Emotional abuse (also known as psychological abuse) is when a child or young person is persistently emotionally mistreated.
Emotional abuse can take many forms, including:
- Humiliating, mocking, and calling names
- Isolation and ignoring
- Constant criticising
- Shouting or deliberately making the child afraid
- Blaming and scapegoating
- Being absent or never expressing emotions (also known as emotional neglect)
- Never saying anything kind or expressing positive feelings or praise
- Exposing the child to traumatic events (i.e. taking drugs, violence)
- Not recognising a child’s individuality, boundaries or limitations
- Imposing inappropriate or unrealistic expectations on a child
- Not allowing a child to socialise
- Making a child perform degrading acts
- Telling a child they are worthless or ugly
It may involve bullying, making a child feel frightened or in danger or exploiting or corrupting them.
Emotional abuse can have long-lasting and devastating effects on a child’s emotional health and development. Children and young people who are emotionally abused may also be the victims of other types of abuse, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Knowing the signs of emotional abuse can help give a voice to children. Any child can be a victim of emotional abuse, although some may be more vulnerable than others. When families go through a tough time (e.g. experiencing relationship problems, financial hardship, poverty, mental health issues, addiction to drugs or alcohol), parents or carers may struggle to maintain a loving home for their child.
Some signs of emotional abuse might be mistaken for ‘normal’ teenage behaviour, and it can be difficult to tell if a child is being emotionally abused. As is the nature of emotional abuse, children may not understand they are being abused and may not talk about it, so it is important to look out for signs in how a child is acting.
Signs of emotional abuse include:
- Lack of confidence and self-esteem
- Difficulties controlling emotions
- Extreme behaviour, like becoming overly demanding, aggressive, having outbursts, or becoming passive
- Difficulties making and maintaining relationships
- Behaviour that is inappropriately infantile or adult-like
- Persistent running away from home or being missing from school
- Anxiety, unhappiness or withdrawal
- Having few or no friends
- Seeming to be isolated from parents/family
- Lack social skills
- Self-harm or attempts at suicide
- Babies or toddlers might not have a close relationship or bond with their parent(s)
- Babies or toddles might be overly affectionate with strangers
Effects of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse has serious long-term effects on the physical, emotional, and social health and development of a child, including:
- Behaviour problems. Children who are emotionally abused might become ‘clingy’, develop risky or dangerous behaviour (i.e. stealing, bullying, running away), stop caring about the consequences of their behaviour, and act in a way that purposefully offends or upsets other people.
- Impaired emotional development. Children who have been emotionally abused may have difficulties expressing and controlling emotions, may have difficulties with relationships later in life, may lack confidence and be shy, and are more likely to have mental health problems compared to people who experienced different types of child abuse.
- Mental health issues. Emotional abuse can increase the risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts.