National Child Abuse Awareness Month: Emotional Child Abuse Is Real and Its Effects Last Long Into Adulthood

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.

[photo credit]
[photo credit]
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
  • Scapegoating
  • Sabotaging
  • Favoritism
  • Triangulation
  • Pathologic (or compulsive) lying
  • Smearing
  • Ignoring
  • Corrupting
  • Terrorizing
  • Isolating
  • 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

Mental Health
“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

Please get help! Contact Prevent Child Abuse and/or the American Humane Society for help.

What to Do If… You Suspect a Child Is Being Emotionally Abused

Learn how to become a trusted adult in the child’s life.

Also, contact Prevent Child Abuse and/or the American Humane Society for professional advice on what you can do.

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.

* * *

This April, we’ll be digging into the various types of emotional child abuse in detail. I’ve already covered gaslighting and the silent treatment in their separate posts.

Next week, let’s tackle bunny boiling. Stay tuned.

[photo credit]
[photo credit]

31 thoughts on “National Child Abuse Awareness Month: Emotional Child Abuse Is Real and Its Effects Last Long Into Adulthood

  1. Reblogged this on Listen Through My Heart and commented:
    Emotional Child Abuse is serious and real. This is the primary abuse that I watch the AoA kids endure every week. It was worse when we were a family unit. While I was able to save my kids from daily abuse, the weekly version is a challenge as we work through the ups and downs every week.


    1. Thanks for spreading the word!

      And I will keep the kids in my prayers.


  2. This is the most succinct post that I’ve ever read about emotional child abuse. It is written from a professional point of view, who appears to have experienced emotional child abuse because as I was reading this, I felt like the writer personally knew me. Thank you for sharing this post. I’m re-posting this on my blog to help raise awareness of emotional child abuse.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lynette,

      Thanks for spreading the word via your blog!

      And thank you for being such a vocal and supportive presence in raising awareness of emotional child abuse.


  3. Reblogged this on Marci, Mental Health, & More and commented:
    “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.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on bdlheart and commented:
    This hit close to home. Throughout childhood and adolescence, I experienced near constant emotional abuse. I remember feeling trapped; my inner critic certain that I was a “bad” child. Years later I battle my inner critic. I hear the critic less, yet I still hear the whisper. This post did a remarkable job explaining emotional child abuse. I found it to be a great resource, especially considering how little we hear about it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for sharing!

      Glad to hear that the inner critic, though not completely squelched, has grown quieter.

      Onward to healing…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that “Of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest-lasting of all.”

    My mother trying to gas our whole family to death when I was a child was extremely traumatizing – but it did not damage my psyche nearly so much as her day in, day out, constantly telling me every little thing that was “WRONG” with me, on top of her periodically telling me “I love you, of course, because you are my daughter. I just don’t like you!” When I was about eleven I finally worked up the courage to ask my mother WHY she did not like me. I wanted to know, so I could change whatever was wrong with me, you see. But she replied, “It’s just you, it’s just the way you are.” Later she added, “It’s the way you think.” How does a child change that? How does anyone?

    Well-meaning busy-bodies have advised me to “just get over it,” because my mother’s emotional abuse happened in the distant past. But it’s not in the past for me. Although it happens a lot less frequently now than it used to, I still sometimes hear her hateful judgmental voice inside my head, like an irritating song you can’t stop thinking about no matter how hard you try. I’m in my early 60s and I can still hear it! Also, my mother’s last hate campaign against me happened less than four years ago, in May 2011, when she sent me a letter that was over sixty pages long, telling me everything that was wrong about me, and she sent copies of her hate-my-scapegoat letter to others in my family (which is why her sister, my aunt, finally wrote my mother completely out of her life). So my point is that my mother’s emotional abuse isn’t in the “distant past” at all. For me it has been lifelong, and I carry it with me everywhere I go.

    I’ve spent most of my life struggling to believe that I am “good enough.” Good enough to be liked, good enough to be loved, good enough to refuse to be abused, and good enough to be treated with simple human courtesy.

    Why any “mother” would deliberately destroy her child’s self-esteem, I can’t understand. This post explains what I grew up with, and the lifelong effect it has had on me, better than anything I’ve read on the subject. I will join the many other re-bloggers and share this on my blog, if that is okay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First things first… (((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((hug))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

      I am so, so sorry to hear your story, not just the tragic story of what your mother attempted but also regarding the incredible lack of support. It’s not quite something you just “get over.” It’s something that wounds, and in time, you learn to live with the wound, but it existed, it’s there, and it affects how one lives.

      The struggle to feel worthy of love and “good enough” is a common theme among adult survivors of emotional child abuse. Love, it seems, is a trophy to be won (the abuser implies through action) IF ONLY the child will do this or that, etc., and those items are ever-changing, so the love is always juuuuuust out of reach.

      It’s so very soul-wounding.

      Healing comes slowly when one learns that true love isn’t won. It’s not a prize or a toy. It’s a right that every child has, every person has the right to be loved because life is a gift, and every person is one as well.

      Peace to you…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you for this — the big hug, the kind and caring and understanding words. I don’t know how I managed to not see your reply to my comment until now. I’m glad I finally did see it, your words brightened my day. 🙂


    3. It is so sad huh? to wonder what we did to make our Mothers dislike, hate us so much.
      Mine is partly because I have a lot of my dad’s mannerisms, traits, etc. and she hates him too.
      “You are just like your father” (They divorced when I was 14, I’m 53 and she still dwells on how bad he treated her.)
      I’m NC with her 2 months and 2 weeks.
      How I often I heard her talking about me……The problem with _______is……and she would start with her list of my faults.
      If I even mentioned something she did or said….she would fly into a rage.


    4. “You are just like your father.” Yes, I heard that, too. Oh boy did I ever. Also the pain of overhearing your mother tell someone else all about your faults… “humiliating” isn’t a big enough word to describe that hurt.

      Wow, 39 years after your parents’ divorce and your mom is still dwelling on how bad your dad treated her? That’s got to be some kind of a record. (A broken record, LOL.) And here I thought my mother was bad when, 23 years after my parents divorced, my father died and I flew back to go to his funeral. During the three days that I stayed with my mother and stepfather, all she did was go on and on and on about how awful my father had treated her during their 13-year marriage. She kept the monologue going even during the hour-long drive to the funeral home, during the funeral procession to the cemetery, and all the way back to her house again. At least she did shut up for the actual funeral service! She had been married to her second husband — a wonderful, kind, enabling caretaker — for over 20 years by then. But when my dad died it was like those 20+ years meant nothing. It was also obvious that my grief and my siblings grief meant nothing. As for how our stepfather felt, hearing her go on and on about her first husband? Whatever he thought about it, he very politely did not say. He learned early in their marriage that it was best to keep his thoughts to himself.

      I wish I had been brave enough to say something at the time. If it happened today, I would not sit and listen in silence to my mother badmouth my father on the day of his funeral. But I was still an emotional child back then. Thirty-four, but still a child.

      Even today, the little girl in me still feels a twinge of guilt just for writing these things about my mother, although I am writing under an assumed name, on a blog that I’m sure my mother will never read. I feel bad for my mother, because I think she probably can’t help being the way she is. It really seems to me like she was born without that part of the brain which allows you to feel empathy and to have some real awareness of the world beyond the end of your nose. It’s like my mother is severely mentally handicapped. Her IQ is probably normal, but her EQ — Emotional Quotient — has got to be in the negative numbers. And if she can’t help it, is she really to blame? I think only God knows.

      I feel sorry for my mother. But… not enough to have any more contact with her. I kept trying to have a relationship with her long after I should have realized it was hopeless. Every time I let her in my life in any way, sooner or later she crushes my spirit. Enough is Enough.

      Good for you for saying No More. It isn’t easy though, is it?

      Liked by 1 person

    5. I had cancer surgery last week, facing chemotherapy soon. I wish i had my mother to comfort and support me.

      i dont want her to even know. she would use my sickness to blame me, tell me i deserve my punishment, etc. she would fill me with fear, use drama to get attention, by pretending to be so concerned about me.

      *Im so glad i moved and NC in March 2015.
      I would not be as mentally or emotionally strong as I am now if I was still allowing her to abuse and use me.
      Im sad that she and her husband are incapable of really caring.
      It sucks…..I have a nice mother in law though.

      My stepdad used to care, but she tore that out of him.

      I’m NC since March 2 2015 but I am sending her a blank card with a note written in it on Mothers day. (no return address)
      A card that will say “enjoy your day,” and sign my name.
      I don’t want to hurt her by not sending a card this year, I just cant think to ignore her completely and hurt her. I don’t want to mean and spiteful like her.


    6. I am so, so sorry about everything you are going through. Cancer surgery, chemotherapy… Whew. Mother’s Day is hard enough for adult children of narcissistic mothers, but this is nightmare stuff. My heart goes out to you.

      Have you heard about the ACE study? It’s a long-term study done by the Center for Disease Control on how Adverse Childhood Experiences affect a person’s longterm health and life expectancy. According to their findings, going through severe, repeated traumas in childhood has a definite major impact on one’s health as an adult. The rate of cancer and other serious illnesses is much higher and they affect us at a much younger age, compared with persons who did not suffer traumas as they were growing up.

      I had cervical cancer when I was 26. The pathologist’s report said it appeared that my cancer had already spread to the endocrine system, which would have been a death sentence if it had been true. But I turned 62 last week, so the pathologist was apparently wrong. Either that, or my body was able to get rid of the cancer on its own. I did have a lot of people in my church praying for me at the time. I will be praying for you, too.

      When my doctor told me that my biopsy was positive for cancer, I was so afraid that I wanted my mother. She was the first person I called with the scary news. I’ll bet you can guess what my mother said. “Oh, I’ve read that women who are very promiscuous get cervical cancer…”

      Sending you a virtual ((((HUG)))) if you want one.

      Liked by 1 person

    7. Thank you, I’ve postponed chemo. I’m having testing done to see if my cancer is low risk. I’m sharing my cancer situation with my sister via letter. I’ve asked her not to tell NM for various reasons.
      I hope she honors my request. If NM tries to contact me, I’m not talking to her.
      I need to be emotionally and physically strong for me. Its about me. Thank God my husband is so supportive re: no contact with my NM.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Swimming Upstream and commented:
    THIS is it. This is what I have been writing about for so many years. I have been trying to describe what it felt like to be shamed and invalidated, and have every bit of self-confidence and self-esteem stripped away. This article defines emotional abuse with empathy and compassion.

    My entire life has been deeply affected by the lasting effects of emotional abuse. Until the last couple years, the internal wounds were still raw and sometimes bleeding. Since then I have been able to be less depressed about the past, but the scars will always be there.

    Liked by 2 people

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