“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. All forms of child abuse are terrible… but the one that underpins them all—the abuse that often gets ignored—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 often does not.
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.
To find out more about the different types of emotional child abuse, visit this page.
Just waking up to the fact you had an emotionally abusive childhood? This 92-page PDF can help you during this difficult time. For just $7.99, you receive What Really Happened: Finding Out You Had an Emotionally Abusive Childhood (and Tips for Healing).
Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.
34 thoughts on “Emotional Child Abuse Defined”
Hang in there everyone. The gaslighting is maddening, as is the disbelief of outside family memers when you describe the hideous behavior of your “nice parents” who are super sweet to the rest of the world and toxic to you behind closed doors. It is hard to maintain a sense of self and not to think you are the crazy one.
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Such a harrowing experience with my mother today who emotionally abused me all through my childhood and today turned up on my doorstep wanting to ‘explain’ the actions (or at least those I have openly described to her); she and my sister had conspired with my son aged 14 to turn up ‘as if by accident’ and there was a family attempt at shaming me for my behaviour in breaking off contact with her.
To this very day it is very difficult to prove to others that emotional abuse is occurring. Will it ever be identified as a single entity? Targets, of both genders and their children are traumatised and devalued throughout the judicial and community settings.
The self-torment never stops. Every contact with another human being and I spend hours worrying. I realise rationally that others do not see me as I see myself. I imagine that I come across as ugly, stupid, dull. I can’t form a new relationship because my starting point is this view and therefore I spend all the time trying to hide who I really am or lashing out at some imagined confirmation of my view. I will never be free of this, although I am grateful to have survived. My family do not believe me and have conducted a systematic campaign of defamation against me since I broke off relations with my abusive parent. My other relatives, friends and ex-partners have all been contacted one by one and told I am mad. My aunt no longer sends me birthday cards. I have been utterly isolated. I am only halfway through my lifetime and keep wondering how I will survive the decades to come in such loneliness.
Believe in yourself and seek out a good counsellor. You have been abused and there is much healing that needs to happen. It is NOT of your doing but the result of the toxic behaviours by others. There are very good youtube channels that may guide you through your torment. Check them all out. They will validate you and give you calm wise advice. Time to care for you now. Sending you love. X
I so very much needed to read this.
It’s scary how the emotional abuse from a parent can continually represent itself- even into adulthood. They abuser never seems to realise the extent of the damage they have caused.