April 26, 2024

Child Abuse Prevention Month: What is Emotional Abuse & Neglect? (Part One)

Written by Dr. Sandy Portko, Early Childhood Expertise

Sandy Portko
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April is the month designated to focus on preventing child abuse by raising community awareness of the problem. To be very clear, no community is exempt from its occurrence. People of all income levels, social positions, education levels, and ethnicities who live in all areas of our country can and do abuse children. It is not limited to a specific demographic profile. 

Child abuse and neglect is typically divided into several categories: physical, sexual, and emotional or psychological. Most people are well aware of the kinds of behaviors involved in physical and sexual abuse or physical neglect but might be unsure what would constitute emotional or psychological abuse and neglect. These terms are less familiar and the behaviors more subtle, many of which are holdovers from older beliefs about child-rearing. 

Emotional and psychological abuse can result from using deprivation as punishment or to perform parental duties that the parent doesn’t want to do. One example might be prohibiting a high school student from joining a club or going out for a sport because the parent wants to go out weekly at that time and insists the high school student take care of younger siblings. Such abuse can also involve verbally attacking or belittling a child on a regular basis. A parent might say something like ‘Why should I buy you that expensive baseball mitt? Who do think you are?’ It can also involve comments like, ‘You’re too fat to wear something like that.’  Both examples are direct attacks on the children’s self-esteem, sense of worth, and whatever motivation they might have for self-improvement. Parents who say such things are most likely repeating attitudes that were directed at them while they were growing up. Many honestly believe they are helping their children ‘toughen up’ for adulthood and refuse to acknowledge the pain they cause. Abuse can also involve raging over accidental mishaps with angry words and name calling directed at the children which both terrify and humiliate them. 

Emotional and psychological neglect stem from either ignoring or refusing to acknowledge the child’s feelings, fears, or psychological needs. Instead of helping the child learn to identify and name their feelings, the parent simply dismisses the entire event. Dismissing a teen who is extremely troubled by repetitive thoughts of self-harm and asks to see a therapist by telling them ‘Don’t be such a drama queen” is definitely psychological neglect and many would even call it psychological abuse. Parents who only interact with their children when they act inappropriately are also guilty of psychological and emotional neglect. The children’s needs for love and nurturing are going unmet.  

Sometimes parents can show affection to their children but are not able to acknowledge their children’s negative emotions. An example would be telling a child who says “I hate my brother’ ‘No you don’t, you love your brother’ which essentially teaches the child they can’t trust their own feelings and that their parent truly doesn’t understand them. In this situation, the parent is not attuned to the child’s real emotions and, therefore, can’t provide them with the help the child needs to learn how to appropriately deal with such big feelings.  

Parents who fail to teach their children to be responsible for the outcomes of their choices and actions are also guilty of neglect. Such parents who typically operate under the delusion that ‘my child would never do such a thing’ are neglecting an important aspect of healthy development in their children which will cause problems as the children reach chronological adulthood. 

These situations cause trauma of varying degrees depending on the intensity and frequency of the events. When such trauma is not processed and healed, it has lifelong physical, emotional, and psychological repercussions.  

Part II of Child Abuse Prevention Month: What Emotional Abuse & Neglect? will explore these repercussions and what can be done to reduce their effects. Click here to read it!


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