National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Understanding the Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse

dismissive-parents-smEditor’s note: To mark the one-year anniversary of The Invisible Scar, we are running a classic (and popular) post.

When emotional abuse is shown in movies or TV programs, the abuser is often a huge, ugly, fierce-looking adult. On TV, 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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”

If you are an emotionally abused child or are an adult survivor of emotional child abuse, please know hope for healing exists and seek out a mental healthcare professional for guidance.

11 thoughts on “National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Understanding the Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse

  1. Yes, to all that. I experienced every one of these in my childhood home.

    The inevitable outcome to this emotional abuse is this:

    “The dysfunctional family rules (Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel…and Don’t Think, Don’t Ask, Don’t Question, Don’t Play) are a way of life in addictive families. Children learn how to live without the truth being told. They learn to keep their mouths shut and pretend problems do not exist. Denial of what is going on in the home creates a severe distortion of perception. Children learn not to see the world clearly. As they move into adulthood, they find themselves wearing a distorted pair of glasses with which they view the world. They continue to discount, minimize, and tolerate inappropriate behavior by not questioning. As part of this process, they develop a painful, high tolerance for inappropriate behavior.”

    ~ Claudia Black, It Will Never Happen To Me

    We grow up and find partners with whom continues the abuse.


    • Casey,

      I’m so sorry for all that you’ve endured… And yes, the Don’t Talk, etc. comment will hit home with a lot of our readers.

      I would like to say, however, that adult survivors of emotional child abuse do not always marry people who perpetuate the abuse nor do they necessarily repeat the abuse with their children.

      Though in many cases, such behavior does happen, it’s not a given. In other words, though your chances of marrying someone abusive and continuing the behavior is high, it does not necessarily have to happen.

      In some cases, adult survivors have awakened to the truth of their upbringing and will marry people who are polar opposites of their parents. If they have children, they will strive to bring up children in loving, good homes, despite what the parents themselves have endured.

      Peace and strength to you,
      the editor


    • You are right.

      I should have said, “without recovery, we often grow up to find relationships that continue the abuse”. If not partners, then bosses, or friends. Without recovery, without repairing or installing boundaries we may not have had, we run the risk being in unhealthy relationships of some kind.

      I find that Western culture though does not support healthy relationships. It does much to breed discontent, substance use and abuse and encourages dysfunctional relationships (simply watch any modern romance movie with the theme, “you complete me” – that’s not authentic love, that’s a recipe for enmeshment).

      My husband was not abusive at the beginning of the marriage. He’s been a very loving man, though from a dysfunctional upbringing, too, which doubled our odds of having problems. But he did move from being merely a social drinker into a problem drinker and that’s when the ‘abuse’, which he ordinarily did not have, came out. He did not hit, he did not get violent physically towards me or our children. He was just drinking more and being hurtful – to himself, to me, to his daughters. It was his way of denying he had a problem – denial, projection, blame, excuse and his self-pitying depression and his refusal to get help of any kind.

      We both have come through a lot of pain, but we are both healing, slowly.

      Often, a marriage can be quite healthy, but the addition of children might tip the scales. In my case it was that plus my husband’s multiple layoffs. I don’t see very many people going for help at the earliest stages of any problems, when they are small and can be managed. It takes a long while to realize the corner you might have painted yourself into.

      I know I didn’t. I regret that now. But better late than never…

      I have yet to see (in real life) a genuinely healthy model of marriage. I know they must exist. I’ve been on this planet 44 years, and I’ve yet to see a healthy relationship I wanted to emulate and I have been looking everywhere for what I wish to model my life after.

      The more and more I learn about the process of social conditioning, addictions, controlling behaviors, and codependency, the more and more I detect the games that people play (on accident as much as on purpose, mind you) to control others and outcomes. It can’t be done, but we try anyway. The Buddhists have long known human nature’s tendency to want to control other people and outcomes.

      Thanks for the dialogue.

      All the best,


      Liked by 1 person

  2. A good, clear explanation of emotional abuse. Thanks for sharing. I hope one or two people out there might learn something that will allow them to break (or at least weaken) the power of abuse that gets passed down from generation to generation. We are all victims of victims.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Casey,
    You write of wanting to pattern your marriage on an existing good model. I don’t see why you need to do that. You have it all in yours. Don’t believe this? Well, for starters, you came from pain and so did your husband. If we make a conscious decision, we can turn that pain into good. It won’t take a couple of months or years; it might take decades. But you WILL see your marriage blossom. Then, there’s your brave reflection of all that’s gone wrong in your life. I see strength there. Next, you have the kids – which is a chance for you to try and be a different parent so that you do know what’s in you is DIFFERENT from what was in your abusers. It might be lonely as you might feel you’re alone, without a partner’s help…but you’re a strong person who just happens to think not too highly of yourself. Casey, a newly-mined diamond never looks like it belongs on a finger. It takes a lot of ‘cutting’ and polishing. It takes pain for the beauty to shine through. Don’t give up, dear.


  4. Experienced. Every. Single. One. 😦

    Emotional Abuse has been one of the
    hardest things I’ve had to fully
    overcome. Those scars don’t heal easily.
    The process has been arduous but
    I am slowly eradicating all of those
    hideous lies spoken over me and
    becoming the person I was always
    meant to be.

    Thank you for getting the truth out

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, the scars don’t heal easily. Not at all. And we’ll always bear them.

      But life gets easier, brighter, better… Best of all, we become more authentic, who God wants us to be, rather than what very destructive people wished for us.

      Peace to you on your healing journey…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Experienced a good deal of these (although I had no siblings so some are not quite fitting to my situation), so wanted to say thank you for allowing me to place a label and give a definition to some of what I have endured and still suffer from.

    Also agree with Casey because almost every one of my friendships and relationships has been effected by the abuse I suffered, as has my daily life…


  6. I’m reading this list and spotting a lot of things from my own childhood. The hardest thing is letting go and truly accepting that you are not th one at fault.

    I’ve felt like the black sheep of my family since I was a teen and still feel that way in my 20s.

    I can remember constantly being compared to my best friend as a child (over everything from behaviour to hand writing).

    anything I’ve ever liked that she hasn’t (which was about 80% of things) was constantly pointedly complained about or openly disapproved of.

    I used to receive crippling bouts of silent treatment throughout my childhood over minor offences. to give you an example, she once refesed to speak to me for 48 hours as small child as she thought she heard me say a swear world. I hadn’t.

    And the whole ‘that never happened’ scenario has been a heavily repeated theme over the last few years. She either acts mystified or defensive.

    And there is a massive difference between the way I am treated and my young brother is. It sounds petty to say ‘my brother is treated differently’ as an adult but it’s the truth.

    Where I was endlessly criticised and scapegoated as a teen, my brother (who has mild AS) has been babied all his life and frankly treated like the sun shines out of his backside.

    While I can not so much as look at him without being laid in to for ‘staring at him’ or tell him to ‘shut up’ without being told how nasty I am and how horrible a person I am, he is free to call me a bitch, shout at me, or speak to me with an aggressive tone with relatively little response.

    While my mental health problems as a teen were denied, treated as my fault and considered something that existed to ‘punish’ my mother, my brothers mental health problems have been met with copious understanding, protectiveness and research.

    Yes, my mother is probably in a better place now then she was I was ill, but if this is true her acquired understanding of my brothers issue doesn’t seem to have translated in to an improved understanding of mine to.

    As an adult I continue to walk eggshells around her moods and obsessions and at times I feel like I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.

    I just want to move somewhere far away from my family and just people in general. I don’t know how long I can cope. I have been visiting a counsellor, but I can’t carry on with this much longer as its too expensive.


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