The Invisible Scar

raising awareness of emotional child abuse, its effects on adult survivors & the power of words on children

Emotional Child Abuse Defined

“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_authorVeronica 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.



27 thoughts on “Emotional Child Abuse Defined

  1. 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.


    1. I am a survivor of emotional abuse. And as I look back, now that I am writing a book about my experience, I can see how I practiced some of the negative behavior that I learned from mom on my kids, but I FIRMLY believe that just like we learned this behavior, we can unlearn it. Knowledge is power!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. 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

    1. 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


      1. 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!


  3. 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: in the coming months.


  4. 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).


  5. 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!


    1. I would like to say THANK YOU from the bottom of my Heart to each & everyone of you survivors for speaking on this horrible form of ABUSE!!! I HONOR & RESPECT each and everyone of you for Having the courage to speak out on this issue. I am desperately seeking answers and advice and i am praying in Jesus name that i get it PLEASE!!!!!!!!!
      Please excuse the vulgar langue but I am ONLY quoting the things that are told to this little 6 yr-old girl she is my niece. I raised her from the time she was 5 day to 3-yrs old and her mother took her back because she it was time she came home from that day forward she has done nothing but verbally & mentally abuse her. The mother literally hates this child and she has told me this more than 3 times.No matter what the child does it is always wrong. she has 3 girls the 2 oldest girls are perfect they can cut up and joke with the mother and she will joke & cut up back with them when the youngest does it she get anger and said what the f@#* man stop it stop acting stupid settle down grits her teeth at the child and curses her out calls her stupid tells the child settle down your not funny what the F#@* is wrong with you has put the child on Ritalin has the DR to keep upping the dose because she says the child is very annoying.she grabs and jerks the child around she has sent the child to bed with no food telling the child what every she did wrong that day she can go to bed hunger has literally bet the child on the legs left whelps and bruises. Tonight she made the child eat 4 hot dogs and 2 burgers before she could have her snack the child was about to throw up because she was so full. I keep praying to God to please send the child back to me. The mother loves on the other 2 girls but not on her. The other 2 girls can interrupt the mother while she is talking to someone and its OK but if she does it she call her curse words grits her teeth and says don’t you f%&#ing see me talking.The mother screams at the child all the time. The child lives in constant fear. The child is terrified to answer her mother because no matter the answer its wrong and she gets screamed & cursed at told she is nothing but a f&%# up or she is a Lier the child lives in pure hell gets blamed for everything. When the child comes to my house with her mother she looks at me with a look in her eyes that says help me please i am scarred & afraid. No one can pay the child any attention because if you do you get yelled @ and so does the child. when the child does come sleep over she will wake up in the middle of the night crying saying i don’t want to go home. If you get the child anything it has to come from the dollar tree but the other 2 theirs has to come from toys are us, Macy’s etc. the other 2 will get a new outfit or toy and she gets nothing. It is very very sad. there is so much more. Thank you,


  6. Listen, it’s extremely possible to discuss how devastating emotional abuse is without saying that it’s /worse/ than other types of abuse. Abuse is abuse is abuse. I’ve been emotionally abused, sexually abused, institutionally abused, the list goes on… and one is not inherently more damaging than the other. Also, all forms of abuse typically use emotional abuse as the underlying current. Wonderful article, lots of great points, but I wanted to point out that no type is inherently worse than or better than the others.


  7. I can not remember much of my childhood and I have no memory of being told anything nice about myself or having hugs . I have had disastrous adult relationships and have depression. I really feel no warmth towards my family . Am I a selfish person or was I emotionally abused. Please help .


  8. For me, it was “you are selfish.” It’s such a description that is n the verge of an insult but seemingly a statement that attacks a deserving person, because selfish people don’t deserve respect – by definition, they aren’t showing any. So, I am struggling right now to turn off the voice in my head saying I am selfish, I always screw up because I am selfish, ungrateful and entitled. Just this morning my mother said I am an “entitled bitch” because apparently I “pushed past” her – I didn’t touch her, so I don’t know how that is possible. Even right now, a doubt is in my mind about whether I pushed her. I am trying to justify it to myself – even though I know damned well this is not what happened. I still think I deserve to be told that because in fact, I am selfish and I don’t deserve respect.

    The thing that hurt the most since I can remember is when these statements would kill me inside to the point that I would cry for hours, say I am depressed, and feel so low I didn’t want to live anymore. And I’d try to communicate this feeling to my family, even my sister. and to this day, if I say I am depressed they say I am being selfish and just trying to get attention. they refuse o speak about it. My feelings are so unimportant to them.


  9. 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.


  10. 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.


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