Defining Emotional Abuse


emotional abuse

Different researchers tend to define emotional abuse, or, as it is referred to in the USA, ‘psychological maltreatment’ in different ways. The difficulties with precise definition arise from the fact that several variables need to be considered – including philosophical, scientific, cultural, political and legal factors (Hart et al., 2002).

For example, some researchers differentiate between emotional ABUSE and emotional NEGLECT. Also, whilst some researchers focus upon the ACTIONS OF THE PERPETRATOR  (it should be pointed out that ‘actions’ in this context refer to both acts of COMMISSION and acts of OMMISSION – or, to put it another way, both upon what the perpetrator does and FAILS TO DO), others focus more upon THE EFFECTS UPON THE CHILD. A third complicating factor is that there is often a significant delay between the abuse itself and the disturbed behaviour which results from that abuse.

In the USA, emotional abuse (or ‘psychological maltreatment’) is most frequently, formally defined in the following way :

A repeated pattern of caregiver behaviour or extreme incidents that convey to the children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered or only of value in meeting the needs of another. It includes :

   – spurning

   – terrorizing

   – isolating

   – exploiting/corrupting

   – denying emotional responsiveness

   – neglecting mental health, medical needs and education

The above is the definition is from The American Professional Society on Abuse of Children (APSAC), 1995

Let’s look at what is meant by each of the six items on the above list.

1) SPURNING – this may be verbal or non-verbal and includes belittling, shaming or ridiculing the child, generally degrading him/her or rejecting/abandoning him/her

2) TERRORIZING – this includes placing the child in danger, threatening him/her or generally creating a climate of fear

3) ISOLATING – this can involve placing severe restrictions on the child, preventing developmentally appropriate social interaction and/or separating the child from the rest of the family.

4) EXPLOITING/CORRUPTING – this includes encouraging the child to develop in inappropriate and/or antisocial behaviours and values, such as stealing, abusing others physically or verbally, breaking into houses etc.

5) DENYING EMOTIONAL RESPONSIVENESS – this involves being emotionally unavailable, ignoring the child, failing to express affection, and becoming distant physically and emotionally

6) NEGLECTING MENTAL HEALTH, MEDICAL NEEDS AND EDUCATION – this involves failing to provide and attend to the psychological, medical, cognitive and mental needs of the child.

(1-6 above from Dorosa Iwaniec, 2006)

I hope you have found this post useful. I will continue to look at emotional abuse in later posts.

Best wishes, David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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