Emotional abuse: overlooked and underexposed

Emotional abuse is probably the least understood of all child abuse. It can also be the cruelest and most destructive of all.

Often under reported due to the lack of physical evidence or indicators, emotional abuse is particularly harmful to a child’s well-being. Emotional abuse has a complex and changing definition, but is commonly defined as a pattern of maltreatment or exploitation by parents or caregivers that can seriously interfere with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological or social development. The effects of emotional abuse last a lifetime; therefore we must take this form of abuse much more seriously.

Emotional child abuse can come from adults such as teachers, coaches, parents or caregivers as well as from other children. This type of abuse leaves hidden scars that manifest themselves in numerous ways. Insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, delinquency (such as fire setting or cruelty to animals), withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, suicide and difficulty forming relationships can all be possible results of emotional abuse.

Types of emotional abuse


Actively refusing to respond to a child’s needs, telling them to "go away", calling him or her names, or telling a child that he or she is worthless - these are all ways that parents or caregivers make children feel unwanted. The same message is given when they do not talk to or hold the young child or if the child becomes the family scapegoat, being blamed for all the family’s problems.


Many times the parent is physically there, but emotionally unavailable. They may not express affection or even respond to the child’s presence. Some people are not naturally demonstrative, but parents and caregivers need to know how important it is for them to show attachment to their child and to provide nurturance and interest in them.


Parents or caregivers may single out one child to criticize, punish and bully which creates a climate of fear for the child. Threatening to take away or destroy a much loved blanket or stuffed animal is a very harsh thing to do an can seriously damage the child emotionally. Even more damaging is when the child is ridiculed for displaying normal emotions, or when rigid or unrealistic expectations are placed on the child followed by the threat of death, mutilation or abandonment if the child fails to meet the expectations.


Isolation is when parents or caregivers do not allow a child to engage in appropriate activities with their peers, family members or other adults; like when a baby is kept always in his or her crib, not exposed to stimulation or when teenagers are deliberately separated from any and all extracurricular and/or social activities. These are the situations that you hear about where a child is made to stay in his or her room from the time they get home from school until the next morning or made to eat meals alone and separate from the rest of the family or made to live in a closet. 


Parents or caregivers may teach, encourage or force a child to develop inappropriate or illegal behaviors. Often this includes committing self-destructive or other antisocial acts. Some examples include permitting children to use drugs or alcohol; to watch cruel behavior toward animals; to watch pornographic materials and adult sex acts; or to witness or participate in criminal activities such as stealing, assault, prostitution, or gambling.

Verbally assaulting

Parents or caregivers may verbally assault a child through consistent negative verbal communication. This can include belittling, shaming, ridiculing, threatening, and name calling.

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