The foundations for good mental health are laid down in the emotional development that occurs in infancy and later in childhood. When a child experiences a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his/her mother or other caregiver, that child will grow and thrive. On the other hand, an unresponsive parent, or one who responds inappropriately to a child’s needs, will increase the likelihood of the child becoming anxious and insecure in its attachment.
If a parent inadvertently or deliberately engages in a pattern of inappropriate emotional responses, the child can be said to have experienced emotional abuse. The effects of emotional abuse may be manifested in the sense of helplessness and worthlessness often experienced by physically abused children, in the sense of violation and shame found in sexually abused children, or in the lack of environmental stimulation and support for normal development found in neglected children.
Unlike physical and sexual abuse, where a single incident may be considered abusive, emotional abuse is characterized by a climate or pattern of behavior(s) occurring over time. Thus, “sustained” and “repetitive” are the crucial components of any definition of emotional abuse.
There is also another differentiation. Psychological maltreatment focuses on the impact on the mental abilities of a child, such as intelligence, memory, recognition, and attention. However,
emotional abuse places a greater significance on the impact on a child’s feelings and capacity to express and develop relationships.
The most damaging of emotional abuse includes: rejection or withdrawal of love; verbal putdowns; perfectionism; negative prediction (e.g., “You’ll never amount to anything”); negative comparison (e.g., “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”); scapegoating; shaming; cursing or swearing; threats; and guilt trips (e.g., “How could you do that after all I’ve done for you?”).
I believe that making parents accountable for developing healthy, functioning children should be a national priority. It would certainly reduce the level of emotional abuse currently occurring.