Adults who experienced psychological/emotional abuse in childhood are often unaware of the fact that they were abuse victims. They may experience intermittent or chronic anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues, and often struggle to form healthy attachments / relationships. Once recognized, the adult survivor’s reports of emotional abuse sustained in childhood may be greeted by skepticism, blatant disbelief, ‘blaming the victim’, and even silence and/or indifference, which may further deter the adult survivor from seeking treatment. Many adult survivors continue to be psycho-emotionally abused as a consequence of wanting to stay connected to the perpetrator, who is often a part of, or closely connected to, the survivor’s original nuclear family. This article explores behaviors associated with the psycho-emotional abuse of a child; the signs and symptoms a child and adult survivor may exhibit as a result of this particular form of abuse; and recommendations regarding possible pathways of healing.
The Hidden Wounds of Psychological / Emotional Abuse
Psychological/Emotional abuse experienced in childhood can be insidious: It is insidious because the adult survivor is often unaware that they were in fact victims of abuse, and therefore may not ever seek help or treatment for the invisible psychological and emotional wounds sustained. When healthy mental and emotional functioning is impaired, such an adult is at high risk of developing a variety of mood disorders, addictive behaviors, and other maladaptive ways of being in the world in his or her subconscious attempts to navigate around the pain of an injured psyche.
This type of abuse, when repetitive and/or chronic, results in the child unconsciously believing that he or she is faulty, damaged, and unworthy of love, empathy, attention, and respect. The abused child develops distorted perceptions of self and others, often believing at an unconscious level that there is something wrong with them and that they must deserve the abuse. Such children typically strive life-long to be accepted and approved of by others as a means of proving to themselves that they are ‘okay’ and worthy of love. Having little self-worth, adult survivors of child abuse often find themselves in neglectful, even abusive relationships despite their best intentions to find happiness and love. They may go on to abuse their own children without being conscious of the fact that they are engaging in the very same hurtful behaviors that were inflicted upon them as children.
In the event that an adult survivor does for some reason seek the help of a Mental Heath professional, such as a licensed psychotherapist, they still may not receive the psycho-education and targeted support that they so desperately need to recover from abuse experienced while they were young. This is especially likely if the childhood wounds remain entirely unrecognized and go unreported by the client and/or the therapist unconsciously colludes with their client to prevent the painful material from arising in session (this is especially likely if the therapist has repressed childhood wounding of their own). Successful treatment and recovery from this particular form of child abuse is especially challenging in that the adult survivor in therapy may still be experiencing mental / emotional abuse as a consequence of wanting to remain connected to those who continue to abuse them (most commonly the parents).
According to Andrew Vachss, an attorney and author who has devoted his life to protecting children, the mental/emotional abuse of a child is “both the most pervasive and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible… The pain and torment of those who experienced “only” emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse need both time and specialized treatment to heal, but when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults. This assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer, it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can metastasize if untreated” (You Carry The Cure In Your Own Heart, A. Vachss).
An Abuse Of Power
While experts still do not agree on what behaviors constitute psychological/emotional abuse of a child, it is generally recognized by researchers that this form of abuse impairs the psychological and emotional growth and development of the child. Anyone that holds power, authority and/or privilege in the child’s life is potentially capable of mistreating the child, including parents, siblings, relatives, peers, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, coaches, judicial figures, social service employees, etc. The words ‘repetitive’, ‘chronic’, ‘persistent’, and ‘systematic’ are critical when it comes to defining the psycho-emotional abuse of a child. The behavior is abusive when it acts as a continuously destructive force in the child’s life, as the repetitive maltreatment shapes the child’s unconscious narrative describing ‘the truth’ of who they are at the most basic, fundamental level, resulting in the child believing they are ‘bad’, unworthy, faulty, damaged, unwanted, and unlovable.
Examples of this type of abuse by a parent toward a child include the child being blamed, shamed, dismissed, and/or belittled in public and at home; describing the child negatively to others, including in the child’s presence; always making the child at fault; holding the child to unrealistic expectations; verbalizing to the child and/or others an overt dislike and/or hatred of the child; being emotionally closed and unsupportive; and threatening the child. Below is a list that highlights additional acts exhibited toward a child that can result in impaired psycho-emotional functioning, which can include words, actions, complete indifference, and/or neglect:
- Abandonment of the child (physical and/or emotional)
- Verbal abuse (including calling the child “stupid”, “dumb”, “idiot”, “worthless”)
- Intentionally terrorizing / frightening the child
- Sarcasm, criticism, ‘teasing’; Ridiculing or insulting the child, then telling the child “it’s a joke”, or “you’re too sensitive / “you have no sense of humor”
- ‘Gaslighting’, lying, distorting reality
- Excessive performance demands (e.g., “You need to make straight A’s, all the time, or else”)
- Shaming / Punishing a child for exhibiting natural behaviors (e.g., spontaneous and emotionally honest expressions, playing, laughing, age-appropriate body exploration, including masturbation)
- Discouraging attachment / Withholding basic physical nurturing and touch
- Overtly or covertly punishing the child for displaying positive self-esteem (e.g., “Don’t be so full of yourself, nobody likes a braggart”; “The world will knock you down a peg or two soon enough”)
- Overtly or covertly punishing the child for developing healthy attachments (e.g., “You love your friends more than me”)
- Dressing the child in a manner that provokes ridicule from peers and/or in a manner that the child experiences as shaming and humiliating
- Exposing the child to traumatic / violent family scenes
- Exposing the child to a chronically stressful, traumatizing environment (e.g., alcoholism; drug addiction; domestic abuse)
- Unwillingness or inability to provide genuine nurturing and affection on a daily basis
- Meeting basic physical needs only; unwilling to nurture and comfort the child (e.g., ignoring emotional needs; shaming the child for having emotional needs)
- Failing to provide a growth-evoking environment for the child, including neglecting to nurture and support the child’s growing sense of self
- Making the child an emotional ‘spouse’/partner (common after a divorce)
- ‘Parentifying’ the child: Forcing the child to take on inappropriate parenting tasks versus allowing him or her to be a child
- Expecting / Demanding the child meet the primary caregiver’s emotional needs (when it is supposed to be the other way around)
- Social isolation: Isolating the child, including from peers
- Bullying (psychological domination of the child)
Why Does It Happen?
Psycho-Emotional abuse is caused by many of the same dynamics that cause any form of child abuse to occur. In the case of abuse committed by the parents / primary caregiver, they may simply be unconsciously repeating multi-generational patterns of abuse, i.e., they are acting out the same dysfunctional behaviors toward their child that their own parents displayed toward them. In addition, daily life stressors that build up over time may cause parents to take their frustrations out on their own child, who represents the one ‘thing’ they may feel they have control over, particularly if the child is adding to their sense that life is chaotic, out-of-control, and unmanageable. Social and economic pressures; lack of parental education; addictive processes occurring within the family (alcohol, drug use, denial, enabling, codependency); undiagnosed / diagnosed mental and/or emotional illness; a society that does little to recognize, acknowledge, and stop the abuse of children -All of these factors, and more, can contribute to the maltreatment of a child. In addition, erroneous beliefs about effective and healthy child-rearing techniques may also result in the maltreatment of one’s own child. In some rare and tragic cases, a parent may actually enjoy behaving sadistically toward their child, receiving pleasure by inflicting pain onto their dependent child’s vulnerable psyche. Abusers in general often enjoy feeling a sense of being ‘in control’, making children an easy and rewarding target.
Recognizing The Signs
Curiously, despite the prevalence of psycho-emotional child abuse throughout the world, there are very few well-validated methodologies designed to measure non-physical childhood abuse and its effects on the survivor. Clinicians will often use revised versions of the Child Abuse and Trauma Scale (CATS), which does have some ability to measure mental-emotional abuse. A child’s behavior and personality will often provide clues to a sensitive and/or trained and qualified observer that these types of abuse symptoms are evident. Such behaviors and personality displays may include:
- Behavior that is noticeably immature or more mature when compared to the child’s age
- Dramatic, at times abrupt changes in behavior
- Constant seeking of attention and affection; Clinging to attachment figures
- Aggressive, uncooperative, combative behavior
- Bed-wetting / Loss of bowel control (after the child is potty-trained)
- Depression and/or Anxiety, which in children is often expressed as physical illness such as digestive disorders, migraines, eating disorders, addictive/compulsive behaviors, etc. Also, as expressed through social withdrawal, anger, aggressiveness, remoteness, and sadness
- Impaired relationships with peers
- Lack of self-confidence/self-esteem
- Atypical fears, given the child’s age (e.g., fear of the dark, fear being alone, fear of certain objects, fear of dying)
- Emotionally ‘flat’: Unable to express emotions, ‘flat’ affect (i.e., lack of appropriate facial expressions); may include inability to respond to common social cues appropriately; may prevent the development of emotional bonds
The Impact On Adult Survivors
Abuse experienced during childhood can negatively impact the adult survivor throughout the duration of their lives, if the silent damage to heart, soul, and mind remains unrecognized, untreated, and unhealed. If the adult survivor of an abusive parent does at some point attempt to address the abuse, it is typical for the parent to deny that maltreatment of the child ever happened. It is common for the parent to blame the child for any negative behaviors displayed by the child toward the parent in an attempt to discredit the child’s or adult survivor’s truthful accounts of the abuse that actually occurred. The parent will often go to great lengths to tell anyone who will listen (other family members, especially) that their adult child has always been “a problem”, is “angry” and “unforgiving”, and other negative descriptions designed to discredit the adult survivor and protect the public image of the parent. Such intentionally aggressive tactics on the part of the parent is simply another unrecognized form of psycho-emotional abuse and further adds to the untold suffering and distress of the adult survivor, who may already be struggling with mental and emotional symptoms, such as the ones listed below:
- Active or passive suicidal ideation
- Misuse of alcohol and drugs, often resulting in addiction
- Eating disorders
- Panic disorders
- Compulsive disorders
- Difficulty forming meaningful, rewarding, trusting intimate relationships
- Self-sabotaging, self-destructive behaviors (may include Borderline Personality Disorder-type symptoms)
- Abusive acts toward self and/or others, including one’s own children
Healing: Awareness Is The First Step
Adults who believe they may be suffering from the effects of childhood abuse are encouraged to seek the help of a therapist that has specialized training in helping clients recover from the intrapsychic damage specific to the mental and emotional abuse of a child. Adult survivors engaged in psychotherapy will typically experience feelings such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, rage, acceptance, and grief as the veil of protective illusion lifts, exposing the adult survivor to dark and ugly truths formerly repressed. As childhood abuse often results in the child disconnecting from the most true and authentic parts of him or herself, therapy is also a means of inviting the adult survivor to risk connecting with self and others in meaningful, emotionally honest ways. The therapist will also help guide the adult survivor on matters relating to discussing the abuse with others; whether or not to remain connected to abusive family members; and how to manage interactions with abusive people that they choose not to sever connections with.
In addition to skillful therapy, online groups like Adult Survivors of Child Abuse can be particularly helpful in regard to providing additional support, education, and resources while undergoing a process of intensive ‘core’ healing. Books such as Adult Children of Abusive Parents: A Healing Program For Those Who Have Been Physically, Sexually, or Emotionally Abused and The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma can also provide invaluable information regarding healing from all forms of childhood abuse, as can skillful body/mind therapeutic modalities, such as Hakomi Therapy.
What Can Be Done To Help Affected Children?
If abuse of a child of any kind is suspected, it is the observer’s responsibility to report their concerns to their local Child Protection agency. It is the agency’s job to investigate any reports of abuse, including abuse that may be non-physical in nature. Psycho-Emotional abuse is typically defined by such agencies as abuse that allows a child to be in a situation whereby they sustain mental / emotional injury that results in their being impaired in the areas of growth and psychological development and function. To learn more about child abuse and how and where to report any suspicions you may have, refer to The Child Welfare Information Gateway website.
As illustrated here, the consequences experienced by the victims of psychological/emotional child abuse are potentially incalculable; however, research in this specific area has until recently been relatively sparse. The research that has been done to date suggests that children may experience lifelong patterns of disconnection, depression, anxiety, dysfunctional/’toxic’ relationships, low self-esteem, and an inability to experience empathy. Development processes may be impaired or even disrupted due to poor mental and emotional adjustment. By the time the child enters adolescence, they often find it difficult to trust and may find themselves unable to experience fulfillment and happiness in their interpersonal relationships, while not having any idea that the roots of their unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and distress as an adult may be found in their painful, wounding childhood. Sadly, if they become parents, adult survivors may have great difficulty identifying and responding empathetically and appropriately to the needs of their own children, thereby perpetuating the cycle of multi-generational abuse existing within their family system.
Alice Miller, renowned psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book, The Drama Of The Gifted Child: The Search For The True Self, had this to say about healing from childhood abuse: “Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with your own truth. And throughout your whole life you’ll try to earn love” (A. Miller, The Roots Of Violence ). Ultimately, healing the invisible wounds of any form of child abuse requires the adult survivor to bravely acknowledge even the most painful and incomprehensible truths; hence, the decision to take responsibility for one’s own well-being and healing is a most courageous act indeed. Perhaps it is also time that we ask ourselves as a society how we may be contributing to the continued abuse of children through our indifference, and what we are willing to do collectively to change this so that no child need ever believe that they are unworthy and undeserving of being loved.