Emotional abuse occurs in many forms and in a far greater percentage of households than one might imagine. Even agreeing upon what is an appropriate emotional abuse definition is something that as of yet has not occurred amongst authorities as well as those affected. While emotional abuse is damaging to people of all ages, children are the most vulnerable and can remain emotionally scarred for the remainder of their lives without effective treatment.
One definition of emotional abuse is “any behavior directed from one or more persons to one or more others that causes a negative impact on the victim(s) self worth”. Since this definition is so broad, is can be reasoned that emotional abuse is ALWAYS present during physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect, but can also occur independently of the previously listed abuses in other cases. Understanding more about emotional abuse is the first step to determine if you or someone you love is involved in an emotionally abusive relationship.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
While it would not be possible to list all of the forms of emotional abuse effecting people of all ages, emotional child abuse can be more easily categorized. Although most of the following types of abuse can also occur between emotionally abusive adults, a non-inclusive list of the types of emotional abuse commonly committed against children include:
- Terrorizing – Everything from yelling and screaming, threatening to harm the child or his or her pet or favorite object., teasing, exposing the child to situations that are frightening, etc. can be classified as emotional abuse that terrorizes a child.
- Rejecting – This nearly insidious behavior in many people includes anything that causes the other person to feel unwanted or unneeded. Name calling, humiliation, exclusion, and refusal to hug or touch the child are just a few reasons why children feel rejected.
- Ignoring – A child may be experiencing emotional abuse when their need for medical or dental treatment(s) are ignored, if they are not given adequate assistance in areas of their lives where they still need adult help (such as help with personal care, school work, etc.), or when a caregiver displays a complete lack of interest in the life of the child. Infants are a particularly vulnerable group whose pleas for attention are often sadly ignored for extended periods of time.
- Corrupting – Teaching or rewarding a child for any behavior that is damaging or illegal to themselves or others is a form of corruption. Any involvement with stealing, lying, prostitution, violence, drugs, racism, etc. all represent forms of corruption.
- Exploiting – When a child is expected to behave in a manner that is unfair and unrealistic for their age, they may be being exploited. Examples include infants who are expected not to cry, or young children who are expected to be solely responsible for younger siblings. Forcing an older child to help the family financially is another form of exploitation.
- Isolating – Keeping a child separated from their family and/or friends can be a form of emotional abuse. Although conscientious use of isolation for brief periods can be helpful in teaching children healthy social behaviors, excessive restrictions cross the fine line between effective and abusive responses. For example, a child who is always restricted from interacting with their peers outside of school may be overly isolated. More extreme forms of isolation include children who are forced to remain inside closets or other frightening locations.
What are Some of the Signs of Emotional Abuse?
Signs of emotional abuse appear in different forms for adults and children; common signs also differ between boys and girls.
Any of the following behaviors and personality traits may indicate that an adult is experiencing emotional abuse from one or more person:
- Depression, withdrawal, low self-esteem
- Fearfulness, anxiety, shame and/or guilt
- Self abuse or neglect in the form of refusing medical treatment, substance abuse, social isolation, suicide attempts, etc.
- Avoidance of eye contact and other types of passive or compliant behaviors
Young boys and girls tend to respond differently than adults to emotionally abusive treatment. Biology certainly plays a role in the differing reactions between boys and girls, but it is more likely that our western culture is largely responsible for the different effects of emotional abuse on boys vs. girls. Since boys are generally taught that it is weak to cry while anger and physical displays of strength are healthy, an emotionally abused male child may display any of the following characteristics:
- Argumentative, bullying, or aggressive behaviors towards family or friends, especially those smaller or younger than the child being emotionally abused by an adult
- Frustration, disobedience, lying or cheating; the child may intentionally engage in destructive or impulsive behaviors as a means to attract attention or as a way to act out their pain
- Continued worrying and/or withdrawn behavior; young children are naturally care free, but emotional abuse can prevent them from enjoying the simple pleasures of life
- Loud, attention seeking behaviors, especially if the emotional abuse involves ignoring the child
Despite having made much progress towards gender equality, little girls are often still taught that certain emotions are not ladylike and should be avoided at all costs, namely, the emotion of anger. Since girls tend to repress their anger, emotional abuse symptoms tend to appear as:
- Withdrawn or passive behaviors
- Highly needy, approval seeking or compliant tendencies; emotionally abused girls can become very “clingy” or overly dependent on one or more adults, often the very one(s) inflicting the abuse onto the child
- Extreme stubbornness
- Excessive teasing of family and/or friends
- Physical (somatic) symptoms, including various bodily pains, illness, etc.
Sadly, emotionally abusive relationships have become far from uncommon today. In reality, emotional abuse probably occurs to one degree or another in nearly every household on the planet, although actual statistics are virtually impossible to come by, as these abusive behaviors have become so common as to be almost thought of as “normal” by many. So why as a society have we become so complacent towards hurtful behaviors?
Emotionally Abusive Behaviors are Learned
It likely comes as no surprise that perpetrators of emotional abuse have nearly always experienced the same treatment at an earlier time in their lives, most likely during their own childhood. When a boy learns from his father to “suck it up” if he starts to cry or a girl is taught never to show her anger, those cultural norms continue to be passed down generation to generation, often in an unconscious, subtle manner. Parents that attempt to discipline their children by yelling and degrading them may at some level actually have the child’s best interest in mind, yet have no idea how to interact with their children in a healthy way if they themselves never saw their own parents modeling healthy parenting behaviors. Children are sponges and will mimic behaviors of those around them, often for their entire lives, later passing the same character flaws onto their own children.
Since so many of these abusive behaviors occur so commonly as to be nearly automatic in some people, it may seem challenging to address the issue in a meaningful way. How can you even tell if you are involved in an emotionally abusive relationship? Is there some sort of an emotional abuse test? There are no clear cut answers with this delicate issue, and every person and relationship are slightly different. Between spouses, emotional abuse is almost certainly occurring if one of the partners is afraid of the other. If you “walk on eggshells” so as to not upset your partner, you may be the victim of a form of emotional “terrorizing”. Children, in their innocence and inability to alter the circumstances of their lives, depend on their parents or another concerned adult to pay attention to the subtle indications that emotional abuse may be occurring in their home and intervene in a loving way when possible.
What Can Be Done to Break the Cycle of Emotional Abuse?
Since emotional abuse has become almost the norm in today’s homes, what can be done to break this chain of suffering? The first step must be awareness that just because a behavior is common does not make it healthy. Sure, you may have been listening to your parents call you lazy your entire life. How does that make you feel? Undoubtedly, you will not feel safe and happy when others are putting you down. With emotional abuse, the effects are proportional to the length of time the abuse has occurred and how emotionally close the victim and perpetrator are; abuse among close family members which occurs for extended periods of time is likely to have life long consequences, while a brief, random comment from an acquaintance (such as “Wow, that dress sure makes you look fat!”) may be quickly forgotten or even go unnoticed. The closer we feel to another person, the more they are able to wound us emotionally, whether it is intentional or not.
Once you have become aware that you or someone you love is either a perpetrator or victim of emotional abuse, helping the person (or yourself) heal whatever trauma lies at the root of the pain is key to changing the abusive behavior. Although it may be difficult to show compassion for the perpetrator of abuse, in reality, abusers are themselves experiencing a great deal of suffering and are generally only acting out in the only way they have ever known, often totally unaware of the damage they are causing in others. By showing compassion and patience with the perpetrator, you may be able to help him or her become aware of their own unkind behaviors and encourage them to look for better ways to interact with others.
Once a person has become aware of a personal pattern of abuse, changing that pattern can be challenging without some guidance. Different personality types respond to different modalities, yet ultimately there is no shortage of methods to reprogram unhealthy learned behaviors and replace them with virtues that are preferred. Everything from group counseling to private meditation can be effective; the key is a commitment to personal growth and change, knowing that by changing your own destructive behavior, you will be breaking the chain of abuse that all perpetrators have become a part of.
Victims of Emotional Abuse are Worthy of Love
Dealing with the traumas of victims of emotional abuse, especially children, should focus on helping them understand that they do not deserve to be treated in a way that makes them feel badly about themselves. Children and adults who have been emotionally abused for years may have such low self-esteem that they believe they are not worthy of having even their basic survival needs met. More commonly, abused people believe they are totally unlovable and whatever abuse they have experienced was their own fault. In cases such as these, both independent counseling and group gatherings can be helpful to restore personal confidence and help a person understand their own inherent self-worth.
Although more subtle, the effects of emotional abuse can be just as damaging and long lasting as physical or sexual abuse. The time has come to acknowledge the reality that yelling, name calling, and general put downs really do have a long term effect, especially on children. By learning more about the signs of emotional abuse, people can become more aware that emotional damage may be occurring with someone they love. There is help available; lifelong patterns of unkind behavior can be replaced with gentleness, but it takes practice, commitment, and more often than not, outside help. Take the first step….by changing yourself, you will improve the lives of everyone around you.