Emotional Abuse of Children – Childhood Development Essay
Emotional abuse differs from the perceptions that many hold of abuse, as the infliction is not physical but rather verbal or psychological damage. Its intangibility and subjectivity to interpretation has problematized its
recognition within the public sphere as well difficulty and incongruence in defining emotional abuse as a separate entity from other forms of abuse. This has posed a significant challenge in conducting meaningful research resulting in emotional abuse being “the least studied of all the forms of child maltreatment and its etiology is less developed” (Tomison and Tucci 1997 p2)
While the exact definitional understanding and measurement of emotional abuse are difficult to determine, many of the implications of this form of abuse can be conceptualised based upon many of the experiences of children and its impact and effect can be understood. Emotional abuse may exist independently or in coexistence with other forms of abuse and is “increasingly considered to be the core issue in all forms of child abuse and neglect” (Tomison and Tucci 1997 p2) along with one of the most prevalent producing amongst the most destructive consequences (Tomison and Tucci 1997).
The effects of emotional abuse are understood developmentally by researchers (Gabarino 1978 in Tomison and Tucci 1997) particularly in understanding children. Due to the characterisation of emotional abuse as a pattern of behaviour over a period of time rather than an isolated occurrence, we can see that although emotional abuse may be less easy to define its impact and effect on children’s development and wellbeing is detrimental. Significant to this is also children witnessing domestic violence which is gaining a growing recognition as having an immensely damaging effect on children and is of significant concern as it is the most common reason for a child to be referred to DoCS or other child protection agencies (Irwin, Waugh and Wilkinson 2002)
The impact of emotional abuse on children may be particularly difficult for them to define as researchers have often found emotional abuse to be deep rooted and intergenerational within the family structure, often undermining or degrading a child’s development (Tomison and Tucci 1997) The effect of this behaviour can have far reaching short and long term effects and be extensively detrimental. The effect of and an individual’s reaction to emotional abuse will be determined by a multiple factors such as the individual circumstances and experience of abuse.
A multitude of damaging effects of emotional abuse of children are evident, impinging on the ability of a child to develop and experience a sense of wellbeing and being loved. Such effects may include low self-esteem and poor self-confidence, feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, confusion over the abuse and their sense of identity, high anxiety levels, withdrawal from social interaction, aggression and behavioural difficulties, physical reactions such as illness, interpersonal and communication problems including problems expressing emotion or age inappropriate behaviour (Napcan 2005)
The longer-term effects of emotional child abuse may vary taking into account the subjective experience of the individual and variable factors including the nature, duration, severity, perpetrator, family, support and interventions of the abusive behaviour and the construction of this behaviour within the individual experience.
Some of these effects may include the inability to form positive relationships with others including the reoccurrence or recreation of abusive relationships as the victim or abuser, drug use, homelessness, limited life skills, mental health issues and self-destructive or suicidal behaviours. (Napcan 2005) Research has also suggested a strong link between child abuse and trauma including post traumatic stress disorder with the victim facing fundamental and multiple issues with the “defences formed in childhood becoming increasingly maladaptive.” (Herman 1997 p114)
Research has also begun to question the role and effect of emotional abuse relative to other forms of abuse. It has been suggested that children who experience emotional abuse are more likely to experience other forms of abuse in conjunction with this (Higgins 2004). This raises the question of if these children comprehend the full impact of emotional abuse within the context of other forms of abuse and the devastating impact of multiple and repetitive abuse in the lives of children.
Emotional abuse remains an area within the domestic violence and child abuse spectrum which is relatively under researched and explored with its impacts and effects conceptually less developed and the experiences of its victims often unheard, underrepresented within research and statistics. Unfortunately in many instances children are unsupported or even unaware of the magnitude and wrongful nature of the emotionally abusive actions and behaviours inflicted upon them.
Children are particularly vulnerable members of our society, segregated and marginalised, relatively open to discrimination and abuse and often unable to express and represent their rights and best interests. Their developmental stage and limited access to information and resources are often used against them and the power held by adults and family members may be abused without a child fully comprehending why.
Children may also be unable to determine what is and what is not appropriate or caring behaviour towards them, particularly in deconstructing the experience of emotional abuse, which may be multifaceted and complex, not always simply categorised by specific actions or behaviour. Younger children may also be less comfortable discussing violence within or outside the family feeling that they are powerless or even at fault. Many of the effects of emotional abuse such as low self esteem, depression, aggression and withdrawal may act as barriers in communicating their abuse or in having their disclosure of an abusive situation taken seriously. This may proliferate the growing distrust a child may feel towards adults and the care giving institution that has failed to support them and fulfil their needs. Children may have been told by their abuser or others that nobody will listen to their allegations of abuse or that worse results will ensue with disclosure. The child may also be attached to their abuser and may not want to be separated from them, rather wishing for the abuse to simply stop.
Particularly relevant within emotionally abusive situations is whether a child will recognise the behaviour and actions inflicted upon them as abuse. With definitional problems and contradictions remaining in negotiating the construction of emotional abuse, a child may be unable to locate this behaviour as abusive and may be interpreting it as just having an argumentative, cold, unkind or emotionally unavailable caregiver.
Children within emotionally abusive situations face multiple challenges and marginalisation as underrepresented groups in both their experiences as children and as those experiencing emotional abuse. Advocacy and research for children experiencing this abuse is very limited and thus has not yet been thrust into the discourse of the public sphere in the same manner as child sexual and physical abuse. This is problematic as it can lead to the further disengagement and exclusion of this group even within the abuse context and is not conducive to helping children and families understand and prevent emotional abuse.
Multiple issues face children in accessing services and assistance with emotional abuse. Children, especially younger children are very dependent upon their parents and caregivers and thus may not be aware of or be capable of accessing services. Younger children may not be cognitively or developmentally able to process and label their experiences of emotional harm or violence as abuse or even conceptually construct an understanding of abuse is. Attachment and dependency also forms a major challenge, as children are unwilling to recognise problems and compromise their relationships with their parents. Children are often confused as they unconditionally love their parents and are perhaps more willing to accumulate personal responsibility and self blame for the events or dismiss them hoping that the abuse will end. This may facilitate patterns of abuse to continue with children remaining unwilling to take action against their parents.
If children are willing to seek help they may be unsure of where to turn and daunted by the services available which are often adult centred.
A focus within service provision limited to sexual and physical abuse may also be problematic, as the understanding and support networks established rarely cater specifically and do not always cater inclusively for the emotionally abused child, drawing back upon the lack of recognition of the scope and impact of emotional and psychological abuse.
Children may also be unable to access assistance due to their close proximity to the abuser if they are a primary caregiver and the risks involved. The child may fear retribution is discovered and may be fearful that their disclosure will not be listened to or believed, potentially proliferating their already volatile situation opening themselves to further harm and abuse.
The social construction of the child and family within society are also important to examine in further conceptualising the framework within which the child abuse and maltreatment paradigm exists.
The ideology of the family as a private unit with which society has little to no interaction or control over, although somewhat outdated, often resinates within the experience of the emotionally abused child. The movement towards the inclusion of the family within the public sphere and the significance of individual experience to the collective societal functioning in the spirit of C Wright Mill’s sociological imagination has played a major role in the understanding of family violence over recent years. This has promoted an inclusion of family issues into public concern but it still an ongoing issue within abusive situations with family issues and problems hidden within the private dimension. This along side outmoded views of children as resilient and unaffected by the emotional abuse inflicted upon them reiterates that although much progress has been made within child abuse prevention; underpinning ideological standing and outmoded principles are still present within out societies construction of childhood and abuse.
Policy and programs devised approaching and addressing child abuse and children within family violence situations have undergone a comprehensive reframing over recent decades. A movement departing from reactive and post-abuse intervention to early intervention and educative strategies within a preventative and supportive framework has become increasingly evident (Tomison 2001)
Societal reconceptualisations of family violence as a societal issue rather than a private matter are leading towards a more holistic approach with a greater emphasis on contextual understanding of a child within their family and social milieu.(Tomison 2001) Within policy making and the provision of services specifically child centred and catering for emotional abuse it could not be argued that they are excluded; however fail to be given the focus and attention needed to support the victims of this type of abuse
Many generalist child protection legislation, frameworks and policies have been implemented which underpin and complement the work of programs and service providers approaching the emotional abuse of children. The United Nations international convention on the rights of the child and the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 provide the framework upon which many policies and practices are developed (Kovacs and Tomison 2003 p517)
Policies regarding the mandatory reporting of child abuse and the working with children check have contributed to preventing the emotional abuse of children as well as direct and indirect government support in funding services and programs involved in child protection.
The Department of Community Services (DoCS) is a fundamental provider of policy frameworks and services to New South Wales regarding child protection and abuse including the emotional abuse of children. They are involved the planning and implementation of appropriate policy making effecting the provision of child protection services and supported placement services for children. They are also involved in the funding and provision of many services interacting with children who have been emotionally abused at an investigation and intervention level.
There are many general child abuse child focused interventions many of which include on some level emotional abuse support but with little services or programs specifically designed with a focus upon the emotional abuse of children. Child personal safety programs are particularly useful in educating children of types and occurrence of abuse working towards locating, preventing and disclosing a wide variety of child abuse and family violence. These programs are very useful in assisting children in understanding emotional abuse when it is included in the program and open up discussion and thought as to what constitutes emotional and other forms of abuse. Programs aimed specifically at children who have been the victims of child abuse are becoming increasingly regular and effective in the support and assistance of children. Within the context of emotional abuse many recent programs have been piloted and implemented with children witnesses and victims of domestic violence aiming to provide meaningful early intervention, increase children’s self esteem, normalise feelings and discuss responsibility, safety and support. Although these services are often inclusive of children who have been victims of multiple forms of abuse not only emotional abuse, the occurrence and detrimental impact of emotional abuse is included as a significant factor within the program planning and structure. This is particularly relevant to children who are victims of emotional abuse and witnessing domestic violence. Programs such as Kids in Motion and Kids Tome undertaken by LifeCare family and intervention services and the Kids and the Children’s Domestic Violence Support Group run by Parramatta Community Health Centre and Family Court Counselling are examples of this (Australian Domestic Violence Clearinghouse 2005)
Family focused interventions may also be undertaken but again are rarely specifically addressing the emotional abuse of children. These may include parental education programs to assist parents in gaining information and skills. These take a strengths based approach in child abuse prevention, working towards supported and appropriate parenting and greater parental awareness and insight into their own behaviour and actions and how this may effect their child. Home visiting services are often also utilised as an early intervention strategy in assisting parent’s access to support and services they may be unaware of or unable to access. This may be beneficial as a prevention of the emotional abuse of children however does not specifically approach this issue.
Community focused interventions have played an important role in shaping community beliefs and attitudes regarding children, abuse and domestic violence. Campaigns have been undertaken on domestic violence in the past that have included specific reference to the effect of domestic abuse on children. However current community education campaigns such as the Partnership Against Domestic Violence has focused upon young women and physical violence rather than a more holistic approach looking at other forms of abuse or other victims.
The overhaul and development of primary prevention programs and secondary prevention programs to include emotional child abuse and the implications for children within family violence situations is an essential step in facilitating a more informed and aware community. This will assist to empower children to understand various forms of abuse and behaviour that they can recognise as unsafe or abusive. Working from this approach two major concerns can be addressed. Firstly little research has been undertaken of child abuse prevention programs in Australia. (Richardson, Higgins and Bromfield 2005) Within the overhaul and development of new prevention programs, evaluation of existing programs including their content and effectiveness can be undertaken with the findings contributing into the planning and implementation of the most useful and appropriate programs to the needs of children. Secondly, the inclusion of a broad range of experiences of abuse of children and witnessed by children with a greater emphasis on the previously omitted or under explored issues of child emotional abuse and witnessing family violence. This will promote a greater knowledge base on emotional abuse and work towards assisting children suffering from emotional abuse and mistreatment.
An approach to educating the whole community as well as at risk groups such as children, parents and families works within a strengths based social and community approach aiming to reaffirm the values and needs of the community and educate all on their rights, responsibilities regarding safety and protection of children. This assists individuals in gaining a further insight of what constitutes abuse and family violence and where they can turn to for help and assistance. This holistic child friendly approach may assist in the creation of “cohesive communities, high in social capital, facilitating community members working together for their mutual benefit to improve their community.” (Tomison 2005 p1)
Working with the community as a whole within this context will enable the much needed focus and exploration of child emotional abuse. This will work towards creating greater safety, education, knowledge and support for children while carefully maintaining a child-focused approach as paramount concern without the exclusion of the community as a whole. Evaluation and research within the Australian context will also prove to be beneficial in ensuring the most relevant and appropriate services can be offered to victims of child abuse. This will also help ensure that prevention programs can be dynamic, relevant and specific catering for the diverse needs and interests within the community raising awareness of issues such and child emotional abuse which is often overlooked or its impact not completely understood.
This research and holistic focus may assist in developing a co-ordinated and consistent framework from which to provide relevant and needed information and services on child abuse. The resources can be allocated to areas of need such as child emotional abuse to increase awareness, knowledge and prevention within the community.
A greater recognition within the policy and service provision context of the interrelationship between emotional abuse and other forms of child abuse is necessary in attempting to provide an effective and holistic approach to child protection and support of victims of abuse. An initiative to “move beyond ‘turf boundaries’ between those working separately on the different types of child maltreatment” (Higgins 2004 p54) is very important in recognising the need for policies and services that work inclusively of the child’s entire abuse experience rather than compartmentalise abuse in separate stigmatised categories which may further traumatise or devalue the impact of the abuse upon the child. It is important to be able to provide services that are inclusive of a child’s experience and which are able to support them and assist them. Emotional abuse may be a significant form of abuse in the life of a child suffering also from physical or sexual abuse. A greater co-ordination and inclusiveness of specific and generalised services is needed so that the child seeking help does not feel marginalised or labelled as a victim of one type of abuse only. Ensuring that a plethora of options and assistance for the variety of issues and needs faced by children who have suffered abuse requires greater attention within current service provision. By doing this recognition of the complexity and multifaceted implications of various forms of child abuse is being actively worked towards. Service provision that is client centred and focused rather than based on the abuse suffered is empowering to the child seeking assistance and understanding of each child’s experience.
Children’s thoughts, rights and opinions need to be of paramount concern within all levels of policy and program planning and provision as “the adult centred child protection discourse has conceptualised the child as a ‘becoming’ person and ignored the subjectivities of children as beings” (Mason and Falloon 1999 p9). This is an issue of particular concern in child emotional abuse as it is an area of child maltreatment that is under researched and resourced and within which a top down approach is often utilised failing to take into consideration the diverse experiences and needs of children suffering abuse. Further research and study into child abuse, in particular child emotional abuse and the impact of domestic violence on children will assist in activating the voices of children who have been unheard, unrepresented and in too many instances unsupported. Educating the children and community as a hole is a comprehensive approach to alleviating the impact of child emotional abuse. This is taking a primary prevention approach to improving the knowledge base and resourcing a community to prevent child abuse before it happens and understand important child protection issues impacting children in every community. Working towards this as well as further assisting children who experience emotional abuse will greatly assist these children and the community in providing the information, resources and support for a significantly detrimental form of child abuse that has often been overlooked.
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