We often associate scars, bumps and bruises with abuse, but there is a type of abuse that leaves a scar invisible to the naked eye. Emotional abuse is easily overlooked in society but is one of the most damaging forms of abuse on children.
This “silent” abuse can have serious emotional consequences and long-term ramifications, effecting a child’s self-esteem, academic success and ability to function in society.
The American Humane Association defines emotional abuse of a child as “a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that can seriously interfere with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological or social development.” This “psychological maltreatment” includes ignoring, rejecting, isolating and neglecting.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services found in 2007 that 62.8 percent of children experience neglect and 7.1 percent of children experience emotional and/or psychological abuse.
Why and how are children experiencing emotional abuse at home?
Some myths surrounding emotional child abuse say it doesn’t happen in “good” families but the truth is emotional child abuse happens in families of all types of racial, economic and cultural backgrounds. Parents and caregivers often abuse due to stress, poor parenting skills, unrealistic expectations and most often because they were abused as well. The abuse can also show itself in many ways, such as verbal attacks, shame, blame, guilt, criticizing and teasing.
What are the effects of emotional abuse on children?
Emotional abuse impacts a child psychologically, emotionally and socially with immediate and long-term effects that are often difficult (but not impossible) to fix. The most common ways emotional abuse shows itself in children are insecurity, social withdrawal, lack of self esteem and confidence, depression, and defiant and destructive behavior.
Quite possibly the worst impact of emotional abuse on children is the cycle it creates. Parents who were emotionally abused as children are the most likely to continue using the same actions with their own children.
Recognizing and helping an emotionally abused child
Before emotional abuse can impact a child’s future, you can recognize the signs of suffering and put a plan in place to solve the problem. Emotional scars, behaviors that indicate there has been abuse, could be aggression, sleep and speech disorders, destructive behavior, lying, being withdrawn or shy, or being cruel to oneself or others.
If you recognize symptoms of emotional abuse in a child or a child confides in you that he/she is being emotionally abused, proceed with caution when helping the child. Stay calm and reassure them that they are in a safe place to speak. Let the child talk and you listen, but when you do respond, emphasize to the child that they did nothing wrong. For a child to admit to emotional abuse is very difficult, so make sure they know they did the right thing.
For children suffering or who have suffered emotional abuse, it’s important that the child live in a loving, supportive environment that will help heal the scars of the past. If the environment cannot be fixed, professional psychiatric care is often necessary in extreme cases.
Breaking the cycle in your own home
If you have a history of child abuse, history may repeat itself. Children need love, encouragement, acceptance and positive attention. If you feel your behavior toward your child is that of emotional abuse, here are some suggestions:
- Have realistic expectations of your child and adjust your parenting to these new expectations.
- Take care of yourself (your well-being affects your child’s).
- Compliment your child and show you care for them in a positive manner.
- If overcoming the issue is too difficult, do not feel ashamed to seek professional help. Therapy (for you) may be just what your child needs.
Remember, as a parent, you are the most important person to your child. Everything you do, not just your physical actions, impacts them. Be aware of what you say and do and your behavior to your child. Let’s make the world a more positive and loving place for our children and break the cycle of emotional abuse.