Editor’s note: April is National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month. The Invisible Scar is dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse, so in honor of this month’s focus, we’ll revisit the definition of emotional child abuse, types of emotional child abuse, and its effects for those who are not yet familiar with the fact that emotional child abuse is real.When child-advocate lawyer Andrew Vachss was asked, “What is the worst case you ever handled?” when protecting abused children, he answered, “Of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest-lasting of all.”
Why is emotional child abuse the worst kind? Why is it even worse than physical child abuse or sexual child abuse?
It’s because emotional child abuse seeks to destroy the person’s very being.
“Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another,” Vachss writes in You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart. “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 the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection.”
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)
Emotional Abuse Is Not a One-Time Event
The words persistent and systematic are crucial to the definition of emotional 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 forget to make your bed? Are you stupid? Stupid and forgetful…” and then, at some point in time (close enough to be linked to the first event), “You forgot again? Can’t you ever do something right? You are always disappointing me.” Again, at another point, the abusive parent will say similar words, so that the child ties it together: “You can’t do anything right. You are always disappointing me.”
And so on…
In time, the emotionally abused child adopts the phrase into his or her memory as something that defines them: “I don’t do anything right. I am always disappointing my parents.” 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 abusive words will become truths to the child.
Types of Emotional Child Abuse
“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)
The pattern can take different forms. Here’s a look at types of emotional child abuse:
- Giving the silent treatment
- Ranking children unnecessarily
- Being condescending
- Bunny boiling (aka destroying something that the child cherishes)
- Gaslighting children
- Pathologic (or compulsive) lying
- Inappropriately controlling
You can read more about the Types of Emotional Child abuse here.
Affects of Emotionally Abused Children as Adults
“Although the scars may not be visible to the naked eye, emotional abuse wounds the spirit, frequently leaving its marks for a lifetime,” according to the National Council of Child Abuse & Family Violence.
“This form of abuse is destructive to a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. It can affect a child’s emotional development, resulting in a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.”
Moreover, the “children who suffer emotional abuse grow into adults who see themselves through the eyes of their abuser,” according to the council. “They carry a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness with them into their jobs and relationships. Frequently, those who have experienced emotional abuse in childhood find it difficult to develop healthy, intimate relationships as adults. They may even develop antisocial behaviors, which isolate them further.”
“If you were emotionally abused in childhood, you will be sicker as an adult than if you had not been emotionally abused,” states Dr. Laurie McKinnon, the director of Insite Therapy and Consulting based in New South Wales, in her report Hurting Without Hitting: Non-Physical Contact Forms of Abuse [PDF]. “It is also likely that you will be sicker than if you had been physically abused.”
Health issues also include…
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Other self-destructive behaviors
“One of the most frequently documented outcomes of childhood emotional abuse, particularly for women, is a vulnerability to clinical depression and anxiety in adulthood,” says McKinnon. “Internalised criticism, along with a fear of criticism and rejection from others, appears to be at the core of the depressed or anxious symptoms they experience in adulthood.”
Why Isn’t Emotional Child Abuse Identified or Reported More Often?
“Child protective service case workers may have a harder time recognizing and substantiating emotional neglect and abuse because there are no physical wounds,” said Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Center, and lead author of a new study on psychological trauma. “Also, psychological abuse isn’t considered a serious social taboo like physical and sexual child abuse. We need public awareness initiatives to help people understand just how harmful psychological maltreatment is for children and adolescents.”
Emotional child abuse is difficult to identify because the abuse works on the psyche of a child rather than the body. You cannot see the bruise or cut or wound that an insult or manipulation or the silent treatment has left upon the child. But the wound exists nevertheless.
“Nonphysical contact abuse (NPC) can be difficult to identify because it leaves no visible injury and because victims often do not seek help,” according to McKinnon. “Professionals find overt NPC abuse easiest to identify because it’s openly hostile. Covert NPC abuse on the other hand is more subtle and insidious and often disguised as helpful or inadvertent.
“The abuser may deny hostile intent while ignoring and discounting the target person’s needs, feelings, and opinions,” McKinnon says. “The abuser negatively labels the target person in ways that convey that he or she is worthless, bad, more difficult, less attractive, or less desirable than other people. Onlookers may not identify the behaviour as abusive and instead blame the target person for his or her inadequacies.”
What to Do If… You’re a Parent Who Is Emotionally Abusing His or Her Child
What to Do If… You Suspect a Child Is Being Emotionally Abused
Learn how to become a trusted adult in the child’s life.
What to Do If… You Are an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse
First, know that you are not alone… and that you can heal. You will bear scars, of course, but you can (in time and through prayer and therapy) still forge a good, emotionally healthy life for yourself.
Reading all the effects of emotional child abuse on an adult survivor can be very overwhelming, difficult, and depressing, but please don’t despair. Think of it this way: By facing the truth of what has happened to you and what the effects are, you can find the help you need and learn skills to grow into a healthier, happier person.
You are not alone. You need not despair. There is hope and healing.
Second, find yourself a good therapist; a fresh notebook for jotting down your feelings, thoughts, and ideas; and a good friend who will listen to you and believe your story.
I recommend reading this article for more advice.
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Next week, let’s tackle bunny boiling. Stay tuned.