Emotional Abuse of Children

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Emotional abuse is commonly defined as systematic attacks on a child's emotional well-being and sense of self-worth. It is based on power and control and often accompanies other forms of abuse. Emotional abuse is the most challenging form of child maltreatment to identify and stop. Since it is difficult to detect, assess and substantiate, many cases go unreported. Yet, emotional abuse leaves deep, hidden scars in children that can impede their intellectual, social and emotional development. Educators need to be informed about emotional abuse and steps need to be taken if abuse is suspected.

    What are the specific forms of emotional abuse?
    Abuse occurs when a parent or caretaker withholds affection or refuses to acknowledge the child's presence or accomplishments. A rejecting adult is emotionally unavailable, detached, and often devalues a child's thoughts and feelings. In a variety of ways, the abusing adult communicates dislike for the child who also may become the "scapegoat" for family problems.
    Abuse occurs when an adult consistently insults, mimics, and degrades a child. It can include sarcastic comments, name-calling, yelling, swearing or shaming a child in private or public.
    Abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver restricts a child's contact with others, preventing him or her from forming friendships. Normal family interactions are restricted; a child may be required to stay in his or her room, closet, basement or attic for extended periods of time.
    An adult can abuse a child by threatening to use a knife or other means to hurt, torture or kill a pet, loved one or the child. It includes forcing a child to watch violent acts, threats of abandonment, and/or placing a child in dangerous situations.
    Encouraging antisocial or delinquent behavior in children is a form of emotional abuse. Corruption exists when children are given alcohol or other drugs, shown pornographic materials, or are exposed to cruelty toward animals or other human beings.
    Abuse occurs when children are used for advantage or profit, such as involving them in stealing, assaulting, drug dealing or prostitution.

    What are some of the indicators that a child may be experiencing emotional abuse?
    • low self-confidence/poor self-image
    • unable in trust/fearful
    • dependent/withdrawn
    • anxious/depressed
    • too compliant/hypervigilant
    • detached/difficulty forming relationships
    • little enthusiasm/low perseverance
    • demanding/aggressive
    • destructive/cruel
    • passive-aggressive/compulsive-obsessive
    • delayed emotionally, socially and/or academically
    • sleep and/or speech disorders
    • self-destructive/suicidal
    • alcohol or drug abuse

    What are some of the characteristics parents or caretakers of emotionally abused children may exhibit?
    • rejects child
    • blames child for problems
    • describes child negatively
    • withholds affection
    • rigid and/or unrealistic expectations
    • poor impulse control
    • low tolerance for frustration
    • immature
    • mental health problems
    • alcohol or drug abuse

    What can an educator do if emotional abuse is suspected?

    1. Follow the school/state rules and procedures for reporting suspected child abuse to the agency charged with protecting children.
    2. Refer to a school counselor, psychologist or other available resource for services.
    3. Keep informed of resources and materials relating to emotional abuse.
    4. Be available to the child.
      • Listen to the child.
      • Believe the child.
      • Inform the child that he or she is not alone.
      • Let the child know that the emotional abuse is not the child's fault.
      • Be consistent and predictable.

For additional information concerning what to do if abuse is suspected, see Helping the Sexually Abused Child in the Teacher & Counselor Ideas at www.kellybear.com.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com]. 9/00

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