Emotional Child Abuse Defined

By far the most damaging of all types of child abuse (even sexual abuse), is emotional child abuse. 

“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. But the one that underpins them all—the abuse that is invisible and the most damaging—often gets ignored. That type of abuse 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 does not. The scars are inside.

“The bruises don’t show on the outside, so there are no statistics on how many children are victims… but anyone who works with children knows the problem is widespread.” (Dr. Elizabeth Watkins, chief of pediatric primary care at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital)

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.

21 thoughts on “Emotional Child Abuse Defined

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  3. As I read this, I realize the shoe definitely fits, in terms of who my mother was. But it also kind of fits me, as I find these definitions could apply to me and how I know I can sometimes treat my own spouse (and this is something I absolutely hate about myself, but have not been able to change just by wishing or willing myself to stop). Did I learn this behaviour from my mother? Did the emotional abuse she heaped on her children program me to be like her? And can finally recognizing where it comes from help me to shed this most distasteful part of myself? Just as I didn’t deserve this as a child, my spouse doesn’t deserve this from me, either.


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  7. This is limited as it only refers to family / parents. Once abused in this way, I found that I was subject to neighbors, store owners, librarians, bus drivers…in short absolutely anyone out there where some time of interaction occurred almost daily (even the milkman). These ‘other’ people quickly pick up on your ‘non-personhood’ and you are ‘game’ to them. Neighbors took free rein to make comments about me, even into adulthood. I am as angry at them as at my folks.
    I think it is horrendous to grow up this way. Even my counselor gave up on me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi,
      just read your post, and you are he first person I encountered who had THE EXACT SAME experiences as i did!!!As for your “counselor”…s/he wasn’t worth it…I find most of them are narcisists themselves, often sociopaths.Don’t know where you live, but if you live in Ireland, I can recommend a very good one. Feel free to respond, for a chat. Thanks for posting! Iris


      • Iris Thank you, and welcome. Sorry you suffered the same way I did. People are obnoxious, aren’t they? There were some who wanted to help, but I could not ‘let them in’. I regret that at their time of contact, I hardly knew what was ‘wrong’ myself…and communication is a problem everywhere.
        So you live in Ireland? We were there in 2001 (three months before September 11). We loved it! And kissed The Blarney Stone!


  8. Barbara, It is interesting that you mention abuse from the neighbors, etc because in writing my book about my experience with my NPD mother, I could clearly see a pattern of abuse from others that my path crossed. It did seem like they were picking up on my “nonperson hood,” as you stated in your comment. Btw, my book is scheduled to be released in June. More info coming on my blog: reflectionsbooks.org in the coming months.


  9. I await your book with great anticipation. Thank you for responding to my blog. I have faced abuse from every path I chose to take in life. I noted back in my 20s that I could relate to African Americans much more than whites because of the same type of ‘designation’ that was attached to ‘us’. I had doors close in my face, not just from businesses (like one hair salon I visited told me to ‘move along…we don’t want to work on you’)…imagine how that felt. But also from family members who closed doors, even on Christmas day, in my face. No word of lie.

    (I traveled all the way to the Cape from central Mass. one summer without realizing my mother had invited one of my brothers to the cottage…he would not even acknowledge me at the door. It was like I was invisible).


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  16. Thank you so much for this blog. It has been a lifesaver. I moved back in with my parents to repair broken trust (and because I could no longer afford to be on my own) and it worked just fine the first year, but the second they turned on me. Then I knew. Finally. My entire life I thought something was wrong with me and this is the first year of my adult life that I realize that something is wrong with them. My “nice and normal” parents have used me as a scapegoat (and my brother as the golden child) for our whole lives and I just thought that was the way our family was. I started reading this blog and the light struck. Oh, yes, I was emotionally abused (my former therapist tried to tell me the same thing but I didn’t believe her). Seriously, I really resisted that revelation. And now every interaction now has that different perspective. It will be a lifelong struggle to fix that pervasive self-doubt and to stop questioning everything I saw or do, but at least I have an awareness now. Gotta work on moving out … again!


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