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)

13 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.

    1. Mother Duck

      Hi Angelo,
      You have so much trust in social services and the police. I wish I could say the same, however my exprience has been opposite. I reported to the police several times the abusive behaviour of my ex- boyfriend.
      I’m sadly what comes after from the involvement of the police and social worker has been horrendous and beyond natural law of humanity. The social worker [name redacted – don’t think it is fair to name someone unless they have opportunity to defend themselves] from Southwark social services wrote a doctrine of the facts, character defamation my ability to take of my children.
      Made a malign statement regarding my child medical condition without supporting evidence. I was oppressed and bullied just because I expressed want to explorers other alternatives that are suitable for my children needs and stability rather than acceptance of their obligations to whatever space they can find for my children. How is it better for my child to out of school and leave in refuge, hostile?
      Is not that I was relying on them to find it. As parent I feel it’s my responsibility to do so that are fitting to my family needs. Why would they hinder me from doing so? Never mind the procedure not being followed.
      To add more trauma, on the child protection record documents, the police made a clear lie that I let my ex- boyfriend stayed after the assault had occurred. What benefit does the police from this? My daughter was with the police officer [name redacted for same reasons as given above] to pick up the buggy from the house and they know that he fled my I called the police when the assault had occurred.

      I would say think twice before getting them involved. If you can best to do it yourself and ask other sources for help. From my experience this has been a continued emotional abuse from the social services and the police who supposedly their to help and protect vulnerable family.

      For the record, my ex- boyfriend was sentenced 105 days community services for an assault. His released despite he pose risk to my children and I. However we have to make drastic changes for doing nothing wrong. I reported the abuse.

      Warm regards,
      Mother Duck

      1. Angelo Granda

        Mother Duck, My suggestion was that women should contact their housing officer (if they have one) and/or the community policewomen first before reporting it to the real Police because they can offer help and advice particularly in respect of keeping records and compiling good evidence before going on to call the police.They may even install a panic alarm in your home.
        Then when it happens again victims will have enough evidence on which to charge the abuser and ,if an alarm was installed, someone will arrive at the family home to witness circumstances whilst the abuse is in progress. If that happens, the Police ,when called,will have enough evidence, hopefully, to take the man into custody and charge him.
        Plus, if the Police refer the case to the Social Services, the woman’s prior involvement with housing and community police SHOULD demonstrate to the satisfaction of any fair and impartial Court that the Mum is well aware of concerns and perfectly capable of safeguarding her children and herself.
        Hope this clarifies my thinking.Thanks for yours and please continue to contribute.

      2. Upsetmum

        Hiya I sadly agree since I managed to get my Husband out me and my special needs children have been subject to so much hassle from social services and no support infact turning our life’s upside down when all I want is for me and my children to be able to recover and enjoy a abuse free home . I kept our home did not go refuge as didn’t want uproot and disrupt children anymore. And now he’s upswing courts and Ss to bully me and I’m so scared and upset for my future for children if he succeeds on doing what he threatened throughout and when he ran when police came that he’s going to get them children in care !! I feel the support once you leave is scarce if not I haven’t found any help to stop this further abuse yet and seems to be social services are gradually squche the abuse even though punched daughter in head kicked in her tummy strangled and all sorts he’s admired punch in head but won’t anymore said it was her fault and social services saying I’m stopping contact but not children are scared and told them time and time again they don’t want him near them ! Also I’ve told them if children want to have contact and is safe to do so I’m ok with it but if like there saying they don’t want to I have to listen to their wishes and feelings as well as you should be In mean time I’m being accused of all sorts like not working with them and emotionally abuseing kids cos I’m not allowing contact that I’m mad!! I’ve had it all . What scares me someone I know experience exactly same and has sadly lost her kids . I know of a lot of others who same . Where is the help for when you leave and why don’t you get support after and why do social services do this punish us mums even more !! But yet they supposed to be here to protect children family’s but don’t seem to here that when you leave and then partner tells lies and continue to allow abuse from the partner through Ss?

        1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

          I am sorry to hear this – if social services aren’t being helpful have you contacted Refuge or Women’s Aid? they might be able to do something to support you through this.

  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.

  5. Katie Pearson

    I’ve had my child taken away through domestic violence the thing I don’t get is in about 6 occasions the social services attended my property after I had been hospital with broken jaw , perferited ear drum ,I went one time for brain scan coz he jumped on my head X-ray on Body and black eyes and when they have come out I told them I done it to myself and they believed it say on report my ex was a decent man coz he workerd and that he seems to be helping me with my mental health he was a sooooo called good dad and everybody thought he was a amazing so how the hell could I tell them then on one occasion the police were called and he threatened that if he got nicked I was dead so I told the the police it was me kicking off and I put holes in the walls and smashed the house up and the gas the cheeck to say to my my little boy that I might be going in police car for a few hours and that I would be back meaning I was getting arrested the told social services that I was the aggressor and that I needed help with my mental hrdlth I mean really come on !!!!! Then I went to hospital with perforated ear drum and my boy came with me the nurses and doctors knew my ex had done it to me and still sent me and baby bs k home to him I mean come on how can a women tell any body that’s it’s going on if they all think she was the problem or no body listensd then when they eventually found out they took my baby away from me I’m left doing all the courses while missing my baby like he died it hurts so much plus I have got to go to sycothearpy social service order plus I have had to up ship and move starting again plus haven to deal with the crap I went through I mean where the he’ll is the justice in all this me and my son are now liven with out each other and both are hearts are broken and it’s sll coz not one person wanted to see listen or believe

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I am really sorry to hear this Katie. But what I don’t understand – can you help me to understand? – is why you told people that you had done it to yourself? Was this because you were frightened you wouldn’t be believed? Why didn’t you feel safe telling someone? I think its really important for me to try and get my head round why so many women don’t ask for help much earlier.

  6. Angelo Granda

    Katie, It is hard to advise you now;it’s too late. I’m not a lawyer or social worker just an ordinary citizen like you . When presented with a case like yours,the first time the social worker attended your property , he or she should have been open and honest with you.There are right and wrong ways to approach a child-protection investigation and a collection of legal guidelines . The Children Act has within it Working Together frameworks which must be followed when dealing with vulnerable families . One of the guidelines says that in order to ensure folk like you understand what is going on , that the SW’s should inform you of your right to an independent advocate and help you contact one. Can you remember whether the guideline was followed? Did you have an advocate visit you to explain matters and attend meetings with you?
    Or was the case conducted incorrectly?
    It sounds to me like yours is a very serious case of d.v. and mental health problems combined. If the Police thought you were the aggressive one and you had mental health problems, then I suggest an advocate would be absolutely necessary and it would have to be one experienced in mental health problems.
    If you do have M.H. problems then you should have been provided with an advocate straight away and ,in particular, a thorough forensic investigation should have been carried out by the Police. Were they suggesting that your injuries were self-inflicted?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.