The Impact Of Emotional Abuse On Children

The scars of emotional abuse, unlike physical abuse, aren't visible. However, mistreatment during childhood has many adverse effects on the child. Read on to know more about this.

By Amrita Gracias

The Impact Of Emotional Abuse On Children

Sanjana isn’t like any other average 8-year-old. She is mostly withdrawn, extremely quiet, is intimidated easily, and even seems anxious at times. She prefers to sit by herself rather than talk and play with her friends. What could be the reason for displaying such behaviour? One of the most likely cause could be emotional abuse.

What is emotional abuse?

Every child yearns to be loved, wanted and valued. These natural requirements during childhood need to be catered to for a child to develop into a healthy, normally-functioning adult. Depriving a child of these fundamental requisites constitutes emotional abuse.

Although very common, emotional abuse, somehow, often goes unnoticed. Usually, emotional abuse is perpetrated through verbal abuse where the child is frequently admonished, chastised, reprimanded, degraded and terrorised for no fault of his. This results in the child's sense of worth taking a beating. Sometimes, the child can also be subjected to humiliation, labelling and name-calling, even in public.

At times, emotional abuse even involves a child being isolated, ignored or even rejected. Parents who indulge in emotional abuse usually have unrealistic expectations from their child and even threaten him with physical harm.

Signs of emotional abuse

The immediate effects of emotional abuse are not always clearly visible, but as the child grows older, the symptoms become evident. They present as both physical signs and patterns of difficult behaviour. Signs of emotional abuse in a child may manifest as:

  1. Loss of self-esteem and self-confidence
  2. Attention-seeking behaviour
  3. Social withdrawal/prefers to keep to herself
  4. Delayed emotional development
  5. Drop in academic performance
  6. Physical symptoms like sudden bedwetting or thumb-sucking
  7. Psychosomatic complaints like headaches or tummy aches
  8. Symptoms of depression, anxiety and, sometimes, even aggression

Longer term consequences can include the child developing personality disorder (PD), getting addicted to drugs, and difficulty making or maintaining relationships. Individuals with a history of emotional abuse are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems and prone to committing suicide. Furthermore, children who are emotionally abused and have not received help can become perpetrators of abuse themselves. A child who is emotionally abused is also likely to be a victim of other forms of abuse.

Reasons that lead to emotional abuse

Unfortunately, in most cases, the perpetrator of emotional abuse is either the parent or the caregiver. But, what causes them to become a perpetrator of emotional abuse? Here are a few likely reasons:

  • Addiction to alcohol or drugs
  • Dislike for the child (usually in case of step-parent)
  • Preoccupation with work and social life
  • Overly stressed single parent
  • Suffering from PD or having PD traits

Dealing with an emotionally abused child

A child who has been emotionally abused can suffer severe adverse effects, which are sure to manifest as she grows older. Therefore, one must tread with caution when dealing with such a child. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when dealing with an emotionally abused child:

Ensure safety: It is imperative to ensure the child’s safety and protection. Often, the child may shield the abuser by remaining silent due to fear of consequences. In other cases, the child might not even realise he is being ill-treated as he comes to accept emotional abuse as normal.

Reach out: Once you are sure that your intervention will not harm the child in any way, reach out to her. Small acts of kindness can help gain her trust and make her feel comfortable enough to share her thoughts and feelings. You can also guarantee her of her safety, if she is hesitant or scared to talk about the abuse she is facing.

Offer assurances: Once the child has opened up about the abuse, assure him that he is not to blame for his troubles. Often, a child ends up feeling guilty, believing that he is being punished as he must have done something wrong. Besides, perpetrators don’t always wait for the target to do something wrong; the child’s presence is enough to trigger the perpetrator’s anger or aggression. Reassure the child that he should not be abused and what he is being subjected to is wrong. Let him know that he is smart and intelligent, no matter how he is being made to feel by the abuser.

Get help: It is imperative that you get the child professional help. If the child is being abused by a parent, then you could seek assistance from another family member, teacher or counsellor at her school. If she is being bullied at school, then get both parents and school authorities to intervene without further delay. Post the initial intervention, appropriate psychotherapy, ideally for both the child as well as the perpetrator, is necessary for the healing process. In India, 1098 is a toll-free national helpline with counsellors trained to deal with problems reported by children.

Encourage perpetrator to get help: If the perpetrator is known to you, then suggest that the individual gets help too. It is likely that the perpetrator has also undergone the painful experience of emotional abuse as a child. With the right professional guidance, such as psychotherapy and/or rehab, the issues can be addressed.

The healing process

While appropriate professional help and guidance will allow the child deal with the effects of the abuse. Remember, healing is a slow process that will happen over time, albeit it’s not always an easy one. Besides helping the child deal with the abuse, he must also be guided on how to move forward, such as making friends, focusing on academics, or even pursuing a hobby. A supportive and nurturing environment with a responsible adult can augment the healing process and buffer the effects of emotional abuse that the child has experienced.

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