Emotional abuse

The New Frontier?...

New research suggests that emotional abuse has similar consequences to other forms of maltreatment.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/ambrozinio (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/ambrozinio (adapted)

So what is emotional abuse & what needs to be done?

Here’s what Working Together says: emotional abuse is…

The persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.

It may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun‘ of what they say or how they communicate.

It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction.

It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying (including cyber bullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children.

Clearly, some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child. But for some children emotional harm may be the only abuse they suffer.

This is not to downplay it’s impact. On the contrary. It’s a wake up call for us to respond with equal concern!

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Emotional abuse is more tricky…

Evidence is hard to gather around things like:

  • Rejection – being told they are worthless, unloved, unwanted

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/picmov

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/picmov

  • Intimidation – being threatened with harm or other horrible things
  • Humiliation – being ridiculed, undermined or criticised constantly
  • Bullying – being made to do or not do things via threats, coercion or bribery
  • Scaring – being made to be in fear for their safety or just frightening the child for the sake of it

When you see a list like this it’s easy to see why this is a form of abuse.

The damage inflicted by maltreatment must be recognised if we are to help children at risk.

When it comes to physical abuse, it’s a little more straight forward – at least there can be outward signs of possible abuse – bruising, cuts, burns, soft-tissue injuries, etc.

A medical examination of a child suspected of being sexually abused can also show physical and forensic evidence of foul play. This can corroborate the things the child says about what has happened.

Different abuse, same consequences…

Recent research suggests that the harm caused and consequences of being emotionally abused are similar to those of other forms of maltreatment.

Not only is the experience horrific at the time, it leaves the child with developmental effects that are similar in kind to being physically or sexually abused.

There are behavioural effects too – particularly later on. Things like anxiety and depression through to rule-breaking and aggression.

‘…it seems as though different types of abuse have equivalent, broad, and universal effects.’ Prof. David Vachon

This has implications for the way we respond to emotional abuse.

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So where do we go from here?…

If these findings are corroborated – and they certainly ring true with my own experience – then there are implications for social policy on a number of levels.

Here are some thoughts about what may need to happen next:

  • Identification – research and practice must focus on developing methods for identifying emotional abuse as early as possible. Social workers and others need clear guidance and support to direct their work in circumstances where emotional abuse is suspected.

    Justice statue

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto

  • Prosecution – emotional abuse is notoriously less punishable than others forms – this needs to change if children are to be protected. Current legal statutes in criminal law are inadequate to bring offenders to book in a way that’s commensurate with the damage done by emotional abuse.
  • Treatment – Current CAMHS provision is woeful in many areas. Access to CAMHS and/or other responsive treatments for children known to have been subjected to emotional abuse is crucial. Different thresholds for access to treatment are needed, as well as increased funding to support the development of appropriate mental health responses.

Final word…

These things are easy to say and difficult to do. And they’re expensive.

But if society is to respond to emotionally abused children with the same rigour and conviction as it does the other forms, this investment will be critical.

Perhaps the best place to start would be further research in order that future social policy and practice changes are well-grounded in good evidence?…

What do you think?…

  • What are your experiences of dealing with emotional abuse in practice? What could we do to deal with it more effectively?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2016

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