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Child Abuse - Emotional Abuse

Watch Parent Behaviour

All parents tell their children off at some time, but if you notice severe or constant harsh behaviour, or that a child seems scared or unfeeling towards their parent, it could be a sign that the child is being emotionally abused.


Emotional Abuse also includes: rejecting behaviour towards a child, failing to respond to or consistently interact with a child, terrorising, corrupting, exploiting and isolating a child.

Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child.


It's sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child's emotional health and development. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them.  Children who are emotionally abused are usually suffering another type of abuse or neglect at the same time – but this isn’t always the case.  


Emotional abuse also includes:

  • humiliating or constantly criticising a child

  • threatening, shouting at a child, calling them names, using sarcasm or making the child the subject of jokes.

  • blaming, scapegoating

  • making a child perform degrading acts

  • not recognising a child's own individuality, trying to control their lives

  • pushing a child too hard or not recognising their limitations

  • exposing a child to distressing events or interactions such as domestic abuse or drug taking

  • failing to promote a child's social development

  • not allowing them to have friends

  • persistently ignoring them

  • being absent

  • manipulating a child

  • never saying anything kind, expressing positive feelings or congratulating a child on successes

  • never showing any emotions in interactions with a child, also known as emotional neglect.

Passive emotional abuse

When a parent or care giver denies the child the love and care they need in order to be healthy and happy it’s known as “passive” abuse.  It’s just as damaging, but it can be harder to spot than “active” abuse. The definitions for passive emotional abuse and emotional neglect are very similar.


  • Emotional unavailability where a parent or carer is not connected with the child and cannot give them the love that they deserve and need

  • Negative attitudes such as having a low opinion of the child and not offering any praise or encouragement

  • Developmentally inappropriate interaction with the child either expecting the child to perform tasks that they are not emotionally mature enough to do or speaking and acting in an inappropriate way in front of a child 

  • Failure to recognise a child’s individualitythis can mean an adult relying on a child to fulfil their emotional needs and not recognising that the child has needs

  • Failure to promote social adaptationnot encouraging a child to make friends and mix among their own social peers.

Active emotional abuse

When someone intentionally scares, demeans or verbally abuses a child it’s known as “active” abuse. This requires a premeditated intention to harm a child.  Active emotional abuse has been defined as:

  • spurning (rejecting)

  • terrorising

  • isolating

  • exploiting or corrupting.

(Barlow and Schrader McMillan, 2010)

Sometimes a fifth category of “ignoring” is also included (Cawson et al, 2000).  


Parents or caregivers who display rejecting behaviour toward a child can make a child feel that he or she is unwanted. Belittling children by making crude jokes about them or making fun of their disabilities, telling children to get out of your face, calling them names or telling the child that he is worthless, making a child the family scapegoat or blaming him for family/sibling problems are all forms of abuse.


Kicking children out of the house or locking them out as a form of punishment are also considered abusive.


Parents who use threats, yelling and cursing are doing serious psychological damage to their children. Singling out one child to criticize and punish or ridiculing her for displaying normal emotions is abusive. Threatening a child with harsh words, physical harm, abandonment or in extreme cases, death, is unacceptable. Even in jest, causing a child to be terrified by the use of threats and/or intimidating behaviour is some of the worst emotional abuse. This includes witnessing, hearing or knowing that violence is taking place in the home.It is also abusive to ridicule or humiliate a child in front of others or threaten to reveal personal or embarrassing information 



A parent who abuses a child through isolation may not allow the child to engage in appropriate activities with his/her peers.  The child is kept from playing with friends, attending events with friends and shuns family events. Basically the child is kept from appropriate social and emotional stimulation.



Parents who corrupt children may allow them to use drugs or alcohol, watch cruel behaviour toward animals, watch or look at inappropriate sexual content or to witness or participate in criminal activities such as stealing, assault, prostitution, gambling, etc. Encouraging an underage child to do things that are illegal or harmful is abusive and should be reported.


Exploitation can be considered manipulation or forced activity without regard for a child's need for development. For instance, repeatedly asking an eight-year-old to be responsible for the family's dinner is inappropriate. Giving a child responsibilities that are greater than a child of that age can handle or using a child for profit is abusive.

Why emotional abuse happens

Periods of high stress and tension, such as money worries or unemployment, can take a parent’s or carer’s focus away from providing the emotional love and support that a child needs. 


They may: 

  • be emotionally unavailable, because they're not around or too tired

  • forget to offer praise and encouragement

  • expect a child to take on too much responsibility for their age, for example caring for other family members

  • be over-protective, limiting opportunities to explore, learn and make friends

  • expect a child to meet their own emotional needs

  • take out their anger and frustration on their child.

  • If a parent had a bad experience when they were a child or has bad role models around them now then this can affect the way they look after their own children.

  • Some parents may find it difficult to understand why their child is behaving in a certain way, and they can react badly. For example, they might think that their baby is crying to annoy them.


Emotional abuse may also be caused by a poor bond or relationship between a parent or carer and their child. 

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