Emotional Abuse: The Unseen Form of Maltreatment in Children

The early stages of psychological and emotional development in children are highly influenced by how the child interacts with a parent or primary caregiver and how often the parent/primary caregiver engages/responds to the child.

It is during these early stages of infancy and adolescence that the child learns more about who they are, what to expect from interactions with others, and how to make sense of what they are feeling. It is also during this time that a child can form the ability to form and sustain positive relationships.

Experiencing the stages of development can be daunting for first-time parents. Especially if you don’t know what to expect or how to deal with certain issues when they arise. Forming or joining a Motherhood Community may be a great way to share information and learn about these stages from parents who’ve already had this experience.

What is Emotional Abuse?

The term emotional abuse has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, with mental disorders such as narcissism being directly linked to acts of emotional abuse. But what exactly constitutes emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is any kind of psychological abuse as opposed to physical abuse. This kind of abuse may be overt or covert. In other words, it could be something as simple as being verbally abused or constantly being criticized. On a more subtle note, emotional abuse may take the form of manipulation, or the victim may constantly have to experience rejection or be at the receiving end of the abuser’s displeasure.

Emotional abuse can be devastating for the victim and have lasting effects. Continuous emotional abuse may eventually erode the victim’s sense of self-worth, self-identity, confidence, and trust in their own opinions. This can be a very demanding situation for any adult, let alone a child undergoing emotional development.

Emotional abuse of a child

Now that there is a clear definition of emotional abuse in terms of an adult let’s take a closer look at what constitutes emotional abuse of a child and what the possible outcomes of such ill-treatment may be.

A child going through development relies heavily on the parent/guardian for love, support, and guidance. Emotional abuse of a child is described as a pattern of behavior that prevents the child from developing emotionally and breaks down their sense of self-worth. A child that is emotionally abused may be subjected to constant criticism or rejection. The parent/guardian may threaten the child or withhold love, affection, support, or guidance.

Other forms of emotional abuse may include name-calling, insulting the child, or humiliating the child.

Physical and behavioral indicators of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse may not always be that easy to detect in a child. Child abuse often takes place inside the home where there are no other witnesses present. There won’t always be physical indicators. Sometimes, the only indicator of abuse may be evident through the behavior of the child.

Children who are emotionally abused may only display behavioral indicators or may also have physical marks on their bodies or face. Behavioral indicators may include depression, problems with learning or retaining information, insecurity, inability to trust, eating disorders, etc.

In some cases, the child may either act very immaturely or they may act too mature for their age. Another indicator to be aware of is when previously self-assured children start to act clingy toward adults.

It’s critical to report child abuse to the relevant authorities as soon as signs of abuse are evident.

Identify traits of the perpetrator

You may not always be able to identify who the abuser is, but there are times that an abuser may display certain traits which may indicate that they are emotionally abusing a child.

When an adult openly confesses to disliking a child or even hating a child, there may be emotional abuse from the adult toward the child. There may be times when an adult demonstrates that they have unrealistic expectations of a child. This could be an indicator that the parent/guardian is being emotionally abusive towards the child. Alternatively, the adult may give the child extreme punishment. Often the punishment doesn’t fit the transgression.

Furthermore, adults who are emotionally distant or indifferent towards the child may also be emotionally abusing the child.

The Impact of Emotional Abuse

The effects of emotional abuse during childhood development can have lasting effects on the individual that often last well into adulthood. More often than not, the child believes that they are responsible for the abuse. The child starts to believe that they are unlovable or not worthy of love.

A child may develop unhealthy attachment issues that affect how the child forms relationships with others and how healthy these relationships are. This often persists into adulthood as well.

Children who are emotionally abused may grow up to be delinquents or may become sexually aggressive when they are older. In many cases, the cycle of abuse is repeated when the child grows up and starts a family of their own, often becoming the aggressor in the situation.

At the far extreme of the spectrum, children may become suicidal or develop other mental illnesses.

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