6 Types Of Child Emotional Abuse And Why It’s So Harmful

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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 OMISSION – 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)

Why Is Emotional Abuse So Harmful?

Research shows that emotional abuse is just as damaging as physical or sexual abuse (although it is only relatively recently that this has been acknowledged). In this article, I want to look at some of the reasons that its effects can be so devastating.

Emotional abuse not only negatively affects the child at the time it is going on (by lowering his/her self-esteem and causing him/her to live in a constant state of uncertainty and fear, for example), but, if there is no therapeutic intervention, leads to a deeply unhappy adulthood as well.

When a person has grown up in an environment which is emotionally abusive, his/her adult experiences will be viewed through the negative filter which was laid down during his/her childhood. This, in turn, is likely to lead to maladaptive (unhelpful) behaviours in adult life which may well jeopardize his/her career prospects, relationships and physical health, for example.


If as a child, you lived in an emotionally unstable environment, as I did with my mother until I was thirteen (when I was made to leave to go and live with my father and step-mother) you may, as I did, have felt that you were robbed of security and value.

As children, we desperately needed consistency and the knowledge that we were unconditionally accepted and valued by those who were supposed to deeply care for us. But, because an emotionally unstable environment is one which is devoid of consistency, children brought up in such a home never learn what to expect (their parent’/carers’ behaviour can wildly fluctuate in unpredictable ways) they are never able to feel the environment is under control – they never know what might happen next or what lies ahead; there is constant uncertainty and fear about how they will be treated. Anything seems possible. There exists in such children a permanent state of nervous anticipation, if not outright terror.

If there seem to be no boundaries on the parents’/carers’ behaviour, fear is the result. There is never a sense of safety. There is never a sense of security. The child can never relax. At any moment, unprovoked can come verbal or physical violence. There develops a never-ending sense of dread, there is always the question of how far the abuse might go. There is never a truly safe moment.


– a necessity to be in a state of constant hypervigilance; this will often lead to acute sensitivity and easily triggered hostility (attack, in this case, is a form of defence)

– if, as children, we are constantly told we are in the wrong, this can lead to procrastination, indecision and inaction (we become constantly concerned anything we try will turn to disaster)

– if we are constantly provoked, we may start reacting with outbursts of rage

– being constantly treated in an unfair way can lead us to become obsessed with getting justice

– the constant psychological strain can lead to a state of emotional exhaustion – this can easily result in apathy and depression (including losing motivation and an inability to derive any pleasure from activities or social interactions)

– intense anger reactions following even minor provocations/outbursts of extreme rage easily triggered

– recurring feelings that life is not worth living given the intense emotional pain it entails

– feelings of being incapable of dealing with life’s relentless demands

– frequent and intense feelings of wanting to escape responsibilities

– regard other people’s opinions us far more important than our own (although may not show this on the surface; indeed, outward behaviour may suggest to others that the opposite view is held))

– an intense desire to win the approval and admiration of others

– automatically self-blame when things go wrong

inability to control own emotions

– highly sensitive to others’ emotions

– fear of never being capable of living up to others’ expectations

– highly indecisive

– deep fear regarding what the future may hold / a constant sense of imminent doom / always expecting the worst possible outcome

– an inability to tolerate own failings and weaknesses

– deep fear of taking risks that most people would regard as worth taking, resulting in not progressing at work, not daring to even attempt to form relationships etc.

– feel undeserving if good things happen  /feel guilty about indulging in pleasurable activities as believe we ‘don’t deserve them’

– when good things do happen, a feeling of suspicion emerges (e.g. ‘this is surely too good to be true  /too good to last). For example, I used to think that if I won the lottery, it was overwhelmingly probable that I’d drop dead of a heart attack within a month (maximum!) of receiving my financial windfall.

– difficulty keeping a job (often, this may be due to problems interacting with authority figures / extreme difficulty accepting criticism)

– fear of taking a challenging job due to intense concerns about failing at it, thus not fulfilling vocational potential (linked to fear of risk-taking, see above)

– derive comfort / ameliorate emotional pain from such things as cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, frequent casual sex etc. (in its intense form, such behaviour is referred to by psychologists as ‘dissociating‘ Also, a belief that it would be impossible to give up such activities as this would render life utterly intolerable

– indulgence in hedonistic behaviour as a way of compensating self for childhood suffering

– fear that, in a relationship, will be taken advantage of and exploited

– incomprehension regarding what others could possibly see in us, and, therefore, holding a kind of, ‘I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member’ (Groucho Marx) attitude – only applied to relationships (as expressed by Woody Allen in the opening sequence of his film  Annie Hall).

– prepared to tolerate being abused in a relationship due to a feeling of ‘deserving no better’

– feel a desperate need to be in a relationship with another person in order to feel ‘validated’ as an individual; this is linked to a poor sense of identity which may also result from having suffered childhood emotional abuse.

– a feeling of having to hide ‘true self’ from others, as this ‘true self’ is ‘utterly unlovable.’

– a feeling of constant physical malaise, but, also, a lack of motivation to do anything about it (e.g. taking more exercise, stopping smoking, eating more healthily etc.)

– constant feelings of anxiety and/or frequent feelings of intense panic, perhaps including hypochondria

– a deep sense that there must be something profoundly and irredeemably wrong with us

— being perpetually criticized can lead to feelings of insecurity, shame and guilt

The worse one’s experience of childhood emotional abuse was, the more of the above symptoms one is likely to have, and the more intense such symptoms are likely to be (all else being equal).

Therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) can significantly ameliorate such problems.

Emotional Abuse And The Law :

In the UK, it is likely emotional abusers may be prosecuted under domestic violence laws, if, for example, the abuse involves THREATENING BEHAVIOR ;

However, in the UK, the government is considering introducing a new law which will make EMOTIONAL CRUELTY TO CHILDREN an offence. Such cruelty includes :

‘Controlling And Coercive’ Behaviour :

Furthermore, the UK government has also introduced a law that makes ‘controlling and coercive‘ behaviour an offence in the family environment. ‘Controlling and coercive’ behaviour includes :

  • isolating an individual from friends and family
  • repeatedly invalidating the individual e.g. telling him/her that s/he is ‘worthless’
  • humiliating, degrading and/or dehumanizing the individual

This law applies when the individual being victimized suffers such treatment ‘repeatedly or continuously’ although there is no set number of incidents of the types described that must occur – each case is assessed by the courts according to its individual merits. The mistreatment must also have a ‘serious effect’ upon the individual and must either make him/her fear that violence will be used against him/her or have caused him/her ‘serious alarm and/or distress.’

However, like many areas of law, this can, potentially, be a confused and hazy area. For this reason, I would like to add the disclaimer that legal advice should be sought before taking any action, and, also, it is recommended in the strongest terms that someone who could be dangerous is NOT  directly confronted on the issues.

eBook :


Above eBook now available for immediate download from Amazon. Click here for further information.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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