What do people mean when they talk about Emotional Abuse?

Concerns about ’emotional abuse’ play a big part in some people’s anxieties about how the current child protection system operates. Some worry it is too nebulous or uncertain a concept, or it isn’t serious enough to justify removing a child from parents who love him. Some go as far to say that only a criminal conviction for assaulting a child should be reason to remove.

We want to try and dispel some of the myths and fears about ’emotional abuse’ and explain why it is so serious and can be so damaging. Here, an abuse survivor gives her view about the meaning of ’emotional abuse’, the common ways we try to deny it is happening and why it so important to protect children from it.


Myth Busting about Emotional Abuse

Something that I was really shocked to learn recently is that hardly anybody has a clue about what emotional/psychological abuse is. Unfortunately, many people are enough powerful to be given space on newspapers and media outlets and they keep spouting nonsense about the matter. Now…. As a child abuse survivor, who stood emotional abuse for years in my family, I will try to bust a few myths and wrong assumptions about it. I am, of course, no journalist or psychiatrist so I will also quote other websites that clearly explained it better than I ever could. I will start with myth busting and then I will list a few things that constitute emotional abuse.

Disclaimer: I use the pronoun ‘he’ all through the article and it is just for convenience. I know very well that women/mothers can be abusive too.


Emotional abuse is always better than being physically abused.

No. “Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance,” “teaching,” or “advice,” the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones” (Engel, 1992, p. 10). I’ve really dim memories about my father beating me up, however it happened maybe four times in twenty years. It is not even something that can hurt you once the physical injuries are gone. Emotional scars can. They’re still with me at this day, the abuse lasted nearly twenty years, so be sure I do fully remember it.


Emotional abuse doesn’t exist and surely it is not something that you can report to police.

This is an assumption I often came across through all my life. Emotional and psychological abuse are classified as Domestic Violence in England and Wales (DA, Domestic Abuse in Scotland), yet you can’t report the abuser to police if what you’re getting is just emotional abuse. Given that it is not considered something you can get prosecuted for, many people assume it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t work that way. As reported in Women’s Aid website “One problem is that the criminal prosecution process focuses on incidents and ignore the fact that domestic violence involves a pattern of ongoing and controlling behaviour.  The criminal law can also only rarely provide a remedy for emotional abuse – which can also have a serious and lasting impact on a woman or child’s sense well-being and autonomy.”


Emotional Abuse is shouting

It can include shouting, but not necessarily. The most skilled abusers can abuse without ever rising their voice. It is what they say that counts, not how loud they say it.


I was abused by my husband/boyfriend/partner but children were in another room.

That is an excuse I often heard from my mum and it is pitiful. I lost count of how many times I told her we were not stupid and that her crying and being depressed and sad made us upset too. If a child loves his/her mother, it is quite natural that you are participating to her grief and sorrow and whatever is going on in other rooms. And if one of your parents is getting abuse, unless they are made of stone, it will show and children will see. The assumption “they don’t see, they don’t understand” makes your children feel stupid and encouraged to make assumptions on their own about what happened behind closed doors. DON’T do it, ever.


 I can’t be emotionally abused, he never hit me, assaulted or raped me

This is the most famous myth about emotional abuse. Whilst if you get hit or assaulted or raped you are also emotionally abused, it is not true the opposite. You can be emotionally abused although you’ve never been hit/assaulted/raped.


He is just depressed/bipolar/a mental health patient, he is not an abuser. We’ll solve it together.

Many people associates ‘abuse’ with ‘mental illness’. The most surprising thing is that usually they don’t go hand in hand at all. Of course, your abuser can also be mentally ill, but to say that all abusers are mentally ill is wrong. It is, very often, true the opposite… indeed many abusers are totally sane! Quoting L. Bancroft here “Their value system is unhealthy, not their psychology. An abuser’s core problem is that he has a distorted sense of right and wrong” (‘Why does he do that?’ by Lundy Bancroft. Its price is cheap and it is an endless source of advice and information, buy it or borrow it if you can. It was an eye opening experience, believe me).


He is not well but he is doing everything in his power to get well.

I’ve very bad news for you. Only a few abusers ever recover, because to go through a counselling program that would improve their behaviour also means they’ve to admit they abused someone. That is unlikely to happen. Women like to think they can change their partners as well as children who think they can change their parents’ behaviour towards them. This is what is meant when you hear “risk of emotional harm”. The majority of women think that once the ‘issue’ of abuse is solved, even temporarily, everything will go well. It is just delusion. According to several psychiatrists and also Bancroft, “the majority of abusive men do NOT make deep and lasting changes even in a high-quality abuser program”. If your partner/husband is abusive and mentally ill, DO keep in mind they can be intertwined but if he gets treatment for his disease doesn’t automatically mean he won’t be abusive anymore.


He’s abusing me because he loves me. It is his way of loving me.

No, no and then.. NO! He is abusing you because he is angry, controlling and well… an abuser! Abuse is NOT love. It took me forty years to understand that but I’m now 200% sure that any loving relationship is an abuse-free one. “Many people reserve their best behaviour and kindest treatment for their loved ones, including their partners. Should we accept the idea that these people feel love less strongly, or have less passion, than an abuser does? Nonsense.” (L. Bancroft 2002)

6 thoughts on “What do people mean when they talk about Emotional Abuse?

  1. Lesley

    I wonder how many professional involved in child protection services are aware of the countless numbers of single Fathers seeking contact with their children through the Family Courts are suffering grave emotional abuse as a direct result of how easily Mothers’ can ( and are) using spurious claims of ’emotional abuse’ as a strategic weapon to contest applications for contact?

    Claiming to be a victim of emotional abuse ( a form of Domestic Violence) entitles the ‘victim’ to apply for legal aid ; eagerly assisted and encouraged by their Solicitors who of course stand to benefit financially through such practices. A letter from a GP or similar health professional is sufficient to support the claim.

    As ever , the Court ( and SS aka CAFFCASS) is inclined to believe the Mother’s claims. The Father then faces a protracted uphill struggle , mostly representing himself or placing himself 000’s in debt to pay for a Solicitor , trying to defend himself against such false allegations.

    Think about it – no need to provide substantive evidence of physical harm , its simply ‘her word against his’.

    Fathers with enough emotional resilience to withstand the trauma of being denied access to their children; whilst defending themselves against what can be quite shocking misrepresentations of their character in the Family Courts , can then expect to be awarded the indignity of seeing their children in a supervised contact arrangement; and then , if ‘they are good boys and play the game’ they might be allowed greater contact in more natural settings.

    You might well think this is a gross exaggeration of what is happening daily in our Family Courts, in which case I suggest you look at a few of the very scarce resources of assistance for Fathers in the UK and look at the online conversations of Fathers going through this hell . Lets say that just 20% of these Fathers are sincere and the other 80% emotional abusers in denial. This is still an outrageous and a gross instance of injustice and gender inequality – because it is women rather than men who are using this tactic .

    For the record , Im an ageing ‘old school’ feminist who recognises that sadly more Men than Women inflict domestic violence upon their partners; and that prolonged , intentional and malicious emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence. I am supporting my Son who is seeking contact with his Son ( and of course my Grandson) through this hell which is traumatising both of us.

    I came across this site whilst researching sources of information which may be of assistance.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I don’t agree with your central premise – that courts are biased in favour of mothers. I am afraid that both mothers and fathers behave appallingly and use their children as pawns in their battles. I would say it is a pretty equal split between the sexes when it comes to bad behaviour. The court does its best, but there is a limit to what it can do when faced with adult emotional dysfunction. I explain my position further here

  2. Veronica Grimshaw

    Hi I have been in denial for sometime about the emotional abuse but it is now effecting my children. My husband shouts and screams and even hits my daughter round the back of the head when she screams she has special needs so she is at a special needs school. They have noticed a change in her she is withdrawn and is wetting herself. So I thought I need to do something so I spoke to her teacher and Home link worker and confided in them as I can’t take it anymore. They are going to notify social services. I have no family and not many friends so I feel very alone and scared of what social services will do. I work full time and my husband does not work but we live in a council house which is in joint tenancy. Please can you give me some advice as I can’t take it anymore.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I am sorry to hear that. It sounds very stressful and hard for you all. Sorry, its very difficult to offer advice to anyone on a small snapshot of the situation. I can only make some general points –
      Do you want to stay with your husband?
      If so, he needs to admit there is a problem and try to change. You need to ask the SW what support is available to help him.
      If you don’t want to stay with him then you need to think about what is going to happen in terms of where you both live and who will be looking after your daughter. If he won’t agree to move out, you can think about applying for an occupation order.
      The social workers should be working with you to support you. If you feel that they are not, you will need to get legal advice.
      Try the Family Rights Group. there are some other links here http://childprotectionresource.online/category/legal-advice/

  3. angelo granda

    Dear Veronica, If your husband is losing control and hitting your daughter,I suggest you do not leave him alone in charge of your children at all even if it means giving up work.If he has joint tenancy , get in touch with your housing officer as soon as you possibly can and he or she is likely to give you more help then Children’s Services will. If you have a community Policewoman, then telephone her and she will advise you what to do about your violent husband. He needs stopping even if it means reporting to the Police.You have been in denial so now you have to grasp the bull by the horns and put your house in order.
    Get an advocate from a special needs organisation. It is extremely stressful caring for special needs children and that is what has brought out the worst in your husband.Even when both parents are working,it is difficult; it is essential they have periodic respite from caring duties and extra help.All that should really have been arranged ages ago.A week or two away for the child at intervals works wonders!
    You must show that you are fully aware of the danger your children are in from him and act decisively.Get the advocate as i said and contact the housing officer and community Policewoman.They are paid to support you and they meet up with these problems regularly. Above all,they will be open and honest with you and tell you exactly what you should do.They are well-trained and will follow all the rules and procedures as per the text book guidelines.
    You sound almost as worried about the involvement of the Social Workers as you do about the problem at home.That is understandable, given their bad reputation but do your best to cooperate when they come calling. Try and enlist the support of housing,community police and the advocate before they come to see you if you can and prove that you acknowledge all the problems.
    The CS may want to také your children if they think you don’t. If possible make sure your advocate is with you. It does not matter what any of them say, it will be extremely harmful emotionally and physically if your children are removed from you into care.DO NOT sign an S20 form putting them into care voluntarily without advice from a solicitor.If they want you to,be strong and refuse.
    Good Luck. Sarah has already given you information about the Family Rights Group.They have a helpline which you can ring anytime for support.

  4. angelo granda

    Veronica, I am just an ordinary parent advising you and it is genuine impartial advice.

    It is totally unacceptable for a man to hit any child on the head and it is not on that a father should even ‘smack’ a girl! Nor should boys be smacked about the face or head.Shouting and screaming causes emotional harm so the children are suffering both physical and emotional abuse.

    You have already,in fact, described very compelling reasons why your children need protection. I think you have finally realised that.Do not hide from those facts!
    It is your responsibility to provide the protection.Your husband needs to reform.Neither you or the CS have the power to force him to change.The Police have an overriding responsibility to protect children,can také action and can make him change.
    Do not shirk your responsibilities to the children and decline to press charges if the police suggest it. Your children také precedence over a smooth relationship with him.
    The criminal courts can force him to change his ways. It can provide probationary services etc which the CS cannot provide.The CS are very poorly resourced and generally it cannot supply the support.It often prefers to také children into care.
    To avoid that happening,i suggest you také my advice immediately not next week or the week after. Do not leave the children alone with the children for one day longer,Despite any good intentions he might have,he has lost it.The consequences are potentially disastrous and any danger to the children is more important than your work and career.
    With the best will in the world,a father cannot provide children with the patient ,loving care of Mum! Indeed, that may be the UNDERLYING CAUSE of your family’s problems.


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