Is emotional abuse as bad as physical and sexual abuse? Yes, and in many ways, it’s worse.

All abuse is inherently emotionally abusive. When you hit a child or person, there is no doubt they suffer mentally. Emotional abuse is just as damaging and severe to a person’s well-being as physical and sexual abuse.

To be clear, “emotional” abuse is often used interchangeably with “mental” abuse, but there is a distinction. Emotional abuse refers to any behavior that targets a person’s psychological well-being, including their self-esteem, self-control, and individuality.

“Mental” childhood abuse is broader and includes abuse that may impact a child’s mental faculties, cognition, and psychological function. For instance, giving a child alcohol, secondary substance abuse, or intimidating them with brainwashing, withholding information, or coercing them to perform acts is a form of mental abuse.

Further, it is a myth that emotional abuse is not abusive.

The difference between emotional abuse against kids versus adults

Emotional abuse is any psychological harm or behavior that diminishes a person’s self-worth. This includes:

This broad umbrella of emotional abuse looks different when directed to varying kinds of relationships. For instance, interactions between two adult coworkers where one person constantly criticizes and attempts to publicly embarrass another person at any opportunity is a form of emotional abuse. Further, adults can decide how best to react, if at all, using adult conversations, speaking to HR, or approaching a supervisor.

But kids often suffer quietly when emotionally abused by parents, family members, or other close adults. 

  • Kids often lack the understanding to know what is happening is “wrong,” just as in physical or sexual abuse
  • Kids often can’t verbalize to someone else what is happening
  • Kids often fear further embarrassment or trouble
  • Kids also are often told by their abuser not to talk to anyone so they don’t

Childhood emotional abuse and neglect result in long-term mental health disorders and issues that can impact their future relationships, children, and physical health.

Here are three examples of childhood emotional abuse that impact mental health

Adults often struggle to understand where the line between “firm parenting” and “emotional abuse” begins and ends. Depending on their own lived experiences, they may define emotional abuse differently than another parent. Reporting emotional abuse is challenging since, to rise to a level of legal involvement, a solid case must be made that the child’s well-being is harmed.

Example 1: Isolation and threats of physical abuse from a parent

A child who comes home from school is forced to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in their room. The house is filthy, cramped, infected with animal droppings, and the child is never fed or forced to fend for themselves by eating leftovers they stashed from lunch earlier that day. When the child attempts to leave their room to use the bathroom, a parent locks them in a closet and threatens to hit them, though never does.

This is a clear form of emotional abuse and neglect and a serious form of severe physical abuse and early life stress. While the child is never physically struck, the environment is unsanitary and a form of physical abuse, or a clear indicator their physical health is at risk. Denying the child food or the use of a restroom is also a form of neglect and abuse since they need food to live.

The emotional abuse in this situation, however, is no less damaging. A child who spends one afternoon in their room may be viewed as a reasonable punishment by a parent. But isolating them every day, regularly, and with no cause is cruel and unnecessary.

Example 2: Demeaning, criticizing, and humiliating a child

A child who brings home artwork is told by a caregiver, “You’re no Picasso,” and the child places the artwork back in their backpack and quietly leaves. A similar incident occurred after last week’s phone call from a teacher when the child overhead, after the caregiver hung up, being called “A stupid child with stupid problems.”

This is also a form of emotional abuse, even if the caregiver did not intend for the child to overhear some of the comments. Taken as one brief two-week incident, this does not meet the criteria for most people to consider the child “abused.” However, if a child endured this kind of treatment for months or even periodically over their childhood, most reasonable people would consider this an emotionally abusive relationship.

Example 3: Unfounded suspicion and paranoia

A child spends the summer at their grandmother’s house. Grandma repeatedly tells the child they are being surveilled, that people are following them, and the child mustn’t look for summer work or camps because if they leave, they may be captured.

This is a form of mental abuse with accusations and extreme mental imbalance that, depending on the child’s age, may negatively impact their mental development, too. In this fictional scenario, it’s likely the child’s caretakers may not realize these early onset symptoms of a more serious mental disease, and Grandma may have no idea what she’s saying, either. But this is a form of emotional abuse, even if no one intended for serious harm. Extreme jealousy, accusations, and making a victim feel incompetent or question their own beliefs are also common forms of emotional abuse.

If you believe a child is being emotionally abused, or you suspect someone may be emotionally or mentally abusing a child, you’re obligated to report it under Indiana law. Call 1–800–800–5556 to speak to a navigator who can help gather a report.

Emotional abuse lacks the physical indicator we commonly associate with abuse

Physical abuse often produces scars, bruises, broken bones, and other visible signs a person has been hit or harmed. Emotional abuse is far more pernicious, with no outward physical signs of harm.

That’s why adults need to recognize the signs of abuse in children, who not only lack the vocabulary to describe what is happening to them but they may also lack the knowledge that what is happening is even wrong.

In children, emotional abuse manifests in three main ways:

  1. Behavioral changes, or what most people define as “acting out.”
  2. Stunted emotional development, resulting in less maturity than their peers.
  3. Unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as avoidant behaviors, isolation, or clinging to fantasy or imaginary worlds.

Kids may also display a series of short and long-term impacts:

  • They may mimic the constant criticism, humiliation, or isolation imposed on them
  • They may experience fear, confusion, and some physical ailments such as elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and visions
  • They will likely display an inability to concentrate, insomnia, anxiety, and depression
  • They may show signs of self-harm, low self-esteem, 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Further physical violence or emotional maltreatment directed toward others

Recovering from emotional abuse is likely a long journey

Kids who suffer emotional abuse frequently suffer these and other childhood abuse for months or years of their lives. The example scenarios we listed earlier are fictional, but the kinds of scenarios they represent happen every day in Indiana and across the US. It is very likely that as you are reading this page, caseworkers are investigating a home that is filthy, soiled, and is no place for kids to live. 

The recovery for kids in these forms of psychological abuse is long, often as long or longer than their suffering. Removing them from the situation and people who cause the emotional neglect and child abuse is the first, most critical step. Then, therapy, a close social circle of loving caregivers and friends, and a concerted effort to work on their self-worth and value are next.

Child Advocacy Centers in Indiana see this kind of abuse in nearly every case. It is possible for someone to only suffer emotional abuse, but the vast majority of cases that are investigated stem from neglect. And neglect is among the most severe and tragic forms of emotional abuse against kids.

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