Understanding Emotional Abuse
Emotional Abuse vs Physical Abuse
While physical abuse is terrible, emotional abuse may, in some ways, be even more heinous. In fact, many people feel that emotional abuse is worse. With physical abuse, the victim is validated. The scars and bruises are visible. There is tangible evidence that abuse has occurred. However, emotional abuse is not so easily detected. There are no scars, no bruises. There is only a barrage of emotional pain that tears down the child, wrecking his or her psychological well being. Much of the time, the victim of emotional abuse feels that they are to blame, that they somehow caused the abuse. They may even feel that they are “crazy” or that they are in error by feeling that they are being abused. The abuser often contributes to this twisted way of thinking, actually convincing the victim that they “made” the abuser hurt them or that if only they were better, smarter, prettier, whatever, they would not be hurt. The scars run deep, but they are not so easily seen.
Emotional Child Abuse
Being yelled at is often only the tip of the iceberg for a child who is consistently emotionally abused. As children internalize emotionally what is done to them, their social development is at risk. Their emotional as well as physical health may be affected. There are many forms of emotional abuse and all can be equally detrimental to a child. Even when physical abuse is a factor, the underlying problems will lie in the emotional abuse a child suffers. When abuse of any kind comes from someone who is supposed to be a caregiver and a part of daily life, it steals from the core of the child as they feel defeated both mentally and physically. Emotional abuse is not always recognized, being written off as some sort of emotional disorder.
Rejecting – A child needs the acceptance and love of a parent or caregiver. Rejection is when the caregiver denies a child of this need. Instead, they make the child feel like they have no worth. Rejecting usually starts at a very young age, although it can begin later, usually if the caretaker has some unsettling change in his or her life. When babies are rejected, they almost always cannot function as adults. This was noted in untouched orphaned infants in the U.S.S.R. years ago. Many of these orphans later developed syndromes or brain damage that isolated them permanently. However, rejected children can sometimes overcome abuse by finding ways to soothe themselves, as no one has ever done it for them.
Ignoring – As a child grows, they require interaction. Children need it to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally. Depriving such stimulation by ignoring a child is abuse.
Terrorizing – Terrorizing is when a child is threatened or intimidated. These actions create fear and stress for a child. Constant terrorizing becomes an ongoing stressor and can devastate every part of life. This continual stress can cause their health to fails. Terrorized children often become susceptible to disease, mental issues, and anti-social behaviors. A child can also be terrorized when they witness violence.
Isolating – Taking a child out of normal experiences and isolating them often coincides with other forms of emotional abuse. Isolation takes away from the experience of childhood and the child does not learn how to build friendships. Preventing a child from normal social interaction often leads to social development issues.
Corrupting – If a caregiver is actively doing or selling drugs, stealing, or some other socially unacceptable act, one could expect that the child is learning the behavior. The child is being raised in an unhealthy environment and suffers because of it. Corruption is severe when parents openly teach such actions to there own child, perhaps even rewarding a child for their participation in activities that are illegal or harmful. Corrupted children often feel severely isolated, as they don’t see a healthy place for themselves in society.
Exploiting – Exploitation is a very severe type of emotional child abuse. Some examples include a child being blamed for the actions of others, sent out as a prostitute, used for sexual imagery, or being given unreasonable responsibilities and work. They are often the vilest of actions that could be perpetrated on a child and the effects can be a life-long psychological battle.
- Safe Child - Sections on observable, behavioral, and family or parental indicators.
- Dysfunctional Families - How to recognize dysfunction in the family and what one can do about it.
- Emotional Abuse: The Hidden Form of Maltreatment - This article is broken down into many categories that cover everything from the broad characteristics of the abuse to terminology and prevention.
- Teen’s Health - Article covers things like teen abusive relationships, having a healthy relationship and bullying.
- The Science of Drug Abuse - An article titled “Exploring the Role of Child Abuse in Later Drug Abuse”.
- Child Abuse Prevention - An Overview of Child Abuse and Neglect, includes a safety plan and resource links.
- Child Abuse and Maltreatment - A legal look at child abuse.
- Counseling Abused Children - A digest guide on how to care for those who have been abused.
- Girl’s Health - Examples of abuse and hotlines one can call when in trouble.
- Institute for Alcohol Abuse - An article titled “Alcohol Abuse as a Risk Factor for and the Consequence of Child Abuse”.
- This is Abuse - Frequently asked questions and discussion about how physical abuse usually starts with verbal and emotional abuse.
Know the Signs
While emotional abuse does not carry the bruises and scars that are hallmark indicators of typical abuse, there are ways to detect it. The indicators usually depend upon the age of the child, but one of the primary red flags is a child whose behavior is not consistent with his or her age. Some observable indicators of child emotional abuse include:
- Sucking (thumb, fingers, etc) or Biting His or Her Self
- Inappropriate Aggression
- Destructive to Other People or to Property
- Sleep Disorders
- Speech Disorders
- Restricts Play Activities or Experiences
- Excessive Anger
- Has Phobias
- Hysterical Outbursts
A child’s behavior can also be a strong indicator of abuse. Some telling behaviors include:
- Self Destructive
- Makes Negative Statements about Himself or Herself
- Overly Aggressive
- Shy or Passive
- Cruel to Animals
- Overly Demanding
- Overly Compliant
- Delay in Physical, Mental and Emotional Development
- Cruel to Others
Impacts of Emotional Abuse: Immediate and Long Term
The effects of emotional abuse can be devastating and difficult to reverse. The body mends, but when the mind, spirit or psychology is broken, it is a much longer and more difficult road to repair it. Emotional abuse impacts the child’s psychological, emotional, social and cognitive development. The effects may appear immediately and plague the child well into adulthood. Those effects can manifest in the child in some heartbreaking ways. Some common problems that may result from emotional abuse include:
- Social Withdrawal
- Alcohol Abuse
- Poor Self Esteem
- Lack of Confidence
- Destructive Behavior
- Anti Social Behavior
- Impaired Development of Basic Skills
- Defiant Behavior Particularly with Authority Figures
- Difficulty in Forming and Maintaining Relationships
- Unstable Job History
These effects may occur in varying degrees, ranging from mild to self destructive. Sometimes, placing the child in a loving, supportive environment can rebuild what the emotional abuse has torn down, but quite often, professional psychiatric care is necessary.
How you can Help
If a child comes to you and reports that they are being abused, proceed carefully so that you can best help the child.
Stay calm. Your first reaction may be to get angry. Don’t. Stay calm and try not to let your face register any shock, anger or disgust you may feel on the inside.
Avoid Denial. You may be tempted to deny what they child says, tell them that they must be mistaken. This is a big mistake. If you feel that you are going to deny what the child is telling you, just close your mouth and listen.
Be Reassuring. Give the child a safe place to speak, a place where they are not judges or criticized. Reassure them.
Do not Interrogate. Sit back and let the child talk. Stay away from leading questions or making statements about what happened. Just let them talk and you just listen.
Tell the Child that they did not do Anything Wrong. It is very difficult for a child to step up and tell someone that they have been abused. Let them know that you take what they said seriously and that it is not their fault.
Child Abuse Hotlines:
If you suspect a child is in immediate danger contact law enforcement as soon as possible.
To get help in the U.S., call:
1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) – Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
To get help for child sexual abuse, call:
1-888-PREVENT (1-888-773-8368) – Stop It Now
1-800-656-HOPE Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)