Child abuse and neglect occur in different situations, for a range of reasons. Children rarely experience one form of abuse at a time. Recent research by McGill University (2015) showed that emotional abuse of a child may be as harmful as physical abuse and neglect, while child sexual abuse often occurs together with other forms of maltreatment.
Emotional abuse or maltreatment, also known as psychological abuse or maltreatment is the most common form of child abuse. It is also experienced by children witnessing domestic violence. While many parents are emotionally abusive without being violent or sexually abusive, emotional abuse often accompanies physical and sexual abuse. It includes acts of omission (what is not done) e.g. emotional neglect e.g. not expressing or showing love and affection and commission (what is done) e.g. rejection, humiliation, insults, setting unreasonable expectations or restricting opportunities for the child to learn, socialise or explore. Each can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem and social competence.
Some parents do not see the child as a separate person, and fulfil their own needs and goals, rather their children’s. Their parenting style may be aggressive, and include shouting and intimidation. They may isolate or confine the child, or they may manipulate their children using more subtle means, such as emotional blackmail. Emotional abuse and neglect were the primary reason for a child being investigated for maltreatment in 2014-15 (AIHW 2016).
Emotional abuse does not only occur in the home. Children can be emotionally abused by teachers, other adults in a position of power and other children in the form of “bullying”. Chronic emotional abuse in schools is a serious cause of harm and warrants ongoing active intervention.
What are the characteristics of emotionally abusive parents?
Some parents who have their own unresolved trauma can find parenting challenging, and have difficulties with attachment, emotional regulation, boundaries and discipline. Emotional abuse has increasingly been linked to parental mental health problems, domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, being abused or having been in care as children (Iwaneic and Herbert, 1999; Siegel and Hartzell, 2003). Research findings suggest that some emotionally abusive parents have negative attitudes towards children, perceive parenting as unrewarding and difficult to enjoy, and that they associate their own negative feelings with the child’s difficult behaviour, particularly when the child reacts against their poor parenting methods.
Signs in childhood
From infancy to adulthood, emotionally abused people are often more withdrawn and emotionally disengaged than their peers, and find it difficult to predict other people’s behaviour, understand why they behave in the manner that they do, and respond appropriately.
Emotionally abused children exhibit a range of specific signs. They often: feel unhappy, frightened and distressed, behave aggressively and antisocially or too maturely for their age, experience difficulties with school attendance and achievement, find it hard to make friends, show signs of physical neglect and malnourishment, experience incontinence and mysterious pains.
Signs in adulthood
Adults emotionally abused as children are more likely to experience mental health problems and difficulties in personal relationships. Many of the harms of physical and sexual abuse are related to the emotional abuse that accompanies them, and as a result many emotionally abused adults exhibit a range of complex psychological and psychosocial problems associated with multiple forms of trauma in childhood (Glaser 2002).
Significant early relationships in childhood shape our response to new social situations in adulthood. Adults with emotionally abusive parents are at a disadvantage as they try to form personal, professional and romantic relationships, since they may easily misinterpret other people’s behaviours and social cues, or misapply the rules that governed their abusive relationship with their parent to everyday social situations (Berenson and Anderson 2006).