Emotional Abuse

Written by on July 23, 2012 in About Abuse, On Healing

The Many Faces of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a broad term that covers a variety of subtler abuses such as mental, verbal and psychological abuse.  All forms of physical and sexual abuse include emotional abuse but it can be difficult at times to recognize how significant the impact of emotional abuse is on a person, especially a child. When a person is raised in an environment that normalizes emotional abuse it can be difficult to even become aware that what happened was in fact abusive.

Emotional and Psychological Abuse of Children

There are many different ways in which children are emotionally abused. Here are some that I have experienced or witnessed others experience.

Isolation and deprivation: Isolation is particularly traumatizing to a child because they are still forming familial bonds and their entire safety structure is centered on the parents and the home. Separating the child and isolating them from others is very painful. Caveat: Putting your child in a time-out, sending them to their room are minor types of separation and are not what I am talking about here. There is a way to discipline children that involves kindness, expressing love and still giving the child healthy boundaries. The kind of abuse I am referring to is locking up your children, refusing to look at the child, depriving them of healthy attention, ignoring their pleas, not allowing others to interact with them and making the child feel as though they have to earn the right to be a part of the family.

Forcing the child to witness or participate in the abuse of others: This is profoundly upsetting to anyone especially a child. Witnessing abuse and feeling unable to do anything about it is in some ways more traumatizing that being the one abused. When you pull the child into the abuse by asking them to get the belt that is used to hit another person this creates a burden of responsibility and deep shame or guilt. This also causes them to question whether or not they are the perpetrator.

Shaming the child, esp. public shaming: Anytime a child is shamed a deep wound is created. Children can be shamed into doing or not doing just about anything. Yelling at a child, making them wrong or the cause of some disaster and telling them that things are their fault are only a few ways to shame a child. Shame is not something that parents should use to control their children. Shame is a natural and healthy emotion that arises when you betray yourself or violate your own personal ethics. It helps you recognize what you have done and to correct it. When shame is used to control a child, the child loses the connection to this healthy shame and confuses it with people-pleasing and approval seeking.

Humiliation: In my opinion and experience humiliation is the single most devastating form of abuse. The effects of it have lingered on in my life for years and years. It is so challenging to revisit the humiliation that it is often the last thing to surface during the healing process. Shaming is a little bit different than outright humiliation. For example, forcing a child to undress in front of someone that they feel uncomfortable with is a form of control by humiliation. Being accused of something you didn’t do and not believed is humiliating. Ritualizing a beating and forcing the abused to participate in that beating is humiliating. Humiliation penetrates deep into the psyche. There are too many ways to abuse through humiliation to try to sum it up.

Criticizing: Keeping the child feeling small and unimportant using criticism is a subtler form of emotional abuse. Being critical of your child can cause them to form an identity that is entirely false. Self abuse occurs in some cases as a result of chronic criticism. When a child feels that they can do nothing right or good, not only do they give up trying but they often give up on themselves entirely.

Lying to the child: Children are naturally honest  and it is a developmental stage when a child lies. As long as there is honesty from the parents and consistency with the truth the child will outgrow the exploratory period known as lying and become healthy and honest adults. But when a parent or an authority figure lies to the child especially when they lie about the child this can cause extreme confusion. Lying creates an unstable environment where the child can no longer rely on anything as absolute. For example, telling a child that is upset that they are not upset is a lie. Telling a child that they can do something and then retracting your commitment is a lie. Outright lies, such as accusations that are false, telling the child you saw them commit some act of wrongdoing when you did not are all forms of dishonesty that wreck the foundation for the child. This is a form of emotional abuse.

Using fear to control: Because children are inexperienced they are vulnerable to fear tactics. Using fear and creating an environment of fear can have long lasting implications for the child. Using the fear of punishments, for example, telling them they will be eaten by a dog if they leave the yard or other forms of control will become debilitating when they reach adulthood. When fear is used to paralyze the will of the child they can develop phobias later in life. They will also be prone to panic attacks and anxiety.

Unreasonable expectations of a child is another form of abuse. Expecting a child to behave in ways that are impossible i.e. sitting still on a chair for several hours at a time; requiring them to tell something that they do not know, forcing them to overcome fears using force, overworking them, pushing them past their limits are all forms of abuse.

There is limited space to write all the ways in which children can be emotionally abused. It is my hope that this gives the reader at least a broader understanding and appreciation for the impact of emotional abuse.

Scars of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is akin to brainwashing, it chips away at the persons identity and sense of self until they are no longer sure about who they are, what they believe and their internal compass is destroyed. It is as though the abuser steals the mind and soul of the abused. They become like a blank page waiting for the abuser to create them. This requires them to become as disconnected as possible. Betrayal of self and others, identification and defense of abuser, shutting emotions completely off or creating a persona that is a rebel are all ways of coping with emotional abuse. The scars of emotional trauma are difficult to describe and for many are difficult to become fully aware of. It is immeasurable and intangible. Emotional abuse is the silent and invisible destroyer.

Consequences of Emotional Abuse

There are long term consequences for emotional abuse. Lack of trust in oneself, co-dependencies, total loss of self worth and constant self rejection, extreme rebelliousness, development of phobias and irrational fears, panic attacks and anxiety, chronic depression, repression of feelings, cold and impassioned, extreme denial, insomnia or sleep disorders, addictions such as alcohol dependence, overeating/binge eating, anorexia, obsessive/certain compulsive behaviors, excessive need for attention, fear of being alone, will not take risks, unable to participate in groups or a lack of empathy and the development of more severe personality disorders.

Physical symptoms can include, constant stomachaches, poor digestion, skin disorders, ulcers, constipation, allergies, insomnia, obesity, thyroid dysfunction, chronic fatigue, structural issues such as neck and back pain and headaches.

Minimizing the Abuse

One pattern I have observed in myself and others that have been abused is the inclination to minimize the abuse.  Sometimes the abused will feel that their experience does not compare with someone they believe “had it worse.” This is especially true if the abuse or trauma was primarily emotional. I call it the invisible abuse. There are no visible scars, no person, (not even yourself) can see how painful it is, the act of the abuse itself can be disguised so that others are unaware of how abusive it really is. This makes emotional particularly isolating and difficult to overcome. Also, minimizing the abuse will keep the natural feelings of anger repressed preventing the healing process. Sometimes the abused person will believe that they there are no after effects of the abuse or that they have dealt with it. I have found in myself and others minimizing the abuse is actually a symptom of unresolved issues. Once the abuse is really dealt with you never have to minimize it again to keep it in its container.

Healing from Emotional Abuse

The most valuable thing I have learned about emotional abuse that has helped me heal myself has been the importance of awareness and not identifying with symptoms. It is easy to become overly identified with issues such as depression, lack of sleep, obesity, phobias and other outward symptoms of emotional trauma that are trapped in the body rather than looking into the causes and beliefs that have formed as a result of that abuse. Recognizing it, naming it, and identifying consistencies is for me the first step toward true healing. For example, when you are dealing with allergies to acknowledge that at least part of the source of the allergic reaction is an emotional trauma in the body can be empowering. You can heal from emotional abuse and only you have the understanding and the inner resources to heal yourself.

Author’s Note: I have barely touched upon a vast subject upon which much has been written and much still needs to be written. This article reflects my own experience with myself and loved ones and is not a result of education or training. Below is a list of books and resources that have helped me.

Healing Trauma by Peter Levine

The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller

You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay

Feelings Buried Alive Never Die by Karol Truman

The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav

Loving What Is by Byron Katie

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

The Truth will Set You Free by Alice Miller

The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren

Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine

The Places the Scare You by Pema Chodron



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  1. Rita Kelley says:

    Hi Susanna!

    This stuff is brilliant!! You write as though you have loads of schooling, Doctorate level. This topic is so important.
    I’ve been trying to crank out a book for the last few years and I’ve devoted an entire chapter on EA. Love your website!

  2. Susanna says:

    Thanks Rita, I am happy to hear you are writing a book!

  3. Nick says:

    This is a fabulous piece. I’ve already read a lot of the books on the reading list, and lots of other books too, but the information in this article has had a great impact on me. I’ve often gotten lost trying to work out the causes of my symptoms, I couldn’t put two and two together, but the linkages here have started to make many things a lot clearer. Insomnia, smoking and irrational fears are the symptoms I’m tackling right now, which is how I landed here, and I think I may now have some answers to my eternal ‘why do I do this’ or ‘why am I like this’ questions. I shall be reading the article over and again. I may even print it out and highlight stuff as I continue to piece things together. Thank you Susanna. You’ve really helped me!

  4. Susanna says:

    Wow! Thanks Nick!

  5. Lisa says:

    Thank you for writing this. There has always been a gap in my understanding regarding the effects of the emotional abuse I experienced as a child. However, as you explained so eloquently, since there was no physical or sexual abuse, I could never understand why I felt many of the emotions you described (extreme denial, not being able to directly access my emotions, having little self worth, etc…). Reading this helped me put the pieces together! Thank you, thank you!!

  6. Susanna says:

    Thank you Lisa for taking the time to share your experience.