Tag Archives: types of 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