Emotional abuse is systematic, emotional mistreatment that has the ability to damage the cognitive and affective of ones’ functioning. (Barlow, Hibbard, and MacMillan, 2012). This definition emphasizes the effects of emotional abuse.

It has been challenging to find a universally agreed upon definition for emotional abuse and the debate seems to start with the terminology. As emotional abuse is sometimes referred to as psychological abuse or psychological maltreatment, it causes some to argue for and some to argue against the interchangeability of the terms emotional and psychological. There are terms such as verbal abuse, psychological aggression and mental cruelty that are closely related to and sometimes used synonymously for emotional abuse (Berglund & Doherty, 2008). Then there are definitions that speak of the act of invalidating the abusee’s feelings of security and self-esteem and definitions that leave this part out. When the maltreatment derives from a person from a system of power, it is often referred to as institutional abuse.

The uncertainty that comes with trying to define emotional abuse exists for a variety of reasons. For one, there is no clear distinction between what some will call emotional abuse and what others will state is imperfect parenting. Certainly, not all examples of suboptimal parenting can be considered abuse, in the same way that not all emotional abuse is a result of bad upbringing. Questions may rise to whether certain parenting strategies can be considered abusive in nature, while it is important to keep in mind aspects such as cultural background and personal differences.

It is arguable that these aspects, when coming from a cultural perspective, can subvert emotional abuse for the sake of culture or differences in perspective. After all, sticking to the stated definition, mistreatment that has the ability to damage one’s cognitive functioning or disturbing one’s mental state, would still be considered abuse. Yet one might argue that this, disregarding the damaging part, is what parenting really is. Some may call it mistreatment while others may call it correcting. To some parents and their children, a somewhat humiliating joke can be what the child needs to get motivated, while others will perceive it as damaging to a different child’s well-being.

This brings us to reason two for why defining abuse is a complicated task. The types of behaviour that will be described later on in this chapter (see: forms of emotional abuse) are unlikely to result in emotional abuse when it takes place in isolated incidents. For this reason, the word systematic was added to (Barlow et al., 2012) definition of emotional abuse. To emphasise that a solitary case of damaging behaviour might not be considered emotional abuse, yet while it takes place on a periodical base it most likely is. To quote Barlow et al. (2012, p.373): “Psychological maltreatment [by parents] refers to a repeated pattern of parental behaviour that is likely to be interpreted by a child that he or she is unloved, unwanted, or serves only instrumental purpose”.

Still, the complicated part is where to draw the line between systematic abuse and an isolated remark or action. Keeping in mind that in every scenario a careful consideration of the situation and background is key.

Thirdly, attempting to define emotional abuse can be a difficult task due to its somewhat hardly identifiable nature. Emotional abuse often takes place coexisting with other types of abuse which are more prominently present due to their more physical nature. When occurring by itself, it can be even more complicated to identify emotional abuse, which can cause it to go unnoticed for long periods of time without intervention. According to Barlow et al. (2012) and for this reason, emotional abuse is possibly the most unreported type of maltreatment.

This, despite the fact that 8-9% of women and 4% of men in the United Kingdom and the United States state to be the victim of severe emotional abuse at the age of 2 to 12 years old. In eastern Europe, the percentage of people claiming to be the victim of emotional abuse was even higher (Barlow et al., 2012). A study in 2003 found that only 14% of substantiated, reported cases of abuse in Canada, with only 2% of the cases resulting in charges (Berglund & Doherty, 2008). Although this study is likely to be considered somewhat aged, there is no sign that these numbers have dropped over the course of the past decades as the nature of emotional abuse has not changed.


Despite the focus of this (part of the) chapter lying with parent to child emotional abuse, emotional abuse can happen in a variety of different relationships. The term relationship, however, is an important one due to the systematic nature of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse rarely occurs in a situation where abuser and the person experiencing abuse did not previously know each other.

Adult-child Relationships: Emotional abuse can take the form of an adult damaging a child’s cognitive and affective functioning. The most common adult-child relationship would be that of a caregiver and their offspring, but other adult-child relationships, such as that of aunts’ and uncles or family friends can also result in the damaging nature of emotional abuse.

According to TrocmĂ© et al. (2005), as mentioned by Berglund and Doherty (2008), in 82% of cases of abuse, at least one of the parents is considered to be the abuser. In the case of emotional abuse 56% to 66% of the time the adult’s role in the relationship was ascribed to the child’s father/mother/caregiver.

Due to this often-personal connection, whether neglective, physical, sexual or psychological, any form of abuse was capable of causing severe emotional harm.

Peer Relationships: In many scenes, whether perceived as a parent, a child, a teacher or a peer, the concept of bullying is a concern. Abuse between peers can take many forms, amongst which that of emotional abuse. Examples of peer-to-peer abuse are exclusion, spreading rumours to make someone less-liked, or pretending kindness.

According to Craig 2004, as stated by Berglund and Doherty (2008), up to 1 in 4 students aged 11 to 15 admitted they had bullied at least one of their peers as was found in a Canadian study. Similar numbers claimed to have been bullied. Contrary to boys, who are more likely to show physical abuse, girls tend to show a more indirect form of aggression, being more likely to abuse emotionally Simmons (2002), as stated by Berglund & Doherty, 2008).

Sibling relationships: Children cannot leave the situation they are in due to the dependency they have on their parents. In the same manner, they cannot choose the family that they are surrounded by. This includes possible siblings.

In sibling relationships, the term rivalry is commonly used to express the seemingly harmless quarrel that often takes place in a household. Where adult-child abuse is at the least actively frowned upon by most, sibling rivalry is seen as a normal part of childhood and is often treated as unavoidable. However, mistreatment between siblings can have long lasting effects on a child’s cognitive functioning and emotional well-being and can be considered emotional abuse if it takes place in a systematic manner.

As is with other forms of abuse, emotional abuse by siblings often exists mixed with other types of abuse, while remaining the least recognized. The lack of intervention that results from this increases the chance of the abuse being internalized by the victim. Causing distorted perceptions and assumptions regarding ones’ self-image (Caffaro, 2014).

Forms of emotional abuse

Within emotional abuse a distinction can be made between deliberate and neglectful abuse. Berglund and Doherty (2008) created an overview of the most common forms, tactics and behaviours regarding emotional abuse. They state that neglectful emotional abuse is characterized by the absence or withholding of human contact, as well as/or a specific disregard of the victim’s feelings. Deliberate abuse is a more direct, sometimes considered aggressive form of abuse marked by purposeful harming the victim mentally and/or emotionally. ( Psychological Abuse: A Discussion Paper. (p. 4-5, Berglund, D., and Doherty, D, 2008, Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada)

We have selected descriptors that would apply more to children but for a complete list, click this link to the original paper.

Neglectful Tactics

Denying, Ignoring, Rejecting

  • failing to provide care in a sensitive and responsive manner;
  • interacting in a detached and uninvolved manner;
  • purposefully not acknowledging the presence, value or contribution of the other;
  • acting as though the other person were not there
  • repeatedly treating a child differently from other siblings in a way that suggests resentment, rejection or dislike for the child.


  • not giving any credence to the person’s point of view or feelings
  • claiming the behaviour was meant as a joke
  • denying that any abuse has ever taken place
  •  implying something is wrong with the person who has hurt feelings or complains about not liking his/her treatment as a result of the abuse;
  • suggesting that nobody else would be upset by the same treatment

Deliberate Tactics

Accusing, blaming and control

  • telling a person repeatedly that he/she has caused the abuse;
  • blaming the person unfairly for everything that goes wrong
  • checking up on their activities;

Criticizing behaviour and ridiculing traits

  • continuously finding fault with the other person or making the person feel nothing he/she does is ever right;
  • setting unrealistic standards;
  • belittling the person’s thoughts, ideas and achievements;
  • diminishing the identity, dignity and self- worth of the person;
  • yelling, swearing, publicly humiliating
  • mimicking, insulting, ridiculing, name calling, imitating;

Corrupting and Exploiting

  • exploiting the power relationship between child and adult for advantage or profit
  • encouraging drugs, sex, alcohol, etc.

Terrorizing and Isolating

  • placing or threatening to place a person in an unfit or dangerous environment;
  • threatening to hurt or kill a pet or loved ones or to destroy possessions
  • physically confining, restricting contact with others

Factors that may increase the likelihood of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse of children can happen in any household, disregarding age, gender nationality, social or economic background, or the presence of any other defining factors. However, certain factors show a statistic increase of the likelihood of emotional abuse of children to take place, causing some children to be more vulnerable than others.

Children with disabilities and behavioural issues: The care of some children can be considered more demanding or difficult due to the presence of certain behavioural issues and/or disabilities. Examples can be a persistent bad temper, illness or a neurological disorder such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit (Hyperactive) Disorder (AD(H)D). According to Berk (2001), as stated by Berglund and Doherty (2008), caretakers of children with such special needs might be insensitive to or struggle recognising the specific needs, resulting in a parental response that can be considered emotionally abusive in nature.

Parents with psychological or substance-abuse related issues: Emotional abuse to children is more likely to occur when one or both of the parents are struggling with issues related to mental health, cognitive deficits or substance abuse. Issues such as these may take up time, energy and motivation (Berglund & Doherty, 2008).

Substance abuse has the potential to result in aggressiveness, impaired judgement, impulsiveness, paranoia and a loss of inhibition (Gateway Foundation, n.d.). These symptoms, especially when multiple symptoms are present, can result in abusive behaviour because self-control and rational thinking is compromised.

Neglectful parents: Studies have shown that emotional harm can be linked to 19% of substantiated cases of neglect (Trocmé et al.,2005, as stated by Berglund & Doherty, 2008). Emotional harm as a result of neglectful parenting is found to be caused by a misunderstanding of what human interaction entails, as well as a misunderstanding of the nature of a parent-child relationship.

 Lacking community support system: An inability to satisfy a child’s basic needs can result in problematic behaviour in the child, as well as strain the caregiver to the extent of emotionally abusive behaviour. Research suggests that a sufficient community support system and the social connection that is created by such a support system can increase a family’s welfare, while families living in poverty tend to have less access to services and facilities that help create such connections (Berglund & Doherty, 2008).

Upbringing in a household with multiple issues: When multiple issues are present in one household, tension can rise and result in emotionally abusive behaviour towards children. Issues can include, but are not limited to:

  • relationship problems between the members of the household;
  • family arguments;
  • money related issues or issues regarding unemployment;
  • mental health issues (NSPCC, n.d.).

Tension caused by an accumulation of problems at home may be directed at children due to their inexperience, innocence and personal needs. These needs can be considered an additional burden in an already tense life. In cases such as these, children may be an easier target or outlet for frustration and/or aggression.

Because issues that are social or economic in nature can be caused by institutionalised problem in today’s society, it is important to be mindful of external factors of abuse when creating policies and programs that aim to improve the welfare of a community (Berglund & Doherty, 2008).


Signs of emotional abuse

The signs of emotional abuse are closely linked to signs of other forms of abuse.

Toddlers and babies who have been emotionally abused might show any or more of the following signs:

  • overly-affectionate behaviour towards strangers or people they are not familiar with;
  • animal cruelty or aggression;
  • relationship and connection with one or more of the parents/caretakers seem distant and impersonal;
  • insecure or anxious behaviour (NSPCC, n.d.).

Older children who have been victims of emotional abuse might:

  • lack emotional control;
  • use language inappropriate for their age;
  • seem isolated;
  • experience abnormal outburst of emotion and/or aggression;
  • have less social skills than their peers;
  • behave inappropriately for their age or have knowledge of topics that are unusual for them to know at the age they are at;
  • lack social connections or friendships (NSPCC, n.d.).

Legal actions – how legal systems can help

While emotional abuse is one of the most complicated forms of abuse to take legal action against, due to its somewhat indefinite nature, there are certain measurements that can be taken in the case of:

  • Threat utterance; a child conveys that their physical well-being or life has been threatened. This may also include threats against the child’s property or pets.
  • Assault; a child conveys that the abuser could and/or would use force against the child’s consent.

Read the next chapter to see what educators can do to support students who experience abuse.



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