Emotional Abuse Signs

Emotional abuse signs can vary by age, temperament and even gender and they can manifest in behaviors that range from one extreme to the other. For example, an emotionally mistreated child may be overly aggressive or extremely withdrawn or both depending on the circumstances.

The signs of emotional abuse can be hard to detect and even harder to link, as a direct cause, of verbal and psychological maltreatment.

The emotional abuse of children seemingly only compromises 7% of all reported cases, but it is the one abuse that is present with all other types of abuse such as physical and sexual, so technically speaking, emotional abuse is present in 100% of all cases.

Emotional abuse can be present in schools (bullying), communities, workplaces and in the worst case scenario - the home. Emotional abuse warning signs in children can manifest in a variety of ways. The following are examples of the different types of emotional abuse signs.

Emotional Abuse Signs - Indicators:

  • low self-confidence/poor self-image
  • unable to feel trust/fearful
  • dependent/withdrawn
  • anxious/depressed
  • over-compliant/hyper-vigilant
  • detached
  • has difficulty forming relationships
  • little enthusiasm
  • low perseverance
  • social, emotional and/or academic delays
  • unusual fears
  • lack of empathy
  • failure to thrive 
  • feelings of shame and guilt

Emotional Abuse Signs - Observable Behaviors:

  • rocking, sucking on clothes, hands, hair, biting self or others
  • crying
  • avoids eye contact
  • overly aggressive, destructive or cruel to others
  • suffers from sleep, speech disorders
  • restricts play activities or experiences
  • demonstrates compulsions, obsessions, phobias, hysterical outbursts
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • negative statements about self
  • shy, passive or compliant
  • physical, mental and emotional developmental delays
  • self-destructive behavior
  • overly demanding
  • bed-wetting

Due to factors such as societal differences and cultural practices in the way that we raise boys and girls, many times the warning signs of emotional abuse will be gender specific.

Boys may tend toward more:

  • aggression
  • temper tantrums
  • fighting with peers/siblings
  • bullying 
  • disobedience/defiance
  • frustration
  • lying/cheating
  • destructive 
  • impulsive/lacks self-control 
  • argumentative
  • teases others excessively
  • worries excessively
  • withdrawn

Girls may tend toward more:

  • withdrawn
  • passive
  • approval-seeking
  • compliant
  • easily frustrated
  • infinitely patient
  • clingy with adults
  • low self-confidence
  • overly dependent
  • stubborn
  • teases others excessively
  • worries excessively
  • somatic complaints (body aches, illness)


Family, Caregiver or Parental Indicators

  • blames or puts down child
  • is cold and rejecting
  • indifferent to child's problems or welfare
  • withholds affection
  • shows preferential treatment when there is more than one child in the family

Common characteristics of the abusing adult include:

  • blaming or belittling the child in public
  • talking about the child negatively
  • always assuming the child is at fault
  • having unrealistic expectations
  • admitting to disliking or hating the child
  • threatening the child 
  • using corporal or emotionally severe punishment
  • withdrawing comfort as a means of discipline
  • being emotionally cold and unsupportive
  •  suffering from alcohol and drug abuse
  • being violent in words, thoughts or actions.

Emotional abuse signs can be difficult to discern and may be judged as "the child's fault." Verbal abuse and neglect often take place under a veil of secrecy. A superficial, happy, well-adjusted front may be put on by the family who is suffering behind closed doors.

It is important to create safe channels for parents to get help with their parenting, stress management or whatever else may be inhibiting a successful relationship with their children or partner.

If you would like more information on conscious parenting alternatives - click here to check out my free parenting course. 

1. Child Welfare Information Gateway https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan.cfm
2.Understanding the Six Forms of Emotional Abuse, Oliver Tuthill, Autumn Tree Productions, 1998 http://www.worldcat.org/title/understanding-the-six-forms-of-emotional-child-abuse/oclc/43980174
3. Psychological child maltreatment. A developmental view. Garbarino J. Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, Chicago, Illinois. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8356153

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