For many years the term “emotional abuse” has lacked a definitive description. It was one of those things that we each believed we understood but each understood differently. This rather nebulous defining of the phrase has given rise to confusion and question when we look back on our dysfunctional childhoods, knowing what happened to us but wondering “Was that abuse?”
Recently I was doing some research for a blog entry and I happened on a positively brilliant paper entitled Emotional Abuse, Practice Guidance for Children’s Services.1 And while it really didn’t relate to my search criteria, my curiosity was piqued and I clicked the link…
O. M. G! I could not believe my eyes! There before me, neatly tied up in a .pdf document, was the most accurate, complete and perfectly nuanced definition of the emotional abuse of a child that I have ever seen in my life! I am publishing it below for you, and have added comments (in violet) to expand upon the points—
2.1 The definition of emotional abuse as contained in ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ (HM Government 2015) is:
Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.
In other words, emotional abuse is not a one-time thing nor need it be an overtly abusive act to be considered abusive, it need only “cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.” The criteria, then, is not the specific act or acts but how those acts affected you: if they had a long-term negative effect then, ipso facto, those acts were abusive.
Emotional abuse, by its nature, can be subtle and in some cases, may even appear to be justified. I recently had occasion to overhear a woman berating a child in a department store, scolding the child for asking for something her mother deemed frivolous. By itself, the act was deplorable—because it was public—but not necessarily emotional abuse. When I had occasion to see the pair in question, however, I saw the child was no more than four years old and the mother was buying something “frivolous” (branded flip flops) for one of her sons. If this kind of event is commonplace in that little girl’s life, then this was an episode of emotional abuse. Why? Because the child was publicly humiliated and then, by buying something frivolous (branded merchandise) for another child, the message was transmitted to the little girl that she is not worthy of “frivolous” goods but her sibling is. And that is emotionally abusive.
- It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person.
This is about a child being valued for what they do, rather than who they are. As the scapegoat child in our household, my value lay in my ability to perform, not in my intrinsic self. Early in my life it was clear that I was of more value to my mother if I stayed out of her sight; later she discovered I could sing which gave her delusions of grandeur: I was going to be a child star, making myself famous and her rich. When that didn’t pan out, my value reverted to my ability to relieve her of responsibility: chores, minding my brother, and staying out of her sight. When I did exceptionally well on standardized tests2 in the second grade, she insisted I be skipped a grade: that was a brag-worthy event because for at least the next year because it proved “my kid is smarter than your kid, therefore I am superior.” When I stopped singing, when my math grades plummeted, when I did my chores poorly either because I wasn’t instructed how to do them or they were simply beyond my physical development, I became worthless and “good for nothing.” Only when I met my mother’s needs for a housekeeper, nanny, or provider of things to make others envious—only when I met her needs and wants—did I have any value to her. And that is emotionally abusive.
Other children may find themselves directed into other channels of parental pride: the unfortunate child of a sports-mad father who is the screaming maniac on the Little League side lines, the mother who pushes her daughter into pageants, the parents who desire a violin virtuoso in the family: parents who put more value in the child’s accomplishments than the child itself. This is depersonalizing, dehumanizing and abusive.
- It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate.
While it is often appropriate for an adult to shush a child, emotional abuse takes it much, much further. I cannot begin to count the times I heard the following phrases from my mother: “Children should be seen and not heard,” “When I want your two-cents worth I will ask you for it,” “Who asked you?” “Why are you talking?” “Nobody asked your opinion,” and “Speak when you are spoken to.” When I was little and lost my front teeth, she mocked my lisp saying things like “If you keep talking like that after your permanent teeth come in…” in a threatening voice. She made it very clear that it was not my place to question her or anything she did or said and contrary opinions from me were not only unwelcome, they were potentially dangerous.
For others, this may come in the form of ridicule of speech habits or patterns or even the use of teen slang. It may come in the form of teasing or even sarcastic comments. The message to be essentially invisible can be conveyed with gestures or “The Look,” intimidating the child into silence. Again, it is the repeated nature of this silencing that is abusive, the fact that the child is prohibited from expressing herself, that is at the core, because the message conveyed is that the child and her thoughts, opinions and feelings are without value.
- It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond the child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction.
This was a common occurrence in my mother’s household. The moment my brother started first grade—and therefore was out of the house most of the day—the live-in housekeeper/nannies were given their walking papers and minding him became my responsibility. Considering that I was only two years older (and he outweighed me), this was a wholly inappropriate expectation. Chores were much the same. I was tasked with baking cakes with no adult supervision at the age of eight, using a gas oven that had to be lit with a match. At ten, still spindly and lacking much body mass, I was given the chore of mopping the kitchen floor every weekend, even though the entire task was too big for me: I couldn’t lift the bucket of water down from the sink, I wasn’t strong enough to wring out the mop, and I was never instructed how to do the job properly, but got punished for doing a poor job just the same.
There were nights we were left home alone, with me nominally in charge of my younger but bigger brother—I was given responsibility but no power or authority and he well knew it. I remember the stress of trying to cajole or bargain my brother into obeying our mother’s edicts and his cavalier dismissal of them because he knew I would be the one to take the punishment, not him.
Surprisingly, while my mother was not over-protective, you would have thought she was: we had to come straight home from school and were not allowed to go out to play or have other children over. We had little freedom and she insisted on knowing where we were at all times—which, in those days before cell phones and pagers, meant we could not stray far from the landline in case she called. Children of genuinely overprotective parents find themselves with no autonomy, even in adulthood. The parent is a constant and often intrusive presence, wanting to know about intimate things (such as menstrual periods or bowel habits) in detail and being punitive if the child is not forthcoming. Over protection is just as damaging as insufficient protection because the over-protected child is denied the opportunity for growth and it sends a message that the child is hopelessly incompetent to learn to care for himself.
- It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. (i.e. domestic violence)
I cannot tell if my mother made sure her fights with my father were quiet, if I was so heavy a sleeper I didn’t hear them, or if I have blocked them out. I do not remember ever hearing my parents fight but it is clear that they did, both from evidence left lying around and from the fact that they divorced—twice! Some people might contend that parents arguing in front of the children is a bad thing, but I woke up one morning to find my father suddenly—and permanently—gone from my home, without a clue it was coming and no idea why.
More than 30 years later a psychologist asked me to name—quickly, with no time to mull the question over—the most traumatic event of my life and “my parents’ divorce” popped out of my mouth. I, however, did not hear anything abusive between my parents (at least not that I can remember), but abusive language and ill-treatment was rife in our household. And the person taking the brunt of it was me.
And while my mother’s ill-treatment of me was abusive to me, it was also an abuse of my brother because, among other thngs, it demonstrated bad parenting to him: it taught him that beating, ridiculing, browbeating, devaluing and rejecting your child is acceptable parenting behaviour.
Others may grow up in households that are chaotic or violent. The violence can be physical or verbal, it can occur in front of the child or not—for a child it is enough to see the aftermath on a loved person, particularly a parent, to understand that he is not safe—no one is safe—in his home. Causing another person to live in fear is emotional abuse, whether any threat is levelled at him or not.
What we as adults and parents ourselves may not realize is that even though we aren’t the ones throwing the punches or dishes or screaming invective or manipulating or pulling passive aggressive stunts, exposing our children to those things makes us just as culpable as the aggressor. Our first responsibility is to protect our children, even against their other parent or even our own parents, if need be. When we allow our need for approval from an emotionally abusive parent or our fear of that parent to take a higher precedence than protecting our children, we also emotionally abuse them by putting our needs ahead of their emotional well-being.
- It may involve serious bullying (including cyberbullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children.
The birthright of a child is to be loved and nurtured, to be safe and sheltered, to be valued and treated with respect. When a child is bullied, especially if parents don’t protect the child from bullying, when a child lives in fear, that child is denied his birthright. Too often we expose our children to toxic people with the misguided belief that because the person has some kind of relationship to the child, it will be ok. But being related to our own abusers didn’t protect us and being related to those abusers won’t protect our children, either.
Many parents exploit their children, some consciously, some without being aware. My mother wanted me to be a child star and she put a lot of money and effort into trying to make that dream come true. The problem was, it wasn’t my dream, it was hers. I didn’t want to be a child star, I wanted to go play paper dolls with Janie across the road.
Parents who put their toddlers into pageants, who dress them like dolls and fuss when they get dirty or rumpled, parents who put violins in the hands of toddlers or push their children to prepare for a career before their permanent teeth have come in, are living vicariously through those children and exploiting them for their own selfish ends. No matter how noble it sounds on the surface (“This will help him get into Harvard…” or “She’s learning poise and self-esteem…”), the bottom line is the child is being used to feed the parent’s ego and that is exploiting a child and exploiting a child is emotionally abusive.
Bullies are everywhere. They are in the schools and churches, workplaces, places of leisure. Roads, running paths, walkways, malls—any place you can think of can contain a bully or two—and that includes households. Bullying inside households and families can be child on child, adult on child, adult on adult and even child on adult. All it takes to become a bully is to discover that intimidation works to get you what you want and then to make use of it as a means of ensuring your success. Bullying doesn’t have to be loud or physically violent—it can be wholly silent and consist only of a certain “look” levelled by the bully upon his victim.
If you don’t bully your child but you allow someone else to do so or you allow one of your children to bully another, then you are as guilty of bullying as if you did it yourself. Nobody stops bullying because it is the right thing to do, they stop because either the target is removed from the bully’s sphere or somebody imposes a consequence that is too onerous, a situation in which the reward no longer outweighs the risk.
- Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone.
There are many, many kinds of child abuse and what many people fail to realize is that they all cause some kind of emotional injury. Many people discount the importance of emotional abuse, believing physical abuse to be much worse, but the truth is, the act of physical abuse of any kind is also emotionally abusive. And while bruises and marks fade with time, emotional abuse doesn’t. It sticks with a child, it festers, it grows—and it causes long-term harm to the child, his self-esteem, his sense of his place in the world.
Children are not sophisticated thinkers and are much more prone to primitive reaction than emotionally balanced adults. It is natural, therefore, for a child to assume that people who hit them do not like them. Corporal punishment is not something that can occur in a vacuum. You strike a child and he immediately learns that you are willing and able to hurt him. You go from protector to potential danger in the child’s mind.
My own experience with this was to be afraid of my mother and to feel deeply wounded and unloved every time she laid into me with her whip-like “strap,” a thin leather dog leash with the metal clip removed. I did not really learn anything from the punishments—at least not what she thought she was teaching me—getting hit didn’t make me suddenly acquire knowledge or skill I didn’t have before, but it did teach me that my mother was volatile, unpredictable, dangerous, and could not be relied upon to protect me: in fact, I learned that I needed protection from her. So I grew up believing I needed protection from my own mother: isn’t that abusive right there?
Emotional abuse is a constant undercurrent in a household in which children are ignored, enmeshed, manipulated, or otherwise made to feel unloved and unvalued. Corporal punishment or other physical abuse (scratching, pinching, hair pulling, being yanked or jerked around) or even threats of physical abuse are also emotionally abusive because they cause the child to live in fear. As a child I used to spend summers with my grandparents, more than a thousand miles from my mother. The difference in me was profound: at my grandparents’ home I did not have that cloud of anxiety hanging over my head, that ever-present sense of danger for which I had to be continually alert, would melt away. But on day my mother came to fetch me back for school, the cloud returned, to follow me around until the next summer arrived and I was again ensconced in the safe haven that was my grandparent’s home.
Emotional abuse is no less devastating to a child just because he does not bear the imprints of hands or instruments on his body. The lessons learned through any kind of abuse are painfully embedded in the child’s psyche and when we are physically abused we learn early that hitting someone else is not a gesture of love, it is a gesture of hostility. And what can be more abusive than living your entire childhood believing that your own parents are hostile towards you?
2.2 Enshrined within this definition is the central principle that emotional abuse, to be considered as such, must be a typical and pervasive feature of the parent/child relationship.
This is very important. A “one-off” event is more easily set aside as an anomaly, and while the event itself may be abusive—and even permanently scarring—it does not create a pervasive atmosphere of abuse in the relationship. But when a child is afraid of a parent, even if that child continues to seek that parent’s love and approval, that fear in and of itself may bespeak an abusive relationship between that parent and child. It is important, however, to recognize that a child may fear a parent through no fault of the parent’s: a parent who has been largely absent (military deployment, for example) may trigger fear in young children; parental alienation may also come into play, with one parent painting a frightening picture of the other to a trusting child. This, in fact, is also emotional abuse of a child.
Emotional abuse is real and, in my personal opinion (having suffered both emotional and physical abuse in childhood), is profoundly more damaging to a child than physical abuse like corporal punishment. It is longer lasting, it is more deeply wounding, and much easier to hide from the prying eyes of others. And unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse can continue unabated long after the scapegoat child escapes the abusing parent’s home. Using myself as an example, my bruises faded and my skin returned to normal, but my mother continued to emotionally abuse me even after I had children myself and even after they had children of their own. The effects of my mother’s emotional abuse have remained with me for decades, still capable of generating fear and pain more than fifty years after I escaped. And that is the true tragedy of emotional abuse: not only is a person’s childhood tainted by it, the aftermath can follow for the rest of their days.