Emotional Child Abuse: Signs & Effects

Instructor: Quentin Shires

Quentin has taught psychology and other social science classes at the university level and is considered a doctoral colleague at Capella University.

In this lesson, learn what emotional child abuse is and what signs to look for when interacting with children. Afterwards, identify different effects on how this type of abuse can impact children.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver causes injury, death, or emotional harm to his/her child, whether it be through an action or a failure to act. In the United States, approximately five children die every day due to child abuse, making this an emergency that must be addressed throughout our communities. Sixty-eight percent of children are abused by a family member; therefore, it is essential to understand the types of child abuse that can occur and the warning signs and effects it can have on a child's life.

Emotional abuse can be hard to identify when communicating with children, as on the outside, everything can appear normal.

Children and Emotional Abuse

Most forms of child abuse can be easy to spot, especially if it is of a physical nature, as perpetrators can leave bruises and other visual cues that can indicate physical harm. Other forms of child abuse, such as emotional abuse and sexual abuse can be more difficult to identify, as they occur on a psychological basis, with warning signs not always being easily identifiable. It is important to know that the majority of children that show signs of emotional abuse typically also suffer from other forms of abuse such as those of a sexual or physical nature. Keep in mind that this is not always the case, so it is important to examine each child independently to determine if emotional abuse is occurring.

Knowing the Signs of Emotional Child Abuse

As emotional abuse is psychological or internal, it is important to be cognizant of different warning signs to ensure that the child can receive help. When interacting with children, be wary of their level of social skills. Typically, children that experience emotional abuse lack healthy social skills and can also have few to no friends. This stems from the children learning to isolate themselves, so also check to see if they engage in isolating behaviors with their parents or caregivers.

Emotional child abuse victims will also struggle to control their behaviors, so be sure to look for strong outbursts of emotions such as anger, rage, and other strong emotions. Also, children can appear to lack confidence and be vulnerable to feelings of extreme anxiety.

If you need to assess whether emotional abuse is occurring for younger children, such as preschool ages, look for individuals that are overly affectionate to strangers or people that they haven't known very long. In this instance, these children oftentimes will seek out attention and cling to strangers in order to meet or fulfill needs that they may not be receiving at home.

Children and the Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional child abuse can wreak havoc on young people's lives and the effects can even last a lifetime. Because emotional abuse deals with psychological symptoms, different effects can occur including long-term depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and lack of a healthy ability to connect with other people. Other symptoms to look for include children having trouble concentrating, sleeping, and experiencing academic problems such as dropping grades.

Children that have experienced emotional abuse at a critical level or longtime psychological neglect typically will demonstrate effects that include flashbacks and hyper-vigilance. Flashbacks are associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, where children can experience a strong emotional memory of an event that previously occurred. For example, if a child's father keeps berating that child and telling him that he is worthless and a horrible person, in future times, he could experience an emotional flashback where that memory is re-experienced. To put it more concretely, an emotional flashback causes an individual to experience an emotion as if it were happening today, even though it occurred in the past.

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