Impact of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can have serious short- and long-term effects on a child's health and development.
“I can't cope at home anymore; my mum is making my life hell. I know it's hard for her as a single parent, but she uses every opportunity to have a go at me. She's told me I'm a freak and a shame to the family and how I always let her down. She controls everything in my life and I hate being at home.”
(Childline counselling session with boy, aged 16)
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, 2022).4
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
- 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).
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:
- post-traumatic symptoms
- 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).
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