Protecting children from emotional abuse

Last updated: 20 Dec 2021
Introduction

Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment of a child, which can have a severe and persistent negative effect on the child’s emotional health and development (Department for Education (DfE), 20201; Department of Health, 20172; Scottish Government, 20213; Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 20204). It's also known as psychological abuse.

Exposing a child to aggression, cruelty or abuse between others is also a form of emotional abuse (Doyle and Timms, 2014).5

Most forms of abuse include an emotional element, but emotional abuse can also happen on its own.

Children can be emotionally abused by anyone:

  • parents or carers
  • family members
  • other adults
  • other children.

We’ve put together some principles of best practice to help you recognise and respond to emotional abuse. It includes information on:

  • the impact emotional abuse can have on a child
  • what emotional abuse looks like and how to respond to it
  • how you can support children and families at risk of emotional abuse
  • relevant legislation and guidance across the UK.

References

Department for Education (DfE) (2020) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. [London]: Department for Education (DfE).
Department of Health (DoH) (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health. Northern Ireland.
Scottish Government (2021) National guidance for child protection in Scotland. [Accessed 07/09/2021].
Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2020) Wales Safeguarding Procedures. [Accessed 01/06/2021].
Doyle and Timms (2014) Child neglect and emotional abuse: understanding, assessment and response. London: SAGE.
Types of emotional abuse

Types of emotional abuse

There are several categories of emotional abuse. These include:

Emotional neglect

  • ignoring the child
  • not showing affection
  • not responding to a child’s emotional needs.

Rejection

  • telling a child they aren’t good enough
  • physical abandonment
  • excluding the child from activities
  • not listening to a child or letting them express their views
  • belittling a child
  • not communicating with the child.

Isolating

  • putting unreasonable limitations on a child’s freedom
  • restricting or preventing social interaction.

Manipulation

Coercing or persuading a child to take part in activities that:

  • they aren’t comfortable with
  • aren’t appropriate for their age or stage of development
  • are unsafe.

Gaslighting is also a form of manipulation. This is where perpetrators make someone doubt their own perception, judgment and/or memory.

Terrorising

  • threatening violence
  • deliberately frightening a child
  • deliberately putting a child in a dangerous situation.

Bullying

  • verbal humiliation
  • name-calling
  • undermining or mocking a child.

Physical bullying can also have emotional effects.

> Find out more about bullying and cyberbullying

Impact

Impact of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can have serious short- and long-term effects on a child's health and development.

“My dad's controlling behaviour really upsets me. He controls everything; what we eat, where we go, what we do, even when and what we watch on TV. I am only allowed out to go to college. He won’t let me have a phone or laptop. He calls me horrible names and just makes life at home unbearable for us all... I feel like my dad is stopping me from achieving what I want with this controlling behaviour and then he'll blame me for being a failure.”

(Girl, 16, NSPCC 2019)

Emotional development

Emotional abuse can affect a child's ability to feel and express a full range of emotions appropriately (Doyle and Timms, 20141). They might:

  • have trouble understanding the emotions they are feeling
  • not understand why they are feeling certain emotions
  • find it challenging to keep their moods and emotions under control

(Shonkoff, 20142; Shonkoff, 20113).

Children who grow up in environments where they are regularly criticised and belittled may experience low self-confidence and self-esteem (Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH, 20154).

Children who have experienced emotional abuse might try to hide their emotions if they think showing their feelings will lead to further abuse (Doyle and Timms, 20145).

> View statistics on emotional abuse

Behaviour perceived to be challenging

A child who has been emotionally abused may feel that nobody cares what happens to them. This may lead them to display behaviour that others perceive to be challenging. Examples of this include:

  • not participating in activities
  • antisocial behaviour
  • not engaging with support workers
  • stealing
  • bullying
  • going missing

(Department for Education, 20176; Al Odhayani, 20137).

Some research has shown a link between emotional abuse and attention deficit disorders (Milletich et al, 20108).

Some children who aren’t getting the care they need from their family might try to get support and companionship elsewhere. Perpetrators can take advantage of this to groom them for sexual abuse and/or exploitation (Oberlander et al, 20119).

Healthy relationships

Children who have been emotionally abused or neglected might develop attachment issues. This can have an impact on the way they form relationships (Lamb et al, 198510).

> Find out more about attachment and child development

Emotionally abused children might have difficulty making friends or building friendships that are reciprocal (Bolger et al, 199811).

They might have a strong desire to please others (Kinard, EM, 199912). This could lead to them putting their own needs aside in order to do what they think others want.

Some children may not realise that their parent or carer’s behaviour is abusive. If they haven’t been taught what makes a relationship healthy and unhealthy, it can be difficult for them to develop and maintain healthy relationships in life.

For this reason, young people who have been emotionally abused might be more vulnerable to being abused or exploited by a partner as they get older (Wekerle et al, 200913).

> Find out how to recognise the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships 

Mental health issues

Emotional abuse can increase the risk of a child developing mental health issues during childhood and later in life (Gavin, 201114).

Emotionally maltreated adolescents might experience problems including:

  • depression
  • post-traumatic symptoms
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts

(Naughton et al, 201715).

Adults who were emotionally abused as children have higher levels of depression and health problems compared to those who have experienced other forms of child abuse (Gavin, 201116).

Brain development

Emotional abuse can negatively affect children’s brain development. It can impact children’s:

  • cognitive and emotional development
  • executive function skills (how they manage emotions and prioritise tasks)
  • stress responses 

(Shonkoff et al, 200817; Shonkoff et al, 201418).

Some children who have experienced emotional abuse might have had to learn to look after themselves or be independent from a young age. They might not have been taught certain skills. This means that they might not be able to play, might develop language late or use language you may not expect of a child their age.

> Find out more about the effects of trauma and emotional abuse on child brain development

References

Doyle and Timms (2014) Child neglect and emotional abuse: understanding, assessment and response. London: SAGE.
Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2014) Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain working paper 3 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.
Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2011) Building the brain’s “air traffic control” system: how early experiences shape the development of executive function working paper 11 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.
Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (RCPCH) (2015) Child protection evidence systematic review on school aged neglect (PDF). London: RCPCH.
Doyle and Timms (2014) Child neglect and emotional abuse: understanding, assessment and response. London: SAGE.
Department for Education (2017) Childhood neglect and abuse: comparing placement options. [Accessed 09/06/2021].
Al Odhayani, A, et al (2013) Behavioural consequences of child abuse (PDF). Canadian Family Physician, 59: 831-836.
Milletich, R. J., et al (2010) Exposure to interparental violence and childhood physical and emotional abuse as related to physical aggression in undergraduate dating relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 25(7): 627-637.
Oberlander, S., et al (2011) Childhood maltreatment, emotional distress, and early adolescent sexual intercourse: Multi-informant perspectives on parental monitoring. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(6): 885-94.
Lamb, ME, et al (1985) The effects of child maltreatment on security of infant-adult attachment. Infant Behavior and Development, 8(1): 35-45.
Bolger, KE, et al (1998) Peer relationships and self-esteem among children who have been maltreated. Child development, 69(4): 1171-1197.
Kinard, EM (1999) Perceived social skills and social competence in maltreated children. erceived social skills and social competence in maltreated children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 69(4):465-81.
Wekerle C., et al (2009) The contribution of childhood emotional abuse to teen dating violence among child protective services-involved youth. Child Abuse & Neglect 2009; 33(1): 45-58.
Gavin, H (2011) Sticks and stones may break my bones: the effects of emotional abuse. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment and Trauma, 20(5): 503-529.
Naughton, A. M. et al (2017) Ask Me! self-reported features of adolescents experiencing neglect or emotional maltreatment: a rapid systematic review. Child: Care, Health and Development, 43: 348–360.
Gavin, H (2011) Sticks and stones may break my bones: the effects of emotional abuse. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment and Trauma, 20(5): 503-529.
Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2008) The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture working paper 5 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.
Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2014) Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain working paper 3 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.
Recognising

Recognising emotional abuse

Indicators

It can be difficult to recognise emotional abuse and children may not always realise they are experiencing it.

But there may be indicators in the way a child behaves and reacts to certain situations. Children who have been emotionally abused may:

  • lack confidence and have low self-esteem
  • be withdrawn and very quiet
  • experience mental health issues
  • have a language delay
  • struggle to focus and concentrate on tasks
  • struggle to make or maintain relationships
  • display behaviour perceived to be aggressive or hostile
  • seem isolated from their parents, carers and peers
  • lack social skills or have few, if any, friends.

Risk and vulnerability factors

Children from any background can be at risk of emotional abuse. But some might be more vulnerable than others.

When a family is going through a tough time, parents and carers might need support to provide a safe and loving environment for their children. Challenges families might experience include:

  • relationship problems and/or marital break-ups
  • family arguments and disputes
  • financial problems and/or unemployment
  • mental health problems
  • poverty
  • drug or alcohol use
  • domestic abuse
  • social isolation.

> Find out more about parental mental health problems

> Find out more about parental substance misuse

Parents or carers who experienced emotional abuse may not realise what happened to them was wrong. This could mean they don't understand that they are being emotionally abusive towards their own children (Royse, 20161).

Children who are emotionally abused might be experiencing other types of abuse or neglect at the same time – but this isn't always the case.

References

Royse, D (2016) Emotional abuse of children: essential information. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Responding

Responding to emotional abuse

It can be very difficult to identify emotional abuse.

Some children are naturally quiet and there are lots of reasons why a child might display behaviour you find challenging. All parents tell their children off from time to time, and sometimes the relationship between them might seem strained.

Sometimes it can take a long time for the signs of emotional abuse to show.

But if you notice patterns of behaviour which worry you, you must share your concerns.

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police.

The police and NSPCC will assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

Supporting children

Children who have experienced emotional abuse might have complex needs. They might need support to understand what’s happened to them and cope with the impact of the effects.

Play therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on children who experienced emotional abuse (Doyle, 20011; Landreth, 20022).

Talking to children who have experienced emotional abuse

Some children who are being emotionally abused don't realise that it’s wrong, and they might blame themselves for not being 'good enough' (Royse, 20163).

So if a child does talk to you about emotional abuse it's really important to:

  • show children you care and help them open up
  • take your time and slow down
  • show you understand and reflect back what they’re saying.

> Read our tips on how to let children know you’re listening

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse for more details

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice about what they’re going through, you can direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online.

There is also age-appropriate information about emotional abuse on the Childline website.

References

Doyle, C (2001) Surviving and coping with emotional abuse in childhood. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry 6(3): 387-402.
Landreth, G (2002) Play therapy: the art of the relationship. New York; Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.
Royse, D (2016) Emotional abuse of children: essential information. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Prevention

Preventing emotional abuse

Early help

It's important to support families where there is a risk of emotional abuse to:

  • overcome any challenges they are facing
  • understand the child's needs
  • improve the bond between parents or carers and their children.

Effective support should take each family's context, situation and environment into account. Practitioners should focus on parent or carers and each child individually, as well as working with the whole family together (Royse, 2016).1

Giving children a voice

It's vital to build safe and trusting relationships with children so they can speak out about any problems they are experiencing. This involves teaching children what emotional abuse is and how they can get help.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for schools helps children understand abuse in all its forms and know how to protect themselves.

> Find out more about Speak out Stay safe

References

Royse, D (2016) Emotional abuse of children: essential information. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.

Child protection in England

Child protection in Northern Ireland

Child protection in Scotland

Child protection in Wales

> See also Key safeguarding legislation for schools in the UK

Cruelty and ill-treatment

Across the UK, someone over 16 could be prosecuted for child cruelty if they ill-treat a child or cause a child unnecessary suffering.

In England and Wales the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 specifies when someone can be prosecuted for child cruelty or neglect.

In Northern Ireland this is covered by the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968.

In Scotland it is Part II of the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937.

Prosecution guidance

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has produced guidance on prosecuting non-sexual child abuse offences in England and Wales (CPS, 20201). This states that child abuse includes physical, emotional and sexual criminal offences, as well as neglect.

Keep up-to-date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research

References

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2021) Child abuse (non-sexual): prosecution guidance. [Accessed 01/06/2021].
Resources

Resources

Statistics on emotional abuse

Read the data available on emotional abuse, including the scale of the issue and the characteristics of children who experience emotional abuse.

> View statistics briefing

Elearning

Our elearning courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from emotional abuse and other abuse types.

Introduction to safeguarding and child protection

Child protection in schools 

Child protection in sport 

Support for children and young people

Childline provides advice and support for children and young people who are affected by emotional abuse.

Further reading

For further reading about emotional abuse, search the NSPCC Library using the keyword/keywords "emotional abuse"; "emotionally abused children".

If you need more specific information, please contact the Information Service