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Child Emotional/Psychological Abuse

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.

Depending on the nature of the emotional or psychological abuse tactic employed, it can also be referred to as child neglect. The U.S. government defines emotional abuse as neglect when there is a "pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth."

Examples of abuse include:

  • name-calling
  • insulting
  • threatening violence (even without carrying out threats)
  • allowing children to witness the physical or emotional abuse of another
  • allowing children to use illegal drugs

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 considered underreported. Childhelp estimates that more than three million reports of child abuse are made every year in the United States.

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

  • have financial difficulties
  • are dealing with single parenthood
  • are experiencing or experienced a divorce
  • struggle with substance abuse issues

What Are the Signs of Child Emotional Abuse?

Signs of emotional abuse in a child may include:

  • being fearful of parent
  • saying they hate the parent
  • talking badly about themselves ("I’m stupid")
  • seeming emotionally immature when compared to peers
  • exhibiting sudden changes in speech, such as stuttering
  • experiencing 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?

If you or someone you know is being emotionally abused, contact your local children or family services departments. Ask to speak to a counselor. You can also call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4ACHILD (1-800-422-4453) for information on free help in your area. Many family services departments allow callers to report suspected abuse anonymously.

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 risk for the child you’re concerned about.

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 you or a child you know is in danger, call 911 immediately.

No one deserves to be abused. 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 love them.

What Can I Do If I Think I May Be Harming My Child in This Way?

Even the best parents 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 notice a pattern in your behavior.

Parenting is the toughest and the 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, and 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 have higher incident 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. The next effort should be to get help for the abuser and other family members.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Elea Carey
Medically reviewed on: Dec 14, 2015: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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