What is emotional and psychological abuse in children?

Emotional and psychological abuse in children is defined as behaviors, speech, and actions of parents, caregivers, or other significant figures in a child’s life that have a negative mental impact on the child.

According to the U.S. government, “emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth.”

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • name calling
  • insulting
  • threatening violence (even without carrying out threats)
  • allowing children to witness the physical or emotional abuse of another
  • withholding love, support, or guidance

It’s very difficult to know how common child emotional abuse is. A wide range of behaviors can be considered abusive, and all forms are thought to be underreported.

Childhelp estimates that every year in the United States, more than 6.6 million children are involved in referrals to state Child Protective Services (CPS). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014, over 702,000 children were confirmed by CPS as having been abused or neglected.

Child abuse occurs in all types of families. However, reported abuse appears to be most common in families that are:

  • having financial difficulties
  • dealing with single parenthood
  • experiencing (or have experienced) a divorce
  • struggling with substance abuse issues

What are the signs of child emotional abuse?

Signs of emotional abuse in a child may include:

  • being fearful of a parent
  • saying they hate a parent
  • talking badly about themselves (such as saying, “I’m stupid”)
  • seeming emotionally immature when compared to peers
  • exhibiting sudden changes in speech (such as stuttering)
  • experiencing a sudden change in behavior (such as doing poorly in school)

Signs in a parent or caregiver include:

  • showing little or no regard for the child
  • talking badly about the child
  • not touching or holding the child affectionately
  • not tending to the child’s medical needs

Who should I tell?

Some forms of abuse, such as yelling, may not be immediately dangerous. However, other forms, such as allowing children to use drugs, can be instantly harmful. If you have any reason to believe that you or a child you know is in danger, call 911 immediately.

If you or someone you know is being emotionally abused, contact your local children or family services departments. Ask to speak to a counselor. Many family services departments allow callers to report suspected abuse anonymously.

You can also call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) for information on free help in your area.

If it’s not possible to contact a family services agency, ask someone you trust, such as a teacher, relative, doctor, or clergyperson for help.

You might be able to help a family you are concerned about by offering to babysit or run errands. However, don’t put yourself at risk or do anything that would increase the risk of abuse for the child you’re concerned about.

If you’re worried about what will happen to the child’s parents or caregivers, remember that getting them help is the best way to show them you care.

What can I do if I think I may be harming my child?

Even the best parents may have yelled at their children or used angry words in times of stress. That’s not necessarily abusive. However, you should consider calling a counselor if you are concerned about your behavior.

Parenting is the toughest and most important job you will ever do. Seek the resources to do it well. For example, change your behavior if you regularly use alcohol or illegal drugs. These habits can affect how well you care for your children.

Long-term effects of emotional abuse

Child emotional abuse is linked to poor mental development and difficulty making and keeping strong relationships. It can lead to problems in school and at work as well as to criminal behavior.

A recent study at Purdue University reported that adults who were victims of emotional or physical abuse as children have a higher risk for developing cancer.

They also experience higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse.

Children who are emotionally or physically abused and do not seek help can become abusers themselves as adults.

Is it possible for a child who is abused to recover?

It’s completely possible for a child who has been emotionally abused to recover.

Seeking help for the child victim is the first and most important step toward recovery.

The next effort should be to get help for the abuser and other family members.

Here are some national resources that can help in these efforts:

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached 24/7 via chat or phone (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and can access service providers and shelters across the country to supply free and confidential support.
  • Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety and well-being of children, teens, and families and provides links, including to family support services.
  • Healthfinder.gov supplies information and links providing support for children and families on many health topics, including child abuse and neglect.
  • Prevent Child Abuse America promotes services that support child well-being and develops programs to help prevent child abuse and neglect.
  • National Child Abuse Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for information on free help in your area.

In addition, each state usually has its own child abuse hotline that you can contact for assistance.