Protecting children from emotional abuse

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018
Introduction

Emotional abuse is emotional maltreatment of a child, which has a severe and persistent negative effect on the child’s emotional development (Department for Education, 2017; Department of Health, 2017; Scottish Government, 2014; All Wales Child Protection Review Group, 2008). It's also known as psychological abuse.

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.

There are several categories of emotional abuse.

Denying emotional responsiveness (also known as emotional neglect)

  • ignoring the child
  • not showing affection.

Rejection

  • verbal humiliation
  • name-calling
  • criticism
  • physical abandonment
  • excluding the child from activities.

Isolating

  • putting unreasonable limitations on a
  • child’s freedom of movement
  • restricting social interaction
  • not communicating with the child.

Exploiting or corrupting

  • encouraging a child to take part in
  • criminal activities
  • forcing a child to take part in activities
  • that are not appropriate for their stage of development.

Terrorising

  • threatening violence
  • bullying
  • deliberately frightening a child
  • deliberately putting a child in a dangerous situation (Daly and Wright, 2017).
Impact

Impact of emotional abuse

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

Emotional development

Emotional abuse can affect a child's ability to feel and express a full range of emotions appropriately.

Children who grow up in homes where they are constantly berated and belittled may experience self-confidence and anger problems.

Those who don’t get the love and care they need from their parents may find it difficult to develop and maintain healthy relationships later in life.

Challenging behaviour

Emotional abuse can have an impact on the way children behave. They may seek attention and/or become 'clingy'. However they may push people away by isolating themselves or trying to make people dislike them.

Some research has also shown a link between emotional abuse and attention deficit disorders (Milletich et al, 2010).

A child who is being emotionally abused may develop risk taking behaviours such as stealing, bullying and running away. They may not care what happens to them or what people think of them.

Mental health problems

Emotional abuse can increase the risk of a child developing mental health problems, eating disorders or lead to them self-harming.

Emotionally maltreated adolescents can report problems including:

  • depression
  • post-traumatic symptoms
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts
  • problems with forming healthy relationships (Naughton et al, 2017).

Adults who have been emotionally abused as children have higher levels of depression and health problems compared to those who have experienced other forms of child abuse (Gavin, 2011).

Recognising

Recognising emotional abuse

Indicators

A child can be emotionally abused for years without any obvious signs. They may not tell anyone what's happening until they reach a 'crisis point' (Rees, 2010).

However there may be indicators in the way a child behaves and reacts to certain situations. Children who are being emotionally abused may:

  • lack confidence
  • struggle to control strong emotions
  • struggle to make or maintain relationships
  • display behaviour that's inappropriate to their stage of development (for example not being able to play, developing language late or using language you may not expect of a child their age) (Iwaniec, 2006).

Babies and pre-school children who are being emotionally abused or neglected may:

  • be overly affectionate towards strangers or people they haven't known for very long
  • lack confidence or become wary or anxious
  • not appear to have a close relationship with their parent or carer, for example when being taken to or collected from nursery
  • be aggressive or nasty towards other children and animals.

Older children may:

  • struggle to control strong emotions or have extreme outbursts
  • seem isolated from their parents
  • lack social skills or have few, if any, friends
  • use language, act in a way or know about things that you wouldn't expect them to know for their age.

Risk and vulnerability factors

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

When a family is going through a tough time, parents and carers may struggle to provide a safe and loving environment for their children. Many parents are still able to care for their children during stressful periods, but those who are experiencing:

  • relationship problems or marital break-ups
  • family arguments and disputes
  • financial problems or unemployment
  • mental health problems
  • poverty
  • drug or alcohol addiction
  • domestic abuse

may find it more challenging to give their child the emotional support they need.

This is particularly the case if the parents or carers are socially isolated; perhaps because:

  • they have communication difficulties or don't speaking English as a first language
  • they have had to move away from friends and family.

Parents or carers who experienced emotional abuse as children may think it's the norm and therefore they may not understand that they are being emotionally abusive towards their own children (Royse, 2016).

Children who are emotionally abused are often suffering another type of abuse or neglect at the same time – but this isn't always the case.

 

Responding

Responding to emotional abuse

It can be very difficult to identify emotional abuse.

Some children are naturally quiet and some display challenging behaviour for other reasons. 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 symptoms to show.

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

Talking to children about emotional abuse

Many children who are being emotionally abused don't realise that it’s wrong, and may blame themselves for not being 'good enough' (Royse, 2016).

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

  • listen carefully to what they're saying
  • let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
  • tell them it's not their fault
  • say you will take them seriously 
  • don't confront the alleged abuser
  • explain what you'll do next
  • follow the instructions above to report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

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

Legislation, policy and guidance

Across the UK, statutory guidance highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect:

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 early interventions should take each family's context, situation and environment into account. Support services should focus on the parent/carers and child individually, as well as working with the whole family together (Royse, 2016).

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

Direct work

Direct work with children who have experienced emotional abuse

Children who have experienced emotional abuse need help to overcome its effects.

Successful interventions for emotional abuse need to:

  • focus on the child's safety and welfare
  • identify the factors that have contributed to the emotional abuse 
  • work to reduce the impact these factors have on the child
  • consider and address the relationships and environment that surround the child
  • increase the child's resilience.

Play therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on children who have been subjected to emotional abuse (Doyle, 2001; Landreth, 2002).

Any services that help to strengthen the parent-child relationship will also help to keep children safe from emotional abuse.

Baby Steps
Our service which supports parents during pregnancy and the first few months of their child’s life, helping them build a positive relationship with their baby. We're now supporting other organisations to deliver Baby Steps in local areas.

> Find out more about our Baby Steps service on the NSPCC website

Minding the Baby
Helps new mums form a secure bond with their baby.

> Find out more about our Minding the Baby service on the NSPCC website

Parents Under Pressure™
A programme supporting parents who are receiving treatment for drug and alcohol problems. It helps them build their strengths as a parent and develop healthy relationships with their children.

> Find out more about our Parents Under Pressure™ service on the NSPCC website

Young SMILES
A new intervention we've developed with the University of Manchester, Barnardo's and the NHS to support families where parents have mental health issues. It helps the whole family improve their health and wellbeing and works with parents to identify ways they can support their children.

> Find out more about our Young SMILES service on the NSPCC website

References and resources

References and resources

Daly, E.M. and Wright, J.E. (2017) Child abuse: prevention through understanding: physical, sexual, emotional abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Miami: Parker.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Department of Health (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health.

Doyle, C. (2001) Surviving and coping with emotional abuse in childhood. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 6(3): 387-402.

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.

Iwaniec, D. (2006) The emotionally abused and neglected child: identification, assessment and intervention. A practice handbook. 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley.

Landreth, G. (2002) Play therapy: the art of the relationship. New York; Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.

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.

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.

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

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Welsh Government (2007) Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004. Cardiff: Welsh Government.

Elearning

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

Child protection: an introduction

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