Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.

Overview

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child's emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or 'making fun' of what they say or how they communicate. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond the child's developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying (including cyberbullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone.

The extent of emotional abuse is hard to establish but is believed to be underreported. See Emotional Abuse: research briefing NSPCC Evans (2002). In their 2009 paper “Safeguarding children from emotional abuse – what works?” Barlow and Scrader-Macmillan stated that “Emotional abuse is a complex issue resulting in part from learned behaviours, psychopathology and/or unmet emotional needs in the parents and often compounded by factors in the families’ immediate and wider social environment” and that “emotional maltreatment is an inadequately researched and poorly understood concept.”

Emotional abuse can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, delinquency, aggression, poor social functioning and mental illness. Full reference to research into the impact of emotional abuse is referenced in Barlow and Scrader-Macmillan.

Barlow and Scrader-Macmillan suggested that although the evidence of “what works” is not strong, the use of cognitive behavioural therapy for emotionally abusing parents can have a positive impact e.g. by challenging unrealistic parental expectations, encouraging appropriate child – rearing methods when dealing with difficult behaviour and improving parent-child interaction.