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As a psychologist and special needs educationist I frequently meet with families. Listening to their real-life experiences and trying to support them in coping up with their and their children’s emotional and academic problems always makes me feel good. I always team up, learn, and grow with them. It always takes a collective wisdom to face their challenges one by one and come up with practical strategies.
But, to be honest, things are not that simple all the time. It can become emotionally very difficult to endure when your clients reflect upon their adverse experiences. Adverse experiences at an early age leave deep scars on personalities. I can recall numerous occasions when recollections of adverse childhood experiences by a client left me stunned, because those were not simple words. Those were representation of deep-rooted sorrows and unforgettable pain.
I remember working with an 8 year old boy who was facing academic problems in his school. During an initial assessment session, I asked him to write a few lines about himself. I was shocked to hear his answer.
He said, “I cannot write anything, I am so dumb.” The mother in me just shattered into countless pieces on hearing this. His innocent mind was bombarded with negative remarks so many times that he had actually accepted that he was good for nothing.
We as adults and parents can either make or break the positive self-image of our children. Abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction can leave everlasting negative imprints on the minds and personalities of the children.
A common type of neglect and abuse is physical. Physical abuse and physical neglect can be noticed more easily because cuts, bruises, dirty clothes, and the hygiene of the child can be observed rather easily.
But another equally dangerous type is emotional abuse. Emotions are not really visible or tangible. You do not get to observe the cuts and bruises caused by hurtful remarks, shaming, neglect, or rejection. Physical abrasions, injuries, or blemishes might heal with the passage of time. But the injuries inflicted upon the soul, emotional or inner self might take forever to heal.
I have come across emotionally abusive parents and other family members, who were unknowingly inflicting emotional pain on their children. Emotional abuse is much more common than we realize, but many times perpetrators don’t even realize that they are involved in some sort of abuse. They say mean things without realizing that they are hurting the child.
In order to prevent, identify, and stop emotional abuse, it is very important to understand what emotions are and what is meant by emotional abuse.
What are emotions?
We all use the term “emotions” frequently. We all know that happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear are all different emotions. But its definition might vary from person to person, as we all have our subjective explanation of this construct.
According to psychologists, it’s not easy to explain emotions as it is a complex psychological condition comprised of 3 distinct aspects:
- subjective experience,
- physical response,
- behavioral response.
I can explain it with an example. Imagine that a child is humiliated in front of his siblings by an uncle for his weight:
- He feels insulted (subjective experience),
- His heart rate goes up, he feels drained and perspiration in his hands (physical response),
- He retreats to his room and does not come out all day long (behavioral response).
Another child might have also taken it as insult, but his behavioral response might have been aggressive and violent. So, it is important to understand that the same emotional abuse might be interpreted differently by different children at a subjective experience level. It might also trigger a different behavioral response.
It is important to understand the basic concept of emotions, because it will help you in identifying the emotional or psychological abuse. It will also help in understanding why the same type of abuse leaves dissimilar lasting effects on children.
Signs of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is behavior that affects a child’s emotional development or feelings of self-worth.
Parents, significant adults in the family, and caregivers can have a negative impact on the mental health and psychological well being of the child through their words, behaviors, and actions. All such behaviors, gestures, and verbal communication are counted as emotional abuse.
It is not easy to spot or identify emotional abuse. Therefore, in many cases, emotional abuse goes unnoticed or unreported.
Emotional abuse can take different forms. Some common examples of emotional and psychological abuse are following.
- Insulting or degrading a child, especially in the presence of other people
- Shouting, screaming, and yelling at the child
- Neglecting or rejecting the child
- Threatening him
- Forcefully isolating the child or depriving him of age-appropriate social interaction
- Withholding love, care, support, and guidance
- Having very high expectations
- Not allowing communication with friends or peers
- Preferring other siblings over him
- Comparing the child based on physical, intellectual, or any other trait and making him/her feel inferior
Statistics on emotional abuse
According to a report by the Office of National Statistics in the UK, 9.3% of adults reported that they had experienced emotional abuse before the age of 16. Emotional abuse was mostly perpetrated by their parents. 5 in 10 were emotionally abused by their mother and 4 in 10 by their father.
Behavioral indicators for emotional abuse
Psychological scars are not that easy to notice. Having worked with many children and families, I can confidently say that it requires keen observation and active interaction with the child to detect or suspect any possible emotional abuse.
Usually, it is bit easier to detect emotional abuse in younger children, as they unknowingly give some behavioral and verbal indications of psychological maltreatment. But as children grow older, some of them develop their defense mechanisms, e.g., they become less communicative, learn to hide their feeling, or engage in arrogant behavior to hide their emotional aching. This is when you have to look for behavior indicators more carefully.
Some common behavior indicators of emotional abuse are:
- overly shy and isolated
- very aggressive and hostile behavior
- considering himself worthless and a failure
- difficulty in focusing attention
- unexplained sadness or depression
- no interest in life
- difficulty in making friends
- going beyond limits to please others
- striving hard to get social approval
- self-injurious behavior or trying to inflict pain on others
- unprovoked or unexplained theft and telling lies
- lethargic or low energy level
- Fears and phobias
- Feelings of guilt or self-blame
Effects of emotional abuse on the brain
But we know that emotions are subjective experiences. Therefore, emotional abuse can trigger different responses and leave a multifaceted impact on the personalities of the children impacted.
The nature and severity of adverse impact of emotional abuse depend on following factors:
- Age of the child: Younger children tend to have more lasting and adverse effects of abuse as compared to those children who are exposed to it at a later age.
- Severity of maltreatment: More severe maltreatment begets severe outcomes.
- Chronic abuse: Constant abuse over a prolonged period is classified as chronic abuse. A child exposed to chronic abuse will face more negative and lifelong effects.
- Nature of abuse: A child’s personality is more severely damaged when he is exposed to more than one type of abuse over a period of time, e.g., emotional and physical abuse.
- Perception of abuse by the victim: The child’s subjective experience about the abuse determines how powerful or weak an impact it would have on the child.
- Nature of support received: The nature of support received from family and professionals plays an important role in recovering from the adverse effects of the adverse childhood experiences.
As adolescents and young adults, survivors of emotional abuse might experience difficulties in maintaining healthy relationships. Emotional abuse can affect the child’s relationship with himself, family and society at large. Adults can suffer from PTSD from emotional abuse.
1. Effected relationship with self
A child who experiences emotional abuse begins to doubt his own self-worth. When he is constantly made to feel in early childhood that he is good for nothing, inferior, or not able to meet the expectations, he unconsciously starts believing these things. Research studies on self-fulfilling prophecies indicate that expectations of a significant adult make the child try and match his/her expectations. This is exactly what happens in many children who are emotionally abused. They develop a negative self-image, low self-esteem, and low self-confidence.
2. Intergenerational abuse
A significant number of adults who are abused in their childhood engage in abusive behavior as parents and caregivers. Most probably as children they learned that yelling, humiliating, or shouting was an effective way of controlling children. Therefore, they become emotionally abusive towards their own kids.
Children, who grow up facing emotional abuse, fail to become confident individuals. They are not equipped with significant selfcare and emotional defense mechanisms, so, they are more prone to fall victim to abuse in later life too.
4. Psychological problems
Children exposed to emotional abuse can grow into psychologically unstable personalities. They might develop psychological problems such as anxiety disorder, stress, mood disorder, etc. In some cases, right after an emotional trauma, the child might also fall a victim to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
5. Emotional instability
Emotional abuse leaves a child confused. A child who is emotionally and psychologically damaged by very close ones fails to understand socially acceptable behavior. In later life, as a young adult, he might find it difficult to enjoy healthy emotional ties with others. He might become cold or suspicious or psychologically overdependent on others. Having extreme mood swings might hamper him in initiating and maintaining healthy relationships.
6. Drug and substance abuse
Adverse childhood experiences might lead to drug and alcohol abuse in adulthood.
7. Aggressive and criminal behavior
Pent up emotions stemming from childhood emotional abuse might trigger aggressive behavior in the person. These aggressive behaviors can range from violent communication to criminal activities.
8. Eating disorders
Emotional abuse can also lead to eating disorders and obesity. At times abuse victims find relief in eating and end up becoming overweight. It can also lead to more sever eating disorders e.g. bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
How to prevent and stop emotional abuse?
Different forms and types of abuse are intertwined. I have tried to discuss emotional abuse exclusively in this article. But in real life you will see that abuse has many layers. A child who is physically abused or sexually abused often also gets exposed to emotional abuse. It is very important as a family member and caregiver to identify and stop abuse at a very early stage. Otherwise, a vicious circle of abuse and resultant psychological and physical impact starts, and things can get very rough for the child.
I look at protection from abuse at 2 different levels: prevention from abuse before it takes place and stopping abuse once its detected.
1. Prevent abuse
In order to prevent emotional abuse, we need to look into its possible causes. Aew common reasons leading to emotional abuse are:
- emotional instability of parents
- troubled or strained relationships of parents
- drug or substance abuse by parents
- lack of training in parenting
- financial problems.
In order to prevent emotional and other types of abuse, parenting training needs to be given to the young expecting parents. Parents should be encouraged to open up about their emotional problems and seek professional help. This will help in improving the home environment.
Drug and substance abuse are a menace. They disturb family life, disrupt healthy relationships and give rise to financial problems. Partners, friends, and extended family should play a role in supporting the prospective parent to beat their addiction before they become responsible for the upbringing of a child.
2. Stop abuse
Emotional abuse is not as simple as physical or any other types of abuse. If we leave extreme cases aside, some forms of emotional abuse might simply not be considered any abuse by the caregivers, grandparents, or even your partner. You need to ask yourself: “Am I emotionally abusive?”
Comparing your child with his siblings or peers keeps him under constant psychological pressure, but your partner or grandparent of the child might consider it a way of encouraging or motivating the child. Calling a child obese is very disgraceful and comes under body shaming, but the perpetrator might be considering it a fun way of making the child realize that he is overweight.
My point here is educate yourself and other significant others about emotional abuse. Read articles and books and watch videos to understand how a little words spoken carelessly can change the life perspective of an innocent mind.
Once you understand what emotional abuse is, develop family rules to ensure that all family members give unconditional positive regard to each other. Sibling emotional abuse can also occur, manifesting itself as sibling rivalry. The individual space and identity of each member of the family is respected and every family member is valued despite his/her abilities, special needs, physical appearances, age, and gender.
If you feel that extended family members like grandparents are causing emotional stress for your child, try to come up with strategies such as supervised or limited interaction.
Final words on emotional abuse
As parents, both mom and dad have the responsibility to ensure that their offspring grow up in a safe and healthy environment. Try to learn about parenting, the emotional needs of children, child protection, and child development. It will help you in becoming even better parents.
Don’t forget you are the most precious relation for your children. They need you and your love the most. Your mental and physical health directly impact their wellbeing. Take good care of your health, both mental and physical. If you have ever had any adverse childhood experience, don’t let it happen to your child.