By Bill Fortune III is a member of the ACEs and Resiliency Coalition (ARC) and the Circle of Parents Advisory Committee, Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project (LARJP) and Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness Goal Group.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse of a child (also referred to as psychological abuse) is defined as a pattern of behavior by parents, caregivers, or significant others that seriously interferes with a child’s emotional and social development. Even though it doesn’t carry the same social taboo as sexual and physical abuse, emotional abuse has the same harmful effects on children. According to the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study, one in ten children are emotionally abused. Emotional abuse may include any or all of the following:
Verbal abuse. Adults who use intimidating, threatening or demeaning language when speaking to a child, OR are constantly belittling, shaming, ridiculing or verbally threatening a child, are engaged in emotional abuse.
Rejecting. This is an active refusal to respond to a child’s needs (e.g., refusing to touch a child, denying the needs of a child, ridiculing a child).
Isolating. The parent or caregiver consistently prevents the child from having normal social interactions with peers, family members and adults.
Exploiting or corrupting. In this version of emotional abuse, a child is taught, encouraged or forced to develop inappropriate or illegal behaviors.
Terrorizing. This involves threatening or bullying a child and creating a climate of fear. Terrorizing can include placing the child or the child’s loved one (such as a sibling, pet or toy) in a dangerous or chaotic situation, or placing rigid or unrealistic expectations on the child with threats of harm if the child does not comply.
Ignoring. The parent or caregiver does not respond to the child. He or she may not look at the child, and may not call the child by name.
Emotional abuse is most destructive for children up to age five, but its negative impact continues into the teenage years and beyond. Four factors influence the effects of emotional abuse and influence the risk of poor future outcomes for the child: 1) the quality of early caregiving experiences; 2) the frequency, intensity and duration of the abuse; 3) the child’s temperament, coping strategies, and self-esteem; and 4) external factors such as a positive school experience and supportive relationships in the neighborhood and community.
Symptoms of Emotional Abuse
A child may be experiencing emotional abuse if they appear withdrawn, anxious, clingy, depressed, aggressive, have problems sleeping, or have eating disorders. Children may also wet the bed, soil their clothes, take undue risks, miss school, change eating habits, engage in obsessive behavior, or have nightmares. Children who are emotionally abused often use drugs or alcohol, and may have thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
The most important factor in building resilience to emotional abuse is the presence of at least one person who can give unconditional love or positive regard, thinks well of the child, and makes them feel safe, important and cared for.
The Resilience Guide of the American Psychological Association suggests that adults:
- Teach children how to make friends, and monitor and support their efforts in doing so. Encourage children to help others and be a friend in order to get friends. Encourage self-care. Eating properly, enjoyable exercise, and rest are important for everyone. Make sure children aren’t scheduled every moment, with no down time to relax and have fun. Caring for oneself helps children stay balanced and better prepared to deal with stress.
- Nurture a positive self-view. Help children remember ways they have successfully handled hardships in the past. Stress that these past challenges help strengthen them for future challenges.
- Encourage empathy, the feeling of another’s pain. Discuss your own or others’ painful experiences in real life, books, or movies.
- Keep things in perspective. Even when children face painful events, help them look at the situation in a broader way and see a long-term view of life. Although a child may be too young to consider a long-term perspective on their own, let them know that there is a future beyond the current situation and that the future can be good. You are there to help them create a good future.