Emotional Child Abuse Defined

ECA-logo-smBy far the most damaging of all types of child abuse (even sexual abuse), is emotional child abuse. 

“Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidating, or under the guise of ‘guidance,’ ‘teaching,’ or ‘advice,’ the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones.” (University of Illinois, Counseling Center)

 However, when people discuss child abuse, they often refer to the physical abuse and sexual abuse of children, both absolutely horrific types of abuse. But the one that underpins them all—the abuse that is invisible and the most damaging—often gets ignored. That type of abuse is emotional child abuse.

“Emotional abuse is at the core of all major forms of abuse and neglect, is more damaging in its impact than acts of physical and sexual abuse alone, and requires special attention to disentangle it from physical and sexual acts of maltreatment.” (The Emotionally Abused and Neglected Child: Identification, Assessment and Intervention: A Practice Handbook)

Whereas physically abused and sexually abused children have the physical proof as witnesses to their abuse, the emotionally abused child does not. The scars are inside.

“The bruises don’t show on the outside, so there are no statistics on how many children are victims… but anyone who works with children knows the problem is widespread.” (Dr. Elizabeth Watkins, chief of pediatric primary care at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital)

What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

“Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self-concept to where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of children: love and protection.” (child advocate, lawyer, and author Andrew Vachss, You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart essay)

Another definition by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is:

“Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill-treatment 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 feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. It may involve 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 ill treatment of a child, though it may occur alone.” (Department of Health et al, 1999, p.5-6)

The words persistent and systematic are crucial to the definition of child abuse. Emotional child abuse isn’t a parent telling his child once, “Why did you spill the juice? Don’t do that again!”

Emotional abuse is systematic. It’s a consistent destructive force in a child’s life. For example, an emotionally abusive parent will tell a child, “Why did you spill the juice? You are so clumsy…” and then, at some point in time (close enough to be linked to the first event), “You spilled something again? Can’t you ever do something right?” and then later, again at another point close enough in memory that the child ties it together, “You are always spilling things because you’re not careful. You don’t pay attention. You’re always messing things up.” And so on…

In time, the emotionally abused child adopts the phrase into his or her memory as something that defines them: “I am always messing up. I don’t pay attention. I am not careful.” He takes the words as a description of who he is… and the phrases will come back to him often.

All the destructive words, whether encased in subtle phrasing or baldly hurtful, will become part of the child’s “self talk.” The words will become truths to the child.

Types of Emotional Child Abuse

An emotionally abusive parent demonstrates one or a combination of the following abusive behaviors.

Rejecting. Parents constantly criticize the child; call the child names; insult; belittle; verbally humiliate the child; tease; refuse hugs; do not allow the child to make his or dismissive-parents-smher own choices; and/or physically abandon the child. The child feels that the parents reject who the child is.

Exploiting. Parents demand behavior from a child that are beyond the child’s developmental stage, have unreasonable expectations, and/or force the child into porn. A type of exploitation is parentification in which the child is forced to take on the role of the parent. In emotional child abuse, a parent demands the unconditional love and understanding from a child that is really the parent’s role. In emotional parentification, the parent is mostly concerned about being loved rather than extending love to the child. According to Psych Central, the most damaging form of parentification is emotional.

 “[Emotional parentification] robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.” (Psych Central, Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent)

Ignoring. Parents ignore the significant events in the child’s life. They ignore the child in general and refuse to discuss any interests or activities that the child may have. They seem bothered by the existence of the child. The abusive parent will cut short conversations, interrupt the child, mock the child for his/her interests, and treat the child as if she is a nuisance.

Corrupting. Parents teach the abused child to be a racist and bigot. They encourage violence and anger, and they advocate bullying. The parents reward the child for substance abuse or bigotry; promote illegal activities; and/or reward the child for such behaviors as lying, stealing, etc. boy-left-out-sm

Terrorizing. This behavior is what people first think about when they think of emotional child abuse. Parents threaten the child verbally; they yell, scream, or curse. The parents swing from rage to warmth to rage, ridicule the child, and/or force the child to watch inhumane acts. The abusive parent keeps the child on edge, jumpy, nervous about meltdown. Emotionally abused children often end up extremely attuned to the parents’ tone of voice, slightest movements, nonverbal cues, in order to try and avoid a blow-up. 

Isolating. Parents leave the child unattended for very long periods of time. They keep the child away from family, friends, and peers, etc. They punish the child for engaging in normal activities choresand make the child become a misfit. They force the child to do excessive chores or excessive studying to keep them isolated. The child will not have the same opportunities as his or her peers to engage in social interactions but be forced to constantly sacrifice his childhood for the sake of the parents’ demands.

Inappropriate control. Parents exercise overcontrol—which robs children of the opportunities for self-assertion and self-development. Or parents show a lack of control—which puts children in dangerous situations or at risk to be in them. Or parents show inconsistent control—which leaves the children feeling anxious and confused.

Though difficult to detect and substantiate from the outside, the child is abused… and the emotional abuse leaves deep-rooted, invisible scars in the child’s psyche that can “impede their intellectual, social, and emotional development.”

Receiving Help (If You Are the Abused Child)

healing-from-emotional-child-abuse-smPlease visit the above sites and either seek help from those resources or a trusted adult. I highly recommend that you print out the information about emotional child abuse and share it with a trusted adult—so they can read more about what emotional abuse is.

Please know you are not alone. Please do not do anything drastic.

  • Seek help from a trusted adult or counselor.
  • Turn to a trusted friend and share your feelings.
  • Remember that you are worthy of love, of respect, of dignity.
  • Find a healthy outlet for your feelings.
  • Always remember that your life does matter.

Receiving Help (If You Are the Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse)

maskUnfortunately, most emotionally abused children seek help only as adults. As children, they assumed how they were treated at home was natural. With everyone else in the family accepting the abusive behavior, a child developed a skewed sense of what a relationship is—unless they have trusted adults in their lives.

Sometimes, however, an adult who has been emotionally abused as a child will slowly awaken to the truth of their abusive childhood. Though some abused children grow up to become abusive parents, the majority of abused children grow up and do the opposite of what they have been taught. If the adult seeks therapy and healing from an abusive childhood, the adult can break the cycle and not perpetuate the abuse with their own children.

Healing from an emotionally abusive childhood can be very difficult, but as child advocate lawyer and author Vachss says:

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have only two life-choices: learn to self-reference or remain a victim. When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.

It’s time to stop playing that role, time to write your own script. Victims of emotional abuse carry the cure in their own hearts and souls. Salvation means learning self-respect, earning the respect of others and making that respect the absolutely irreducible minimum requirement for all intimate relationships. For the emotionally abused child, healing does come down to “forgiveness”—forgiveness of yourself.

How you forgive yourself is as individual as you are. But knowing you deserve to be loved and respected and empowering yourself with a commitment to try is more than half the battle. Much more.

And it is never too soon—or too late—to start.

Please seek professional help, read good books, turn to supportive friends, and don’t give up. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up on  your life.

12 thoughts on “Emotional Child Abuse Defined

  1. As I read this, I realize the shoe definitely fits, in terms of who my mother was. But it also kind of fits me, as I find these definitions could apply to me and how I know I can sometimes treat my own spouse (and this is something I absolutely hate about myself, but have not been able to change just by wishing or willing myself to stop). Did I learn this behaviour from my mother? Did the emotional abuse she heaped on her children program me to be like her? And can finally recognizing where it comes from help me to shed this most distasteful part of myself? Just as I didn’t deserve this as a child, my spouse doesn’t deserve this from me, either.


    • I am a survivor of emotional abuse. And as I look back, now that I am writing a book about my experience, I can see how I practiced some of the negative behavior that I learned from mom on my kids, but I FIRMLY believe that just like we learned this behavior, we can unlearn it. Knowledge is power!


  2. This is limited as it only refers to family / parents. Once abused in this way, I found that I was subject to neighbors, store owners, librarians, bus drivers…in short absolutely anyone out there where some time of interaction occurred almost daily (even the milkman). These ‘other’ people quickly pick up on your ‘non-personhood’ and you are ‘game’ to them. Neighbors took free rein to make comments about me, even into adulthood. I am as angry at them as at my folks.
    I think it is horrendous to grow up this way. Even my counselor gave up on me.


  3. Barbara, It is interesting that you mention abuse from the neighbors, etc because in writing my book about my experience with my NPD mother, I could clearly see a pattern of abuse from others that my path crossed. It did seem like they were picking up on my “nonperson hood,” as you stated in your comment. Btw, my book is scheduled to be released in June. More info coming on my blog: reflectionsbooks.org in the coming months.


  4. I await your book with great anticipation. Thank you for responding to my blog. I have faced abuse from every path I chose to take in life. I noted back in my 20s that I could relate to African Americans much more than whites because of the same type of ‘designation’ that was attached to ‘us’. I had doors close in my face, not just from businesses (like one hair salon I visited told me to ‘move along…we don’t want to work on you’)…imagine how that felt. But also from family members who closed doors, even on Christmas day, in my face. No word of lie.

    (I traveled all the way to the Cape from central Mass. one summer without realizing my mother had invited one of my brothers to the cottage…he would not even acknowledge me at the door. It was like I was invisible).


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