DEFINITION of the TERM: Emotional/Psychological Abuse

Emotional/Psychological abuse is referred to in the professional literature by many interchangeable terms such as: emotional abuse, covert abuse, psychological maltreatment, coercive abuse, abuse by proxy, and ambient abuse.

Psychological maltreatment is a concerted attack by an adult on a child’s development of self and social competence, a pattern of psychically destructive behavior to the child. (Garbarino, et al, 1986, as cited in Tomison & Tucci, 1997).

Psychological abuse can be defined as a repeated pattern of damaging interactions between parent(s) and child that becomes typical of the relationship… when a person conveys to a child that he or she is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs (Kairys & Johnson, 2002).

Emotional abuse is the systematic, patterned and chronic abuse that is used by a perpetrator to lower a victim’s sense of self, self-worth and power (Mezey, Post & Maxwell, 2002).

It [psychological/emotional abuse] is most damaging to children, who are not aware, nor have control over, the pattern of relationships surrounding them, is almost always a precursor or accompaniment to physical aggression, and is based on maintaining consistent power and control over time (Garbarino, 1994).

Prevalence of Emotional Abuse

Emotional/Psychological abuse can alone but is also always a component of physical or sexual abuse. Indeed, it is the emotional/psychological abuse component of physical and sexual abuse which is most damaging to children and leads to the long term harmful consequences of such abuse.

The United States National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect reports an overall rate of child maltreatment of 1.5 million children.
204,500 of these children are recorded for emotional abuse
212,800 of the 1.5 million children are recorded under the category of emotional neglect (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996)

Emotional/psychological abuse is the most common form of child abuse. According to Doyle’s Child Abuse Review which surveyed a population of 504 respondents, 29% had been emotionally abused by caregivers compared to the 9% who had been sexually abused and the 14% who had been physically abused (Doyle, 1997).

Children raised in homes where they are exposed to domestic violence between the parents but are never hit themselves experience the same emotional and behavior problems associated with verbal/emotional abuse, i.e., exposure to marital abuse is a form of emotional/psychological abuse of children.

Behaviors of Emotional/Psychological Abusers

Psychological/emotional abuse involves behavior patterns that involve one or all of the following: Rejecting, Degrading, Terrorizing, Isolating, Corrupting/Exploiting, Denying Emotional Responsiveness (Garbarino, 1994).

Examples of these behaviors includes encouraging children to develop behavior that is self-destructive, behavior that is threatening or is likely to place the child or child’s loved ones in danger, ignoring a child’s attempt to interact, interacting without emotion, and preventing a child from interacting with other children or adults outside of the home (Garbarino et al, 1986).

Name calling, threatening to kill the victim’s family or pet; controlling access to finances; isolating the victim from family and friends; coercing the victim to perform degrading, humiliating or illegal acts; interfering with job, medical or educational opportunities; or making the victim feel powerless and ashamed (Mezey, Post & Maxwell, 2002).

Perpetrators of emotional/psychological abuse often consciously employ a strategy called, “gaslighting” in which they present an alternate reality to their victims, police, therapists and judges. Gaslighting involves denying what occurred, offering plausible but untrue accounts of what occurred, or suggesting the victim is imagining things, exaggerating or lying. Gaslighting strategies leave victims doubting their own perceptions, memory or sanity and serve to confuse police, judges and therapists into inaction or worse, supporting the abuser, while leaving the victims feeling helpless and alone against the abuse (Forward, 2003; Engel, 2002, Stern, 2007).

Monopolization of perceptions is often part of the abuser’s brainwashing-like tactics whereby the abuser insists upon the children also believe what he/she says is true and that they’re perceptions, opinions or ideas are mistaken or unworthy. (Loring, 1997)

Constant criticism, demeaning behaviors, threats, use of male/parent privilege, withholding affection or threatening abandonment for non-compliance with abuser’s demands and personal humiliation are further consistent, on-going tactics of the emotional/psychological abuser (Pilowsky, 1993; Parkeer, 1996; Follingstad, 1990; Marshall, 1996; Hoffman, 1984; Alexander, 1993, Chang, 1996; Jacko, 1995; Loring, 1997).

The continuous and unrelenting patern of emotional abuse is often interspersed with warmth and kindness to create an “in and out” of bonding , “crazy making” experience for the children and spouse. (Loring, 1997).

Behavioral Symptoms of Children Victimized by Psychological/Emotional Abuse

· Research indicates that abuse/maltreatment of any type adversely affects children’s academic achievement, cognitive skills and social/psychological adjustment (Kendall-Tackett & Eckenrode, 1996; Kendall-Tackett, Meyer & Findelhor, 1993; Oddone, Genuis & Violato, 2001).

· Research finds that exposure to high levels of inter-parental conflict is harmful to children (including covert conflict such as placing the child in the middle of conflicts) resulting in higher levels of behavior problems, poorer academic achievement and higher levels of emotional distress (Amato, 2000; Amato & Resac, 1994; Pruett, et al, 2003 and Adamson & parley, 2006).

· Verbal/emotional aggression by parents is more strongly related to children’s aggression and interpersonal problems than is physical aggression (Strauss, et al, 1991)

· The most common symptomatic outcomes found with children exposed to emotional/psychological abuse are eating disorders, substance abuse, aggressive behavior, withdrawal , criminal activity, suicide and self harm (Doyle, 1997).

· Research finds that as the amount of verbal/emotional abuse by parents increases the probability of children’s behavior problems also increases including aggressive behaviors, delinquency and interpersonal conflicts.

· Fear, isolation, withdrawal, feelings of abandonment and helplessness, overly compliant/submissive behavior, self-blaming, and humiliation are common responses of children to emotional/psychological abuse (Tomison & Tucci, 1997

Characteristics of the Child Abuse Survivor

Changes in behavior at school or at home. (withdrawal, inattentiveness, or other unusual behavior)
Sleep disturbances (insomnia, bed wetting, nightmares)
Unexplained and sudden fears
Loss of appetite
Excessive anger or reckless behavior
A new reluctance to spend time with certain people
A need for more reassurance than usual
Overwhelming knowledge of sexual behavior
Isolation from friends, limited participation in social activities
Drug or alcohol use
Chronic running away
Increase in physical complaints (miscellaneous illnesses)
Inappropriate attention-getting behavior
Suicide attempts
Self inflicted physical abuse (self-mutilation)
Poor self-esteem
Problems in school (missing class, grades)