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What is Psychological Abuse?

Candace Lehman, Chevette Alston
  • Author
    Candace Lehman

    Candace Lehman has taught all subject areas in 4th and 5th grade for over 12 years. She has a Bachelors of Science in Elementary Education from Missouri State University. She holds a lifetime teaching certificate in the state of Missouri for Birth-6th Grade.

  • Instructor
    Chevette Alston

    Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

What is psychological abuse? Learn about psychological abuse and its damaging effects. Read examples of psychological violence and the causes of mental abuse. Updated: 09/10/2021

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What is Psychological Abuse?

What does abuse mean? Abuse is any type of behavior, mental or physical, that one person does to another with the intention to cause harm. The psychological abuse definition is typically verbal, mental, or emotional abuse intended to cause damage by undermining a person's well-being, self-esteem, or mental health. The mental abuse definition is defined as criticism, intimidation, and name-calling by one person to another. What is the definition of emotional abuse? The emotional abuse definition is being controlled by another person by using the victims emotions, such as shame or embarrassment. Psychological abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse, and psychological violence are often used to describe similar events.

Psychological abuse can be found in both genders and all age ranges. Studies show that a large percentage of people have reported psychological abuse from an adult when they were a child. Psychological abuse can have the following characteristics:

  • attacks on a victim's character: telling a victim they can never do anything right
  • obscenities: yelling and using curse words or offensive language
  • negative tones: talking to a victim in a demeaning manner
  • exploitation: making a victim feel singled out and embarrassed
  • excessive teasing: making a joke out of something the victim can't help, or that they like
  • harmful threats: making a victim believe that they are capable of hurting them
  • silent treatment: avoiding any contact with the victim
  • gaslighting: telling a victim that their memory of an event is false or never happened
  • mean and spiteful comments about the victim or people the victim has a good relationship with


Anger is an emotion that can often lead to psychological abuse.

Psychological Abuse


Types of Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse can include many types of behaviors. Abusers can be romantic partners, business partners, a caregiver, or a friend/colleague. Psychological abuse is a cycle of unhealthy behaviors. The most common types of psychological abuse are:

  • Humiliation, negating, criticizing: name-calling, yelling, character discrimination, public embarrassment, belittling accomplishments, putting a person down, deliberately causing diminishment on a victim.
  • Control and shame: threats, spying, financial control, direct orders, outbursts, treating the victim like a child, withholding valuable information.
  • Accusing, blame, denial: jealousy, turning the tables, using guilt, goading then blaming, destroying, and denying.
  • Emotional neglect and isolation: demanding respect, shutting down any negotiation, keeping the victim from socializing, disputing the victim's feelings.
  • Codependence: when everything a victim does is in response to the abuser's behavior.


Depression is often a result of psychological abuse.

Psychological Abuse


Effects of Psychological Abuse

People often underestimate the damage that can be caused by psychological abuse. Psychological abuse is seen as less impactful than other abuses, mainly because an outsider can't "see" the damage. Psychological abuse takes place in someone's thoughts and personal beliefs. The consequences of an abuser who is psychologically abusive are almost nonexistent.

A victim of psychological abuse may have a period of denial that they must work through. Psychological abuse occurs in cycles with moments of obvious abuse as well as moments of non-abusive behavior. A victim may often feel embarrassment, confusion, fear, or hopelessness, therefore, they may not speaking out about their situation in order to receive assistance. Adults and children who are victims of psychological abuse have the same effects.

Short-Term consequences of psychological abuse are:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • moodiness
  • muscle tension
  • nightmares
  • racing heartbeat
  • various aches and pains

Long-Term consequences of psychological abuse are:

  • depression
  • anti-social behaviors
  • low self-esteem
  • intellectual deficits
  • academic difficulties
  • health problems
  • shyness
  • anxiety

Psychological abuse is often a precursor to more severe abuse, such as physical abuse, or more extensive medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Once an abuser has started abusing a victim, the abuse tends to get worse over time, not better.

Causes of Psychological Abuse

The causes an abuser feels are reasons to abuse a victim with psychological abuse are not fully known. Researchers have determined several underlying characteristics that might cause one person to be psychologically abusive to another. There are some behaviors that might signal an abusive nature. These can include:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the definition of emotional abuse?

Abuse is any behavior intended to cause harm to another person. Emotional abuse is a form of psychological abuse that is intended to harm a person's self-esteem or emotions toward themselves.

What is the definition of psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse is behavior intended to undermine a person's well-being or self-esteem. Psychological abuse can also be described as mental abuse or emotional abuse.

What is the difference between mental and emotional abuse?

Mental abuse and emotional abuse are often used interchangeably because they are not necessarily different. Both mental abuse and emotional abuse are types of psychological abuse and effect the way the abuser thinks about themselves.

What is an example of psychological abuse?

Examples of psychological abuse can be humiliation, unnecessary control, shame, negativity, and emotional neglect. These behaviors can cause serious damage to the victim.

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