We’ve all hear the horror stories.
The extremes of abuse and deprivation that make the headlines.
But what about the other, more common forms of abuse that don’t make the headlines, but have serious impacts on a child’s development.
A child is crying over the angry response of a parent to an innocent slip up. Instead of comforting her, her father berates her for reacting, leaving her alone to deal with the intense and isolating emotions of shame.
This is emotional abuse.
A parent tells a child that he can’t possibly be hungry and that they have already eaten a good lunch, shaming the child for his body’s needs. This tells the child that their own natural urges are unwelcome, or worse, that they are somehow wrong. A child treated in this way will learn to ignore their own hunger in order to fit into expectations and familial routines, causing potential problems with eating and food later in life.
These are just two examples of the subtle invalidation and shaming that are common in Australian homes.
No parent can ever be perfect.
Most parents mean well.
But lack of awareness, distraction, stress and sometimes fatigue can cause them to become impatient or frustrated. This in turn can lead to a failure to empathise or “tune in” to how a child might be feeling or what they need.
In most cases, it is not a single unfortunate exchange which will do the damage, but repeated failures in empathy, understanding and validation. Emotional abuse by an attachment figure in childhood is much more impactful than abuse in adulthood.
When emotional abuse happens regularly over an extended period, the developmental effects on children can be devastating.
What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse happens when a child is repeatedly made to feel worthless, unloved, alone or scared.
Also known as psychological or verbal abuse, it is the most common form of child abuse.
It can include constant rejection, hostility, teasing, bullying, yelling, criticism and exposure to family violence.
The impacts of emotional abuse are just as harmful as physical abuse.
Emotional abuse is particularly damaging to a child’s self-esteem and emotional wellbeing.
Types of Emotional Abuse
Constant criticism or attempts to manipulate and control
Shaming and blaming with hostile sarcasm or outright verbal assault
The use of shaming and belittling language
Verbal abuse — name-calling
Withholding affection as punishment
Punishment and threats of punishment
Continually ignoring or rejecting a child
Physically or socially isolating a child
Forcing a child to do things by scaring them
Exposing a child to domestic violence
Constantly criticising, humiliating or blaming a child
Constantly swearing, yelling or screaming at a child
Making a child feel different from other family members
Telling a child that they’re worthless, unloved or not enough
Withholding love, support, praise or attention from a child
Bullying, teasing, insulting or belittling a child
Having unrealistic expectations or unreasonable demands of a child
Not allowing a child to explore, express themselves, learn or make friends
Treating a child badly because of things they can’t change (e.g. disability, gender, sexuality)
Threatening abuse or threats to harm loved ones or pets
Typically, repeated incidents of abuse build up over time and have lasting effects on a child's development and wellbeing.
In some cases, a single incident may cause serious harm.
Possible Signs of Emotional Abuse
Signs that a child might be experiencing emotional abuse can include:
Avoiding or running away from home
Low self-image, self-esteem and confidence
Delays in development or decline in school work
Often anxious, distressed or afraid of doing something wrong
Demanding, disruptive or secretive behaviour
Extremes of behaviour – very aggressive to very passive
Trying too hard to please or failure to connect with parents
Being withdrawn or having difficulty relating to others
Feels worthless, unloved or unwanted
Increased fear, guilt and self-blame
Lying, stealing or lack of trust in adults
Self-harming or suicidal thoughts
Drug and alcohol use
This article describes emotional abuse in childhood.
There are many other forms of emotional abuse, including within adult relationships. However, being emotionally abused as a child has a greater impact because of the developmental vulnerability of children and their inability to escape from the abuse.
It can take years of work in therapy to unravel the affects of childhood emotional abuse.
Childhood emotional abuse is not something that can be healed quickly or easily. It can affect the bedrock of a child’s sense of self, their self-esteem, their ability to enjoy relationships and their sense of trust.