Emotional Abuse of Children

Emotional abuse is commonly defined as systematic attacks on a child's emotional well-being and sense of self-worth. It is based on power and control and often accompanies other forms of abuse. Emotional abuse is the most challenging form of child maltreatment to identify and stop. Since it is difficult to detect, assess and substantiate, many cases go unreported. Yet, emotional abuse leaves deep, hidden scars in children that can impede their intellectual, social and emotional development. Educators need to be informed about emotional abuse and steps need to be taken if abuse is suspected.

What are the specific forms of emotional abuse?

  • REJECTION
    Abuse occurs when a parent or caretaker withholds affection or refuses to acknowledge the child's presence or accomplishments. A rejecting adult is emotionally unavailable, detached, and often devalues a child's thoughts and feelings. In a variety of ways, the abusing adult communicates dislike for the child who also may become the "scapegoat" for family problems.

  • HUMILIATION
    Abuse occurs when an adult consistently insults, mimics, and degrades a child. It can include sarcastic comments, name-calling, yelling, swearing or shaming a child in private or public.

  • ISOLATION
    Abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver restricts a child's contact with others, preventing him or her from forming friendships. Normal family interactions are restricted; a child may be required to stay in his or her room, closet, basement or attic for extended periods of time.

  • TERRORIZE
    An adult can abuse a child by threatening to use a knife or other means to hurt, torture or kill a pet, loved one or the child. It includes forcing a child to watch violent acts, threats of abandonment, and/or placing a child in dangerous situations.

  • CORRUPTION
    Encouraging antisocial or delinquent behavior in children is a form of emotional abuse. Corruption exists when children are given alcohol or other drugs, shown pornographic materials, or are exposed to cruelty toward animals or other human beings.

  • EXPLOITATION
    Abuse occurs when children are used for advantage or profit, such as involving them in stealing, assaulting, drug dealing or prostitution.


    What are some of the indicators that a child may be experiencing emotional abuse?

    • low self-confidence/poor self-image

    • unable in trust/fearful

    • dependent/withdrawn

    • anxious/depressed

    • too compliant/hypervigilant

    • detached/difficulty forming relationships

    • little enthusiasm/low perseverance

    • demanding/aggressive

    • destructive/cruel

    • passive-aggressive/compulsive-obsessive

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com], 6/07.

Leah Davies received her Master's Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. She has been dedicated to the well-being of children for over 44 years as a certified teacher, counselor, prevention specialist, parent, and grandparent. Her professional experience includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.

Besides the Kelly Bear resources, Leah has written articles that have appeared in The American School Counseling Association Counselor, The School Counselor, Elementary School Guidance and Counseling Journal, Early Childhood News, and National Head Start Association Journal. She has presented workshops at the following national professional meetings: American School Counselor Association; Association for Childhood Education International; National Association for the Education of Young Children; National Child Care Association; National Head Start Association; National School-Age Child Care Alliance Conference.

We are sure you will benefit by reading her blog.