One of the most difficult forms of abuse to detect is emotional, or psychological, abuse. This harmful behavioral pattern can have significant, far-reaching impacts on children that extend into adulthood. Oftentimes, it occurs in tandem with sexual or physical abuse. In 36% of reported child abuse cases in the US, emotional abuse was also an identified factor.
How Often Does Emotional Abuse Happen?
According to a report published by the Administration on Children, Youth & Families, 2.3% of children in the US experienced emotional abuse in a given year; however, there is a high likelihood that these numbers are low due to the nature of such abuse being difficult to detect and prove.
In Idaho, there are over 23,000 reports of suspected child abuse each year, with one in four cases of domestic violence happening in front of a child, and slightly over 4 out of every 100 children being victims of abuse.
Why Emotional Abuse is Underreported
When it comes to detecting emotional abuse, it is not always as blatant or obvious as physical or sexual abuse, and there are no major signs other than significant behavioral changes. Emotional abuse can be gradual and subtle—slowly breaking down the self-esteem and self-worth of the child.
Many children do not report emotional abuse because of fear of what may happen, or because they do not realize it is abuse vs. normal behavior. Most forms of emotional abuse are rooted in power and control. The perpetrator uses manipulation to control the child with words and actions (or lack thereof); carefully directed to elicit emotional damage and distress.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse can come from a parent, teacher, school faculty member, pastor, coach, daycare employee, babysitter, relative, stepparent, boyfriend/girlfriend of a parent, family friend, older sibling, peer, etc.
Emotional abuse can take the form of insults or belittling, or it can look like complete indifference and emotional deprivation. There are a variety of circumstances during which emotional abuse can occur.
Emotional abuse could be a child who’s exposed to domestic violence or a caregiver constantly yelling and making threats. A guardian with substance abuse issues may get angry and verbally lash out, or a coach could berate a child for missing a shot. It could also be a parent who places unrealistic expectations on their child or applies harsh punishments disproportionate to the crime. It could even be leaning on a child for emotional support or asking them to lie in court.
Signs a Parent or Guardian is Emotionally Abusing a Child
Some signs of emotional abuse include:
- Intent to deliberately scare, humiliate, isolate, or ignore a child
- Making a child the brunt of jokes, or using sarcasm
- Blaming/scapegoating, gaslighting
- Making a child perform degrading acts
- Not recognizing a child’s own individuality or trying to control the child
- Pushing too hard, not recognizing a child’s limitations
- Failing to support or allow for a child’s social development, not allowing them to have friends, etc.
- Being absent
- Manipulating the child
- Withholding kind words or expressions of positive feelings, or congratulating successes, being proud of the child, etc.
- Never showing emotion when interacting with the child, not holding or hugging the child affectionately, etc.
Signs a Child May Be Being Emotionally Abused
While emotional abuse can be difficult to detect, there are some signs that may indicate it is happening. Other forms of abuse such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect also cause emotional damage. Warning signs of emotional abuse to look for in kids and teens include:
- Anxiety in kids and teens; irrational worries, feelings of impending doom
- Avoiding certain people, places, or situations
- Depression; changes in eating/sleeping, persistent sadness, self-doubt, social withdrawal, emotional dysregulation, etc.
- A sudden drop in school performance
- Significant behavioral changes
- Clinginess or attention-seeking behavior toward adults (could be toward the abuser or toward non-abusive adults)
- Delayed emotional development
- Age-inappropriate behavior
- A desire to hurt oneself or others
- Negative, self-deprecating talk; calling oneself “stupid,” etc.
- Fear of a guardian or other adults
- Regressing into an earlier developmental state
- Chronic headaches, stomachaches, etc. not medically rooted—somatic in nature
- Low self-esteem
- Loss of interest in things once enjoyed not due to development
- The onset of speech changes unrelated to development or social influence
- Social changes, no longer talking to former friends, hanging out with older kids or a different crowd, etc.
Risk Factors of Emotional Abuse
The following factors can increase the likelihood of emotional abuse. These factors do not warrant emotional abuse or determine that emotional abuse is going to happen, but that the risk of it is greater. These include:
- Experiencing abuse as a child
- Physical or mental illness
- Financial stress, poverty, unemployment, etc.
- Social isolation or separation from extended family
- Divorce/marital discord
- Raising a developmentally or physically disabled child
- Alcohol or drug use
- Lack of parenting skills or understanding of child development
- Domestic abuse or a family crisis
- Desiring to control a child
- Anger or resentment toward a child or one’s childcare responsibilities
- Jealousy toward a child
Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse
The effects of emotional abuse can be severe and persist into adulthood. A Purdue study found that adults who experienced emotional or physical abuse as children had a higher risk for developing cancer. They also have a higher risk of using alcohol or drugs. Oftentimes, a child will feel responsible for the abuse and interpret it as a result of being unlovable, unwanted, flawed, etc.
The five major long-term effects of emotional abuse include attachment issues, behavioral or social difficulties, emotional development, repeating the cycle of abuse, and mental illness/suicide.
When a child suffers from an attachment injury, he or she will find it difficult to form attachments or secure bonds with others both as a kid and later on in life as an adult. This also puts them at a higher risk for conflict and poor communication with peers, aggression in their relationships, difficulties with intimacy, and trouble resolving conflict.
Behavioral and Social Difficulties
Such struggles can lead to delinquency and sexually aggressive behaviors in young adults. It can also be a struggle to form and maintain friendships and romantic and business relationships.
A child who has been emotionally abused will oftentimes find it difficult to feel, express, and control his/her emotions. They may lack confidence or have anger problems, and find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
Repeating the Cycle of Abuse
Without therapy, learning a new internal dialogue, developing new coping skills, etc. those who were emotionally abused as children will be at a greater risk for repeating this behavior and becoming emotionally abusive themselves.
Mental Illness and Suicide
Teens who experienced emotional abuse as children are more likely to be diagnosed with at least one mental illness later on in life, such as anxiety or depression. This also places them at a higher risk for attempting or committing suicide.
According to a study examining the long-term effects of child abuse, 80% of adults age 21 or older who reported childhood abuse also met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
Community and Societal Impacts
The long-term effects of emotional abuse extend beyond individuals and families into society by straining the nation as a whole. The health and social care systems, for example, are burdened by the consequences of child abuse. Economically, the costs of increased educational failure, crime, and the need for mental health services due to childhood abuse are steep. In fact, the new cases reported in the US in one year alone could send 1.7 million kids to college.
What Can Parents do to Avoid Emotional Abuse?
If you are concerned that your parenting could be creating some negative effects on your child, here are some ways to ensure you're approaching things in the right way.
Love, Respect, & Modeling Desired Behavior
Love is a verb, and every child needs to BE loved. That means providing support, acceptance, encouragement, stability, guided discipline, and positive attention.
Children will do what you do, not what you say. If you do not want your child to yell or scream, do not do so to them. When they misbehave, it is generally out of a desire to get your attention or just normal exploration. Instead of yelling at your child, show him the way you would like him to behave and compliment him for doing so.
Respect your child. Adults tend to view children’s emotional intelligence the same way we view their bodies—small and not fully mature. We even console ourselves with the rationalization, “Oh, they won’t remember that mommy had a bad day.” While they may or may not remember the incidents, they will remember feeling that mommy doesn’t like them. Do not use negative words for your child such as “lazy,” “bad,” “stupid,” “inconvenient,” or “good for nothing.” Treat them as you want them to treat other people, because they will do exactly that.
When you do have to discipline your child, use techniques such as times outs (usually one minute per year of age is a good rule). Then have a conversation and ask him why he got in trouble and what he should do next time. If your child isn’t old enough to have these conversations, he isn’t old enough to understand his actions, so that discipline will do very little.
Compliment your child when he does a good job, even for small things. For example, if you want your 18 month-old to put his toys away hold his hand and walk him through the motion. When he completes putting one toy away give him a high-five, applause, or a hug. Now you are encouraging good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior.
Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you can feel yourself losing your temper (it happens to everyone), make sure your child is safe (in a crib or play pin perhaps) and step into another room until you can calm down. Do not react to your child while you are angry. Take a deep breath or call a friend, loved one, or spouse. Parenting is hard, and you are only human. You will be very glad you did.
If you do lose your temper and yell at your child, NEVER be afraid to apologize. It is okay to tell him that you are sorry you yelled at him or got angry. This will help strengthen the trust he has for you, and it will help teach your child to take responsibility for a mistake.
When parents should get help
There are dozens of community resources and support groups for parents. If you feel yourself losing control, suffering from depression, or are unable to care for your child the way you want to, it's okay to reach out. Below is a list of parenting resources in the Treasure Valley.
- Idaho Youth Ranch offers parenting classes. Please call for details.
- Parenting Classes in the Treasure Valley
- St. Luke’s Parenting Support
- Love and Logic Parenting
- Online Parenting Classes
What to Do If You Witness or Suspect Abuse
In the state of Idaho, everyone is a mandated reporter. This means that if you know of or suspect abuse, you are legally required to report it to be evaluated by social services.
If a child reveals that they have been abused, listen carefully and let them know that they did the right thing by disclosing this information to you. Tell them that it is not their fault, let them know that you will take them seriously, and explain what you will do next. Do not confront the alleged abuser, but report what the child disclosed as soon as possible.
To report abuse, call 2-1-1 and state your intent to report child abuse. You may also call 1-855-552-KIDS (855-552-5437) or contact your local authorities.
For those located outside of Idaho searching for child counseling or teen counseling near you, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) for information about free help in your area.
If you are a parent or guardian of an out-of-control teenager or have a child who is being abused, take steps to intervene and enlist professional help as needed. It is okay to ask for help and enlist the care of a therapist and trusted friend. The youth counselors at Idaho Youth Ranch are also here to support you and your child as you heal and move forward.