Indicators of Emotional Child Abuse

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Just as physical injuries can scar and incapacitate a child, emotional maltreatment can cripple and handicap a child emotionally, behaviorally, and intellectually. Self-esteem can be damaged. Severe psychological disorders have been traced to excessively distorted parental attitudes and actions. One of the hallmarks of emotional abuse is the absence of positive interaction (e.g. praising) from parent to their child. Following chronic and severe emotional abuse of a child, emotional and behavioral problems may be present in varying degrees, especially when there is little or no nurturing.

This is especially true for neonates, infants, and toddlers. After emotional abuse, these children may become chronically withdrawn and anxious and lose basic social and language skills necessary for intimate relationships. They may become developmentally delayed, socially limited, and, in some cases, antisocial or chronically unable to protect themselves from others.

Emotional abuse and neglect are also components of other abuse and neglect. Sexual abuse and physical abuse may be the official category for a report, but emotional damage also exists. Emotional abuse and neglect may damage children of all ages, but can be critical with infants and toddlers, leaving them with permanent developmental deficits. It is crucial to recognize the indicators of emotional abuse in order to prevent further harm.

What is Verbal Abuse?


Verbal assault (belittling, screaming, threats, blaming, sarcasm), unpredictable responses, continual negative moods, constant family discord, and chronically communicating conflicting messages are examples of ways parents may subject their children to verbal abuse. There are several signs in parents and in children that may indicate verbal abuse is occurring.

Behavioral Indicators OF ABUSE

Indicators in Parents

These signs indicate that a parent may be engaging in verbal or emotional abuse of a child:

  • Parents or caretakers place demands on the child that are based on unreasonable or impossible expectations or without consideration of the child’s developmental capacity.
  • The child is used as a “battle ground” for marital conflicts.
  • The child is used to satisfy the parent’s/caretaker’s own ego needs and the child is neither old enough nor mature enough to understand.
  •  The child victim is “objectified” by the perpetrator, the child is referred to as “it” (“it” cried, “it” died).
  • The child is a witness to domestic violence.

Emotional abuse can be seen as proving a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a child is degraded enough, the child will begin to live up to the image communicated by the abusing parent or caretaker.

Emotional abuse cases can be extremely difficult to prove, and cumulative documentation by witnesses is imperative. Such cases should be referred to treatment as soon as possible.

Suspected cases of emotional abuse that constitute willful cruelty or unjustifiable punishment of a child are required to be reported by mandated reporters. This means a report must be made of any situation where any person willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts on any child, unjustifiable mental suffering. (Pen. Code, § 11165.3.) However, mandated reporters may also report any degree of mental suffering. While these cases may not always be prosecuted, reporting provides the opportunity for intervention and/or therapy with the family.

Indicators in Children

These signs indicate that a child may be experiencing emotional or verbal abuse:

  • Is withdrawn, depressed, and apathetic.
  • Is clingy and forms indiscriminate attachments.
  • “Acts out” and is considered a behavior problem (e.g. bullies others, chronically uses profanity).
  • Exhibits exaggerated fearfulness.
  • Is overly rigid in conforming to instructions of teachers, doctors, and other adults.
  • Suffers from sleep, speech, or eating disorders.
  • Displays other signs of emotional turmoil (repetitive, rhythmic movements; rocking, whining, picking at scabs).
  • Suffers from enuresis (bed wetting) and fecal soiling.
  • Pays inordinate attention to details or exhibits little or no verbal or physical communication with others.
  • Unwittingly makes comments such as, “Mommy/Daddy always tells me I’m bad.”

The behavior patterns mentioned may, of course, be due to other causes, but the suspicion of abuse should not be dismissed.


Emotional deprivation has been defined as “. . . the deprivation suffered by children when their parents do not provide the normal experiences producing feelings of being loved, wanted, secure, and worthy.”

Signs of emotional deprivation such as withholding affection with touch, smiles and sound may be more damaging than verbal and even physical assault. Children may provoke assault if necessary to gain negative interaction rather than suffer the pain of being ignored. This may damage children of all ages but is critical for infants and young toddlers.

Caretakers might also provide cause for evaluation and possible reporting of a neonate at risk. Intervention may include consideration of caretaker depression, substance abuse, parenting deficits, and lack of social or financial support for the caretaker. Consideration should be made for evaluation of the caretaker for these issues, as well as possible domestic violence.


The signs of emotional deprivation in children can be quite varied. Indicators may include:

  • Refuses to eat adequate amounts of food and is therefore very frail.
  • Is unable to perform normal learned functions for a given age (walking, talking); exhibits developmental delays, particularly with verbal and nonverbal social skills.
  • Displays antisocial behavior (aggression, behavioral disruption, bullying others) or obvious “delinquent” behavior (drug abuse, vandalism); conversely, is abnormally unresponsive, sad, or withdrawn.
  • Constantly “seeks out” and “pesters” other adults, such as teachers or neighbors, for attention and affection.
  • Displays exaggerated fears.
  • Apathy, withdrawal, and lack of response to human interaction.


When parents ignore their children, whether because of drug or alcohol use, psychiatric disturbances, personal problems, outside activities, or other preoccupying situations, serious consequences can occur. However, reporting these situations is not mandated unless they constitute a form of legally defined abuse or neglect. Emotional deprivation and neglect may be seen as a lesser form of child abuse/neglect. It may not be reportable or may be assessed out with no intervention. It is, however, a central issue for much of what damages children.


These children may experience more severe damage and are therefore worthy of voluntary intervention and follow-up.


The abuse may be brief, but the trauma lasts a lifetime.
Kids’ lives and futures are on the line!
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Indicators of Emotional Child Abuse