Child Abuse · Child Abuse Prevention · Child Advocacy · Emotional Child Abuse

Not Only Shouting: Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse

dismissive-parents-smApril is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month. At The Invisible Scar, we are focusing on exploring the definition of emotional child abuse, such as the various types, how to help emotionally abused children, and  resources for healing.

When emotional abuse is shown in movies or TV programs, the abuser is often a huge, ugly, fierce-looking adult. The abuser never looks like the kind-faced person next door. The abuser is never an ordinary person, never someone known to his neighbors, never someone who shops at the local store, has friends, or keeps a regular job. The abuser is easily to spot. The abuser might as well carry a sign for all people to see.

In real life, however, abusers aren’t always that obvious. They might look huge and fierce—but they can also look gentle and meek. In real life, emotional child abusers can be far sneakier. In some cases, no one but the abused child will know the adult is an emotional child abuser.

And the weapons used for emotional child abuse don’t rely on strength and bulk; the abuser relies on words and emotional warfare.

Though emotional abuse does include outright screaming (called terrorizing), people who watch such movies or TV programs may think, “Oh, I yell at my kid sometimes. Who doesn’t?”  What they fail to realize is that—unlike normal bursts of temper—emotional abuse is long-term… and the shouting is part of a long series of shouts.

Emotional abuse is systematic.

“Psychological abuse of a child is a pattern of intentional verbal or behavioral actions or lack of actions that convey to a child the message that he or she is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value to meet someone else’s needs.” (Samantha Gluck, Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel article)

How emotionally abusive parents tear at the child’s sense of self varies. Here are some examples of the different types of emotional child abuse.

Giving the silent treatment.

“No discussion of emotional abuse through words would be complete without including the absence of words as a form of abuse. This is commonly known as the “silent treatment.” Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger, frustration, or disappointment.” (Dr. Gregory Jantz, “Portrait of an Emotional Abuser: The Silent Treatment Abuser” article)

The abusive parent will withhold attention and affection until the child caves in and apologizes for whatever the abuser perceived as a slight or insult. Through a series of silent treatments, the abused child will learn to be silent, to be docile, to never speak against the parent—because if the child does, he will not be loved or spoken to or even acknowledged as a human being.

Ranking children unnecessarily. 

In emotional child abuse, children are placed in pecking order. A parent continually compares his child to another (a sibling, a neighbor’s child, anyone who is a peer to the emotionally abused child) … and the abuser will always find his child to be lacking. The ranking can be for anything as sitting still during dinner to doing chores; anything is cause for comparison. The abused child will never rank high. Never.

Being condescending.

Abusive parents treat their children as if the kids are beneath them.

Bunny boiling.  

This type of abuse destroys something that the child cherishes.

“Bunny Boiling is a reference to an iconic scene in the movie “Fatal Attraction” in which the main character Alex, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, kills the family’s pet rabbit and boils it on the stove. Bunny Boiling has become a popular reference to how people sometimes exhibit their rage by behaving destructively towards symbolic, important or treasured possessions or representations of those whom they wish to hurt, control or intimidate.” (Out of the FOG website)

Whatever the child treasures, an abusive parent will take away or destroy.

Gaslighting children.

Abusive parents will play mind games with their children. It involves saying or doing something then pretending it never happened or happened differently from how it really happened.

“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” (Theodore L. Dorpat,”Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis“)

Parents will say or do things then deny them or change the details consistently, so the child ends up doubting his or her memory. The parents will often also set up the child as being mentally deficient or “fragile,” so that other people who know the child will think that the child is either lying or incapable of recalling things correctly. Again, the abuse is a lifelong campaign, a consistent theme in the child’s life.

Scapegoating. 

“Scapegoating is a serious family dysfunctional problem with one member of the family or a social group being blamed for small things, picked on and constantly put down. In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a decision that somebody in the family has to be the bad guy. The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong.” (Lynn Namaka, “Scapegoating“)

Often, the emotional child abuser will encourage, through his or her actions and treatment of the scapegoat, the other children to also pick on the scapegoat, so that the scapegoat has no allies in the family.

Sabotaging.

An emotional child abuser will sabotage a child’s calm and peace. For example, if a child looks forward to a television program, at the last minute, the emotional child abuser may deliberately set forth a ridiculously long chore list to be done before the child can watch the show. (Think of the evil stepmother in “Cinderella,” who set up Cinderella to fail by giving her too long a list of items to do before the ball.) Or the father will deliberately schedule a family meeting at the same time that a child had planned ahead of time to attend a friend’s birthday party. Like all forms of emotional child abuse, sabotaging ruins a child’s sense of security.

Favoritism.

The opposite side of scapegoating is favoritism.

“Favoritism is the practice of systematically giving positive, preferential treatment to one child, subordinate or associate among a family or group of peers…. Favoritism becomes dysfunctional when actions and opportunities, resources and liberties are systematically denied or applied inequitably for no logical reason and without just cause.” (Out of the FOG)

An example of favoritism is when an emotional child abuser will let one child get a car ride to school with friends, but the other child must walk or ride a bicycle to school even though that child also was offered a ride by friends. Or one child has a completely different set of rules to adhere to while the other child has less or more relaxed rules.

Triangulation.

An emotionally abuse parent will maintain a sense of power of his children by creating conflict between them. The children will be manipulated into conflicts with one another.

For example, a father will talk to Child A about Child B and say how he is upset with Child B because Child B said some terrible things about Child A. Child A will then be angry with Child B for both hurting her feelings and also for making the father sad. Child A and Child B will rarely discuss the incident because the parent has set up the children to distrust one another. Another example: a mother will vent her feelings about Child D to Child E, describing that child as taxing and irritating and whiny… then Child D will start viewing Child E in that light. Child D trusts the parent and will take her side. Meanwhile, the parent will talk to Child E about Child D.

Pathological (or compulsive) lying.

“Compulsive Lying is a term used to describe lying frequently out of habit, without much regard for the consequences to others and without having an obvious motive to lie. A compulsive liar is someone who habitually lies.”

An emotional child abuser will often lie to his child. The lying will often go hand in hand with gaslighting, so that the parent will deny the lie. For example, a parent will tell a child, “If you get straight A’s this quarter, I will buy you an iPod Touch.” When the child gets straight A’s, the parent will deny the statement. “I never promised you an iPod Touch!” The combination of the lie and then the outright denial, if it’s habitual and consistent, will cause the child to begin to question his memory and, in some cases, sanity. The child becomes increasingly self-doubting.

Smearing.

Smear campaigners carefully and strategically use lies, exaggerations, suspicions and false accusations to try destroying your credibility. They hide behind a cloak of upstanding heroism and feigned innocence in an attempt to make as many people as possible think their efforts are based not on their vindictiveness, but on upstanding concern.

Because emotional child abusers wage lifelong campaigns against a child, a smear campaign often begins in a child’s early years and throughout the child’s adolescence and even into adulthood.

For example, an emotional child abuser will emotionally abuse a child then tell his friends that his child is “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggerate.”  Even if the abuse is terrible and obvious, the parent will downplay it to the child, telling the child that he is “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggerate.” Whenever possible, the emotional child abuser will refer to that child as “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggerate.” Friends, relatives, neighbors and, in some cases, siblings, will begin forming that perception of the abused child. Because the abusive parent has set up that child to be seen in that light, the abused child will often have no one to turn to for support or help… and if they do, they are not believed and told that they have always been “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggeration.” Worst of all, the emotionally abused child will be conditioned to take abuse but not speak up or expect anything better because they view themselves as “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggeration”—though if they related the facts of the events to an outsider (who has not been conditioned for years), the outsider would see the obvious abuse.

Note: The types below were mentioned in the Emotional Abuse Defined post. 

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.

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 to 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.”

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22 thoughts on “Not Only Shouting: Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse

  1. Reblogged this on Bipolar For Life and commented:
    Well, folks, this is April 30, the end of April’s Child Abuse Awareness Month. But let’s not stop being aware of child abuse just because it’s the end of April. If you see a child being abused, speak up. If it’s a parent screaming at a kid in a store, dragging him along by the arm with a “Just wait till I get you home” hissed between clenched teeth–what can you do? That’s a really tough question. If you go up to him and say, “Excuse me, but you seem to be abusing your child,” the pathological parent may very well stop his behavior and make some lame excuse like “Oh, I we were only horsing around,” and then when they get home the child REALLY gets it for being the “cause” of “attracting attention.” I just don’t know the answer to that one. But I do know that if you hear angry voices and sounds of violence coming from the apartment next door, your call to the emergency authorities might save a life. Make the call.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Soul Survivor,

      Thanks for sharing my post… And, yes, knowing what to say if you hear some child getting maltreated in public is very difficult. If you’ve a chance, check out the interview here (http://goo.gl/zb4vp) for good solutions to that difficulty; the president of Prevent Child Abuse America offers ideas of how to break the moment.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

  2. i cried as i read this, as i read validation of my entire life. this is so true, and so obvious, how can it go on so long and so hidden? i wish i could fix this for all children, to not go thru what i have. thank you so much for this.

    Like

    1. Kat,

      Emotional child abuse is rarely recognized by the child until the child is an adult… That’s because the child does not know any better. The child has been born into a family that is set up a certain way, and all the child will know about how to be treated, how to treat others, what to expect from others, etc., is what the child is exposed to.

      Now and then, an adult survivor of child abuse will be able to look back and think, “No, no, that wasn’t normal at all!” And in doing so, the adult survivor has a greater chance of not continuing the pattern.

      I’m sorry that you’ve endured such suffering… but do know that you are not alone. Many adults have survived emotional child abuse and managed to make good lives (not easy ones, not perfect ones, but GOOD ones) for themselves.

      Peace to you…

      Like

  3. Reblogged this on Note To Self and commented:
    As someone who suffered a great deal of emotional and verbal abuse as a child, I can say from experience how important awareness is. Not only making others aware, but making *yourself* aware, because there is nothing more corrosive in life than thinking absolutely everything awful is your fault.

    Like

    1. Mandaray,

      Awareness is probably the most painful step towards healing… but a necessary one. Without awareness, the emotionally abused is just left with a bleeding self-esteem and gaping wounds in the heart. With awareness, however, one slowly gets to recognize the damage done, realize the damage was not deserved in any way, and patch (through therapy and a network of support) those wounds.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your abusive childhood… and I wish you the best for the second half of your journey.

      Like

      1. Thank you. I know the abuse I suffered was not as bad as it is for some, but it still left its mark. Most of the time I do all right, but I find both awareness and analyzing of the entire process to be extremely helpful. So thank you for exploring both. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Amazing to find out that what I had thought was just me being over sensitive was actually NOT my imagination it was emotional abuse! I feel a sense of relief which is liberating. I still find myself looking for some form of recognition or approval but know it wont happen. I have spent my whole life wanting to be hugged lovingly by my mother but it will never happen because of HER failings not mine.Now I can begin to move on – and really love my own children!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christine,

      “You’re being overly sensitive” is a term usually told to children by parents who cannot believe that the child has the audacity to not enjoy being yelled at, mocked, or humiliated. And often, the shame of being considered “overly sensitive” keeps the child silent… which is just what the abusive parent wants.

      Congratulations on breaking the cycle!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for an eye opening article….it is a comfort to relate even at 68 years old ! I always knew this to be true, but didn’t know it had a label and research done

    Like

    1. Carol,

      Yes, it definitely has a name and there’s some research… We keep hoping to find more research on it and will share what we learn on The Invisible Scar.

      And 68 isn’t that old! 😉

      Like

  6. Wow! I just came across your blog and I’ve only had a few minutes to peruse but I have to say that you have a very concise way of explaining the trials and tribulations that all ACoNs face. This post is really fantastic, thank you for sharing. I’ve added you to my list of blogs to read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.

    Yours in truth,

    Jonsi

    Like

    1. Jonsi,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. We’ve been lurkers at your blog for a long time… and are glad that you are moving forward after enduring so much.

      Onward and upward!

      Like

  7. I read this and I cried the whole time. I am still trying to come up from this and its so hard. And what’s worse, for me but maybe not all, is the loyalty I still feel to my mother. The responsibility that I have to just hide everything I’m feeling from her and go along with her when she tells a different story about my childhood.

    Like

    1. Kali,

      The recognition that one has been emotionally abused is such a hard first time. No one wants to think about themselves as a victim! No one wants to consider themselves abused! And no one ever wants to think of his parents as abusive parents! So, already, the resistance to accept such thoughts is very strong…. and that’s normal. So normal to resist.

      But it is necessary to be a person, a real person who lives in the truth.

      We highly recommend finding a good therapist and sharing your story… The opening of one’s eyes is very difficult and painful at first.

      But living in the truth is worth it.

      Onward and upward…

      Like

  8. Reblogged this on Delicate Unfoldings: My Emergence and commented:
    Thank you; this blog has offered me so much insight on my mother’s & I’s damaging relationship, how that’s affected my relationship with myself&associated-worth, &all that good stuff to know. Bless you for breaking the silence! 🙂

    Like

    1. I find that even as an adult the pains from childhood still remains.
      My mother still manages to get her put-downs, gaslighting and emotional abuse behaviours in but in a more subtle way. Now I have little contact with her but miss the normal relationship with parents that most of my colleagues have. My childhood was filled with fear and tension and no loving behaviour. I dont remember EVER being hugged or kissed – my mother says I didnt want to be touched as a child. But no approval either?. Even now I feel invisible and my sisters sometimes look at me as if to say ‘who are you & why are you here?’ At my fathers funeral, attended by many of my parents close friends were quite a few who had no idea that I was his daughter. They would say ‘but he never spoke of you or had photos” in a puzzled way as if I had it wrong somehow. Imagine being put-down at your father’s funeral by strangers- that felt really belittling. Do I really belong here?
      As an adult I know I need to move on & I do by leaving my family out of my life and concentrating on MY children.
      A secret- the pain is still there & I still feel I have to prove myself.
      Life goes on & we manage as best we can. Our future is what we make it and I dont look back. If no-one will give me the approval I need- I will give it to myself! I AM A GOOD & SUCCESSFUL PERSON

      Christine

      Like

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