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Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that can interfere with a child’s positive development. Infliction of mental or emotional harm or the causing of a deterioration of a child is part of emotional abuse and may include maltreatment or exploiting a child to the extent that the child’s health or emotional wellbeing is endangered. 

Emotional abuse may be the least understood of all child abuse, but it is also the most prevalent and can be one of the most destructive types. This term may include any act, behavior, or omission that impairs or endangers a child’s social or intellectual functioning. This term may include the following:

  • Creating a climate of fear or engaging in violent or threatening behavior toward the child or toward others in the child’s presence that demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the child;
  • Emotionally abandoning a child, by being psychologically unavailable to the child, demonstrating no attachment to the child, or failing to provide adequate nurturance of the child; and
  • Corrupting a child, by teaching or rewarding the child for unlawful, antisocial, or sexually mature behaviors.

Many parents or care takers may be guilty of having unkindly snubbed a child or criticizing the child too harshly. However, emotional abuse seriously impairs the child’s social, emotional or intellectual functioning. Emotional abuse is a consistent, chronic behavior by an adult that has a harmful effect on the child. It is important to remember that emotional abuse involves a pattern of attitudes or acts that are detrimental to the child’s development of a sound and healthy personality.

Indicators of Emotional Abuse

Although physical indicators are not typically prevalent in emotional abuse, there are many behavioral indicators that can be presented by the child and the adult abuser. The following are some common indicators that the child and adult may display. This is a list of common indicators and is not all inclusive, as there could be other indicators presented.

Common Indicators

  • Daytime anxiety and unrealistic fears
  • Irrational and persistent fears, dreads, or hatreds
  • Sleep problems, nightmares
  • Behavioral extremes
  • Delayed in physical or emotional development
  • Inappropriately childish: Biting, rocking, head-banging, or thumb sucking in an older child (habit disorders), or inappropriately adult: parenting other children
  • Substance abuse
  • Cutting
  • Suicide attempt
  • Fire starting
  • Loss of interest 
  • Sudden grade changes
  • Changes in behavior, personality or appearance

Consider the possibility of emotional abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver is:

  • Rejecting or belittling the child (making the child feel he/she can do nothing right)
  • Ignoring the child (taking little or no interest in the child)
  • Terrorizing the child by blaming the child things over which he or she has no control
  • Isolating the child (cutting the child off from normal social experiences)
  • Corrupting the child (teaching the child socially deviant patterns of behavior)
  • Repeatedly giving the child contradictory messages that leave the child confused and incapable of pleasing the adult
  • Using an inconsistent, unpredictable, erratic and threatening style of discipline

Remember that maltreatment by a caregiver is not the cause of all behavioral, emotional, or developmental problems in children. It is important to ask these questions when considering whether or not emotional abuse is occurring:

  • Do interactions between adult and child seem primarily negative?
  • Are specific instances of emotional abuse or maltreatment frequently observed?

Source: Kansas Department for Children and Families.

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