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Emotional Abuse Hurts Children As Much As Physical Abuse

Emotional Abuse Hurts Children As Much As Physical Abuse

A recent article in the journal Pediatrics indicates that emotional abuse of children is not only severely damaging but difficult to detect.

Dr. Harriet MacMillan, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University, indicates that all of the following are forms of emotional child abuse: exploiting, belittling, terrorizing or denigrating a child; being emotionally unresponsive to a child; and threatening a child’s well being. MacMillian says that “we are talking about extremes, and the likelihood of harm, or risk of harm, resulting from the kinds of behavior that make a child feel worthless, unloved or unwanted.”

Examples include a mother who leaves her child alone in a crib all day or a father who takes drugs with his teenage son.

She adds, “yelling at a child every day and giving the message that the child is a terrible person, and that the parent regrets bringing the child into this world, is an example of a potentially very harmful form of interaction.” MacMillan also states that emotional abuse of children is missed quite often or goes unreported and that such treatment “can be as harmful as other types of maltreatment.”

Emotional child abuse may cause developmental, social and academic problems as well as disruptive behavior.
“The effects of psychological maltreatment during the first three years of life can be particularly profound.”
Psychological child abuse is particularly prevalent in families that have serious conflicts, especially if the conflicts are violent and severe, and cause numerous stresses, physical violence, mental illness or substance abuse.

Studies show that about one in ten women and one in 20 men report psychological abuse during childhood. According to a May 2014 report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), there was a 50 percent increase in the number of cases of emotional abuses being referred to police and local authorities in the last year. NSPCC says this number underlines the need for new legislation to tackle emotional neglect of children.

With no bruises to spot, pediatricians, teachers and family members may have trouble recognizing emotional abuse. Not only are there no obvious scars, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes psychological maltreatment of children, and a fine line can exist between not-so-great parenting and outright abuse, experts say.

One of the keys to spotting abuse is the pervasiveness of it. “A single bad parenting day probably isn’t abuse,” said MacMillan. “But near-constant ridicule, telling a child he or she is unloved and unwanted, is abuse.”

Suspected cases of psychological abuse should be reported to your local child protective services agency or police department. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers information on recognizing the signs of child abuse. For more information about where and how to file a report call the Childhelp National ChIld Abuse Hotline at 800.4.A.CHILD.

This summary was provided as a public service by Westside Behavioral Care, a network of 23 licensed therapists providing outpatient counseling, psychotherapy and mental health services in the Denver metropolitan area. Many WBC therapists treat children and adolescents.