What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

Kelly Ferguson

Emotional child abuse occurs when a child is treated badly enough to hinder his or her emotional health and development, perhaps permanently. The source of emotional child abuse may be the child's parents or teachers, or anyone else who plays an important role in the child's life, such as relatives. The abuse may also take several forms, from excessive punishment and criticism to neglect.

A child suffering from emotional abuse may have difficulty forming future relationships.
A child suffering from emotional abuse may have difficulty forming future relationships.

One form of emotional child abuse is when the child is dominated or controlled by the abuser. In this situation, the child is forced to obey the abuser, even if doing so will harm the child in some way. Emotional abuse such as this often occurs alongside physical abuse, as a punishment or reinforcement of the abuser's control over the child.

A child who is emotionally or verbally abused is more likely to be withdrawn and anxious than her peers.
A child who is emotionally or verbally abused is more likely to be withdrawn and anxious than her peers.

Excessively criticizing and belittling a child is also a form of emotional child abuse, which can make the child feel worthless. Often, this abuse occurs in response to healthy things that should normally be encouraged, such as interacting and playing with friends or being happy. This is especially damaging because it sometimes prevents the child from reaching out to others for acceptance and friendship. The child may also suffer from neglect, being ignored by the parents or other important adult figures. This may extend past emotional neglect, such as withholding affection or attention, and into physical neglect, such as a failure to provide food, clothing, shelter, or other necessities.

Excessive criticism can make a child feel worthless.
Excessive criticism can make a child feel worthless.

It is extremely important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a child who is being emotionally abused. If the situation is not dealt with appropriately and quickly, an emotionally abused child may be more likely to withdraw and become depressed, develop low self-esteem and anxiety, and have difficulty forming future relationships. In many cases of emotional abuse, the victim will not reach out for help, out of a feeling of worthlessness, helplessness, or fear.

Sometimes the parents will be to blame for the abuse, which leaves it up to the child's teachers and other relatives to help. Other times, the parents may not realize the child is being abused by someone until symptoms such as depression and social withdrawal become apparent. Additionally, the parents may be the primary abusers but not realize that they are actually causing harm to the child. This can happen especially when the parents lead very stressful lives and do not realize that they may be taking out this stress on their child, either through anger, bitterness, and impatience or through neglect because they themselves are physically and emotionally drained.

If someone leads a stressful life, he may be taking out that stress on his child.
If someone leads a stressful life, he may be taking out that stress on his child.

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Discussion Comments


My ex-wife locks my three year old in her room to make her go to bed and I feel that is wrong. I am worried that she will feel that going to bed is a punishment and she will be locked in her room every time she has to go to bed. I don't have custody and don't want to let her go back to that. not sure what to do. Please help! -- Worried Daddy


@JimmyT - Right you are. I know many people that have been victims of the various types of emotional child abuse and to be totally honest I feel like this is the most common type of abuse to inflict on someone as it only involves what you say and how you say it for the person to perceive it as being negative.

I have seen children be verbally abused by their parents for striking out in a baseball game. Lats time I checked Major League baseball players strike out all the time and all it does is instill fear into the child and make the game not fun for them.

I also see parents accosting their kids in public for simply making observations and telling them to be quiet or they will spank them or slap them. This always disgusted me and made me think that those parents had no relationship of understanding at all towards their children and were not fit to be parents.


@cardsfan27 - That is an incredible story and a textbook example of an overbearing parent towards their children.

I do not understand why parents choose to treat their kids in such a way to make them feel worthless. I know a very smart young woman, a friend of mine, that is one of the smartest people I know and, when happy, an incredibly fun and nice person, yet she is so insecure and it is because of simply how her parents talked to her when she was younger and she developed low self esteem.

She told me stories about how if she were playing a game at her family game night she would get ridiculed for missing a question. I know it is OK to poke fun at someone as long as it is done in respect and the person does not mind, but as she described to me they would basically make fun of her for getting the answer wrong and hint at her not being as smart as everyone thought.

Parents need to be careful at what they say to their children as children are very impressionable and will react further down the road to things that occurred in the past, especially if they learned in a negative way.


@TreeMan - I know what you are talking about and I see a lot of this in the sports realm as I see overbearing parents attempting to project themselves into their kids all the time.

I have heard some horror stories about how as a baby the parent would tie their arm behind their back in order to ensure that their child become left or right handed.

I know there was one quarterback in the NFL that had severe problems when he became an adult and it is a miracle he is a living, breathing member of society considering what his father did to him.

In this instance, the dad basically bred his son to be an NFL quarterback and is even rumored to have given his kid steroids in order to grow faster.

The dad refused to let his son go to school until high school and instead focused on simply breeding his kid to have a life that was literally nothing but football.

Once the kid did become an adult and a professional athlete he lost his love for the game once he realized what his life had become and had not lived the life of a normal person and sought out as much living as possible which included drug use, several arrests, and excessive drinking.


I know several people that have unfortunately become victims of emotional child abuse and are now dealing with a lot of issues as they move into adulthood.

Most of these people I know tend to have the same pattern occur in their past revolving around how they have become the way they are.

All of the people I know had parents that were simply very over-bearing and were doing so without cause, in that they were not showing that they were looking out for what was best for the child. They were simply controlling them in a way that at least seemed like they were just wanting control and not necessarily projecting their good intentions, if there were any onto the child.

A lot of these people tell me similar stories in that their accomplishments or things they did when they were younger came back to the parents and they all thought that the parents were trying to project themselves into them in order to live out their dreams.

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