Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse

The Systematic Diminishment of Another

The issue of ’emotional harm’ causes concern for some as they don’t think it is a sufficiently serious reason to justify removing a child from home. In this post we will examine some of the definitions of emotional abuse so you can decide for yourself whether or not you think this kind of behaviour can have serious consequences.

Emotional abuse of adults

Domestic Violence UK use the definition put forward by  Andrew Vachss, who described emotional abuse as:

the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event.

Hidden Hurt a website offering information about domestic abuse, say:

Many forms of abuse are obviously cruel. Emotional abuse is more subtle. Quite often such abuse goes unseen, as even the victim does not recognize that she is being abused. Although emotional abuse does not leave black eyes or visible bruises, it is often more seriously damaging to your self-esteem.

Of course, we all have bad days, we can all lose our temper and shout and snap at the people we love or say hurtful, belittling things. But one bad day doesn’t make you a bad parent or a bad person. The key thing is to be honest with yourself – why am I behaving like this? Am I tired or stressed out? Am I sorry? Can I stop? Do I want to stop? Do I think there is a problem?

If you think there is a problem and you want to do something to change it then this is very positive.  Most abusers find it very hard to admit to anyone, least of all themselves, that they are treating other people badly. If you can show you have insight into what is going wrong, you will find it easier to ask for and to accept help.


Emotional abuse of children

Andrew Vachss further describes emotional abuse of children  in these terms:

Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioral, active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often as painful as physical assault. And, with rare exceptions, the pain lasts much longer. A parent’s love is so important to a child that withholding it can cause a “failure to thrive” condition similar to that of children who have been denied adequate nutrition.

Professor Iwaniec (1995) defines emotional abuse towards children as:

hostile or indifferent behaviour which damages a child’s sense of self esteem, degrades a sense of achievement, diminishes a sense of belonging, prevents healthy and vigorous development and takes away a child’s well being.

NSPCC definition of emotional abuse of children

The NSPCC say that emotional abuse includes

  • humiliating or criticising a child
  • disciplining a child with degrading punishments
  • not recognising a child’s own individuality and limitations
    • pushing them too hard
    • being too controlling
  • exposing a child to distressing events or interactions
    • domestic abuse
    • substance misuse
  • faling to promote a child’s social development
    • not allowing them to have friends
  • persistently ignoring a child
  • being absent
  • never expressing positive feelings towards a child
  • never showing any emotions in interactions with a child (emotional neglect).


Who can help

If you are worried that a child is being subjected to emotional abuse or any other form of abuse, you can call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice on what to do.

If you are worried about the way you treat your partner or ex partner, call Respect who offer a confidential and anonymous helpline and who can offer you help, advice and support.

See our links and resources page for further information.

Further reading

  • Research shows that the consequences of emotional and physical abuse can be similar for children.
  • The Government proposed in 2014 to introduce a law that would make emotionally abusing a child a criminal offence – there is a good article discussing this here.
  • See here for  a useful article by Andrew Pack looking at the issue of emotional abuse and how often it appears in care proceedings.
  • The featured picture is taken from this post: Emotional abuse, recognising the signs


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)