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THe issues
Emotional Abuse of Children

Even the best parents and caregivers sometimes yell at their children.  Coaches, teachers, and the most loving grandparents can slip up and call a child names or tell the child they’re bad or stupid.  It happens.  And most of the time that same parent, caregiver, grandparent, coach or teacher will go back and apologize.  When the yelling, name calling, belittling, rejecting or ignoring goes on and on and impacts the child’s self-esteem it becomes Emotional Abuse.

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The emotional abuse of children has been difficult to define, and state definitions vary. In accordance with Illinois law the term 'abused child' includes impairment or substantial risk of impairment to the child's emotional health. The following behaviors, however, characterize what many agree constitutes forms of emotional abuse:

  • Rejecting: The caregiver refuses to acknowledge the child’s worth and the legitimacy of the child’s needs. Examples include withholding love, support, or guidance.

  • Isolating: The adult cuts the child off from normal social experiences, prevents the child from forming friendships, and makes the child believe that he or she is alone in the world.

  • Terrorizing: The adult creates a climate of fear, bullies and frightens the child, and makes the child believe that the world is capricious and hostile. Example includes threatening violence (even without carrying out threats).

  • Ignoring: The adult deprives the c hild of essential stimulation and responsiveness.

  • Corrupting: The adult encourages the child to engage in destructive and antisocial behavior, reinforces deviance, and impairs a child’s ability to behave in socially appropriate ways. Examples include allowing children to witness the physical or emotional abuse of another.

  • Verbally Assaulting: The adult humiliates the child with repeated name-calling, harsh threats, and sarcasm that continually “beat down” the child’s self-esteem. Examples includes belittling, blaming, sarcasm, screaming, and name calling.  

  • Over Pressuring: The adult imposes extreme pressure upon the child to behave and achieve in ways that are far beyond the child’s capabilities. Example includes placing unrealistic expectations on the child.


All children respond differently to emotional abuse. Even children living in the same home may respond differently. Signs that a child may be experiencing emotional abuse can include:

  • Delays in development

  • Wetting bed and/or pants

  • Speech disorders

  • Health problems like ulcers, skin disorders, headaches, and stomach aches

  • Eating disorders such as obesity and weight fluctuation

  • Sleep disruptions

  • Habits like sucking, biting, and rocking

  • Learning disabilities and developmental delays

  • Overly compliant or defensive

  • Extreme emotions, aggression or withdrawal

  • Anxieties and phobias

  • Destructive or anti-social behaviors (violence, cruelty, vandalism, stealing, cheating, lying)

  • Behavior that is inappropriate for age (too adult, too infantile)

  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Parent or caregiver

Being emotionally abusive is not a one-time event. Emotional abuse is a chronic behavior. Parents and caregivers who emotionally abuse children often:

  • Show little or no regard for the child

  • Talk badly about the child

  • Do not touch or hold the child affectionately

  • Do not tend to the child’s medical needs

  • Has unrealistic expectations of the child - developmentally, educationally or emotionally

Effects and Impact of
Emotional abuse

The impact and effects of child emotional abuse can be long-lasting and devastating. Effects can include:

  • Increased risk for lifelong pattern of depression

  • Anxiety

  • Low self-esteem

  • Estrangement

  • Inappropriate or troubled relationship

  • Lack of empathy

  • Delay in development

  • Psychological, behavioral, and emotional impairments

  • Trauma

A study known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) suggests that certain adverse childhood experiences are major risk factors and have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, poor quality of life, and early death. The ACE questionnaire looks at three categories of adverse experience: childhood abuse, which includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect, including both physical and emotional; and household challenges, which includes growing up in a household were there was substance abuse, mental illness, violent treatment of a mother or stepmother, parental separation/divorce or had a member of the household incarcerated. Emotional abuse is an adverse experience(s) which can have long lasting effects on youth:

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Health care professionals and concerned individuals need to increase awareness for and education in emotional child abuse in the community and among parents. Secondly, parents and guardians need to be encouraged to develop strong attachments with their children and learn to express warmth and positive regard for them. Finally, families must be encouraged to form relationships with support systems available to them. In addition, more research in topics related to emotional child abuse and parent-child relationships must be undertaken.

  • Discipline your children thoughtfully. Never discipline your child when you are upset. Give yourself time to calm down. Remember that discipline is a way to teach your child. Use privileges to encourage good behavior and time-outs to help your child regain control.

  • Examine your behavior. Abuse is not just physical. Both words and actions can inflict deep, lasting wounds. Be a nurturing parent. Use your actions to show children and other adults that conflicts can be settled without hitting or yelling.

  • Educate yourself and others. Simple support for children and parents can be the best way to prevent child abuse. After-school activities, parent education classes, mentoring programs, and respite care are some of the many ways to keep children safe from harm. Be a voice in support of these efforts in your community.

  • Teach children their rights. When children are taught they are special and have the right to be safe, they are less likely to think abuse is their fault, and more likely to report an offender.

  • Know what child abuse is. Physical and sexual abuse clearly constitute maltreatment, but so does neglect, or the failure of parents or other caregivers to provide a child with needed food, clothing, and care. Children can also be emotionally abused when they are rejected, berated, or continuously isolated.

  • Know the signs. Unexplained injuries aren't the only signs of abuse. Depression, fear of a certain adult, difficulty trusting others or making friends, sudden changes in eating or sleeping patterns, inappropriate sexual behavior, poor hygiene, secrecy, and hostility are often signs of family problems and may indicate a child is being neglected or physically, sexually, or emotionally abused.

  • Report abuse. If you witness a child being harmed or see evidence of abuse, make a report to your state's child protective services department or local police.

  • Invest in kids. Encourage leaders in the community to be supportive of children and families. Ask employers to provide family-friendly work environments. Ask your local and national lawmakers to support legislation to better protect our children and to improve their lives.

How you can help:

What should you do if you suspect that a child has been abused? Or if a child confides in you? Child abuse is a difficult subject to talk about and can be hard to accept, for both you and the child. When talking with a child who is reporting abuse, the best thing you can provide is unconditional support and calm reassurance. Remember, do not interrogate or ask leading questions, do not deny that the abuse occurred, and reassure the child that they did nothing wrong.

To effectively identify and confirm emotional abuse, it is necessary to observe the abuser-child interaction on varied and repeated occasions. If emotional abuse is suspected, action can be taken regardless of whether the suspected offender is within the child’s home, child care setting, or elsewhere in the community. It is the caregiver’s responsibility to report and not investigate suspicions of child abuse. It is the child protection agency’s responsibility to investigate reports of any type of abuse. A careful evaluation of those involved and the sources of stress should be completed by appropriate and skilled professionals. Usually, a team consisting of a child protection worker, a physician, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a public health nurse, a childcare staff, and a teacher will become involved.

Helping a Child Heal:

Children who have been emotionally abused need the support and validation of others to help build their self-esteem, and to teach them how to form healthy and appropriate relationships. Friends and family can help by:

Modeling appropriate behaviors

Reminding the child that he/she is important and deserves love

Listening to the child and making him or her feel respected

Engaging the child in activities he or she is good at and enjoys

Helping the child meet and make friends with other children his or her own age


Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety and well-being of children, teens, and families and provides links, including to family support services.

National Child Abuse Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for information on free help in your area.

  • 1-800-25-ABUSE (1-800-252-2873)

  • If you suspect a child is in immediate danger or harm, call 911 first.

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