, it's important to seek professional help for both you and your child. Talk to your doctor or contact a mental health professional.

If your partner emotionally abuses your child, it's important to seek help as well. If your partner isn't interested in help, get help for yourself and your child. If it's allowed to continue and it's left untreated, there may be lifelong consequences for your child.

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