Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse is defined as a pattern of psychologically destructive interactions with a child that is characterized by five types of behaviors: rejecting, isolating, terrorizing, ignoring and corrupting. Emotional abuse involves the use of "words as weapons." The scars left may be more psychological than physical, which makes emotional abuse harder to identify. Physical signs of emotional abuse may include malnourishment, small physical stature, poor grooming and inappropriate attire for the season or circumstances. Behavioral signs that may suggest emotional abuse include constant approval-seeking; self-criticism; letting oneself be taken advantage of; excessive timidity or quiet aggression; indecisiveness; fear of rejection from others; and verbally hostile, provocative or abusive behavior. Because these signs can result from other social and environmental causes, we again encourage you to take care in assessing your own personal experiences.

Because much emotional abuse consists of words, and because the use and meaning of words are highly subjective, it is harder to quantify and clarify examples of emotional abuse. What is heard as abusive language by one child may be the norm for another, although it still may be abusive, even if it is not so classified by the community. Similarly, much emotional abuse consists of acts of omission, rather than commission, and so there may not be a sign or symptom to point to as evidence. For these and other reasons it is difficult to generate accurate statistics on the occurrence of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse, more than physical or sexual abuse, must be measured in terms of severity. It is deemed mild when the acts are isolated incidents; moderate when the pattern is more established and generalized; and severe when acts are frequent, absolute and categorical. All parents are emotionally abusive to their children at certain times. Parents are not perfect, and they too are subject to stresses and strains of daily living that may cause them to lash out at others. It is especially important to determine whether there is an established pattern of verbal abuse or mental cruelty in order to label the behavior emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is the least understood, and perhaps the most controversial of the three types of abuse because of the confusion about how to define and describe it. It was psychologist James Garbarino who defined emotional abuse in terms of the five behavioral clusters described below.

Rejecting: Rejecting involves the adult's refusal to acknowledge the child's worth and the legitimacy of the child's needs. Children experience rejection and abandonment when parents act in ways that minimize the child's importance or value. During infancy, this may involve not returning the infant's smiles or misinterpreting crying as manipulation. In later years, it may include refusing to hug the child, placing the child away from the family, "scapegoating" the child for family problems and subjecting the child to verbal humiliation and excessive criticism. The child begins to think, "If my parents don't think I matter, then I must not be very worthwhile. If I'm not very worthwhile, maybe they will abandon me."

Terrorizing: Terrorizing includes verbally assaulting, bullying or frightening the child, thereby creating a climate of fear that the child generalizes to the world at large. Terrorizing usually involves threatening the child with some kind of extreme punishment or dire outcome, one that is clearly beyond the child's ability to respond or protect him/herself. The end result is that the child experiences profound fear and is left to her/his own psychological imaginings. Examples of terrorizing vary according to the child's age. During infancy, the parent may deliberately violate the child's tolerance for change or intense stimuli by teasing, scaring or engaging in unpredictable behavior. As the child grows older, the terrorizing may take the form of verbal intimidation: forcing the child to make unreasonable decisions (such as choosing between competing parents), constant raging at the child or threatening to expose or humiliate the child in public. In families that practice strict religions (fundamentalist and other sects), children can be terrorized by parents who "put the fear of God" in them or threaten them with the devil's wrath, should they not behave.

Ignoring: Ignoring entails depriving the child of essential stimulation and responsiveness, thereby stifling emotional growth and intellectual development. Ignoring refers to the condition in which, due to excessive preoccupation with their own issues, the parents are emotionally unavailable to the child. In contrast to rejecting, which is actively abusive, ignoring is passive and neglectful. Ignoring behaviors include not responding to the child's talk, not recognizing the child's developing abilities, leaving the child without appropriate adult supervision, not protecting the child from physical or emotional assault by siblings or friends, not showing interest in the child's school progress and focusing on other relationships (such as a new lover) to the point that the child feels displaced. Emotional neglect may be the most common type of abuse, but it may also be the least reported.

Isolating: Isolating involves the adults' cutting the child off from normal social experiences, thereby preventing the child from forming friendships and reinforcing the child's belief that s/he is alone in the world. Isolating the child from normal opportunities for social relations is another form of emotional abuse because it impedes the social development of the child. Included here are efforts by the parents to put the child at odds with friends, presenting "outsiders" as the object of suspicion, reinforcing the child's concerns about peer acceptance and thwarting the child's attempts to be industrious and self-sufficient. Specific behaviors that tend to result in isolation are preventing children from seeing family or friends, preventing receipt of appropriate medical care, punishing the child's social overtures, rewarding the child for avoiding social situations, prohibiting the child from inviting other children home, withdrawing the child from school and preventing the child from joining clubs or dating. Because children tend to become more socially active as they get older, it is far easier to seclude a young child than an older one.

Families that are members of strict or closed religious groups may be especially prone to isolation and have been known to keep their children out of school because the "outside world" so conflicts with their personal beliefs and values. However, there are certain religions which de-emphasize, and even prohibit, certain contacts with the "outside world," especially those involving doctors and medical procedures. In these contexts the isolating behavior does not necessarily constitute abuse. If you grew up in this kind of atmosphere, there may be an explanation for why your family engaged in isolating behaviors.

Isolation is also common in families where father-daughter incest exists. In these cases the father wants to keep the child at home to preserve his access to her and to limit the possibility that she will tell someone about the incest. Many times incest comes to light only after several years when the girl, now a teenager, tells somebody in her peer group what has been going on at home.

Corrupting: Corrupting involves encouraging the child to engage in antisocial behavior that reinforces deviant social attitudes. Most frequently the corruption has to do with suggesting inappropriate ways of handling aggression, sexuality or substance abuse. By encouraging antisocial values and behaviors and discouraging the learning of positive social attitudes and skills, the parents hinder the child's social development. Sometimes a child evolves an identity that puts him/her at odds with the conventions and standards of society. Some examples of corrupting behavior include reinforcing the child for sexual behavior; condoning drug use; rewarding aggressive behavior; exposing the child to pornography; and involving the child in criminal activities such as prostitution, drug dealing or insurance fraud. Another example is parents who force their racist or exclusionary attitudes on their children and encourage them to act on these beliefs in ways that cause problems for them with peers, at school and even with the law.

Go to journal questions for emotional abuse

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© 2007 THE MORRIS CENTER, Revised 11/06