When Parenting Crosses A Line: Psychological Abuse

The continual emotional battering that one may impose on a child is not always intentional. But sometimes it is. And it needs to stop before life-long damage is done.

(Note: If you read the article on Physical Abuse, you'll notice the intro and helplines are the same as they were for that article. This was supposed to be one article initially, but it was split because there is too much to cover in one article alone. Thanks for understanding, dear Readers!)

All children need guidance and teaching, and no one will ever be able to say differently. It's our job as parents to teach them. However, discipline should never be done when the parent is angry or has lost control. Losing control can lead to child abuse. Discipline is best done when adults are not angry or in the heat of the moment, sometimes walking away can do wonders for the parent and the child.

What is discipline, you ask? Well, according to the Vocabulary.com website, it is “to develop behavior by instruction and practice; especially to teach self-control”It should always be done with self-control and never done out of anger. When you discipline children, you are teaching them by correcting them, and the key word is 'teaching'. If the child learns nothing, then it is not discipline, it's punishment.

I do not, before this goes further, think that spanking alone is abuse… or that raising your voice is abuse. Not at all. But sometimes, parents snap and go far over the line, and yes, that is abuse. There are many kinds of abuse: physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual, but I won't get into sexual abuse here… because that's not a parenting problem, that's something else entirely.

Psychological Abuse 

10 What Is Psychological, Or Emotional, Abuse?

Well, according to the American Humane Association, it's defined as behavior by the parents or guardians that impairs a child's cognitive, emotional, social, or psychological development.Children who are emotionally abused are often experiencing another kind of abuse at the same time, but this is not always the case.

Defining emotional abuse is difficult and complex, but most professionals agree that occasional negativity is not considered emotional abuse. Most parents have those moments where they lash out momentarily and say hurtful things, don't give the attention they're wanting at that moment, or accidentally scared a child. 

Emotional abuse can include a lot of things, including rejecting a child. This is blatantly refusing to interact or take care of the child. It can include refusing to physically touch or interact with the child, not giving them what they need, and making fun of the child. 

9 Hurtful And Abusive Actions

- Ignoring

Whether it's physically or psychologically, the parent isn't present in some way to give attention to the child. This can include not looking at the child or not calling them by their name. This does not include nicknames, because they do count as given names for the child and is not ignoring. 

- Exploitation

In this kind of abuse, the child learns an inappropriate, illicit or illegal behavior, and is encouraged to keep doing it. This can involve encouraging drinking or drug use, teaching them how to steal, forcing them into sexual acts or prostitution, and more.

8  Behaviors Considered Abuse

- Isolating

This is where the parent doesn't allow the child to have any normal interactions with other children, family members, or other adults. This includes locking the child up and/or limiting their freedom to go places.

- Neglect

This includes educational neglect, where the parent fails to give the child the educational services they need, mental health neglect, where the parent does not give the child the professional treatment for psychological problems, or medical neglect, where the parent does not seek the necessary medical attention the child needs. It can also include not feeding, bathing, or caring for the child. 

7 Words and Separation

- Verbal Assault

Hand in hand with the article before this one on Verbal Assault (Check it out after this one if you have not yet), this includes picking on, shaming, knocking down with words, or threatening the child.

- Absenteeism

When a parent is absent in the child's life after having been a major part of their life previously, this is emotional abuse and can lead to life-long damage to the child's psyche. It promotes a fear of separation from a loved one, and can make the child more dependent on the remaining parent.

6 Other Abusive Actions


This is where the parent threatens the child, bullies the child, and makes life at home scary or fearful for the child. It can include putting the child or a loved one in a dangerous situation, or making the child think they are in a dangerous situation. It's also putting unrealistic expectations on the child and threatening bodily harm if the expectations aren't met.

- Blaming

The parent blames the child for every problem in the household and turns them into a “scapegoat” in the situation, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with the child.

- Witness of Other Abuse

This is where the child witnesses the abuse or mistreatment of a loved one by another person. This can be domestic violence, or even an attack on the home by intruders. The child is terrified for the life of their parent or sibling and this can scar them for life. 

5 Why Does It Happen?

The American Humane Association states that emotional abuse can happen in any family, regardless of their background, race, sexuality, etc. The vast majority of parents want the very best for their children. But due to stress, poor parenting, social isolation, and more, some parents emotionally harm their kids. They may do it because they were emotionally abused themselves as children, and may not realize that it is wrong.

4 Effects Of Emotional Abuse

According to the American Humane Association, children who are ignored, made fun of, terrorized, humiliated, etc. suffer just as much, if not more so, than children who are beaten and otherwise physically abused. Why? Because emotional abuse can lead to more developmental delays than physical abuse alone. 

An infant who is deprived of emotional interaction and nurturing can fail to thrive and even die, despite being well cared for physically. Babies who are subjected to less severe deprivation often grow into children who fail to thrive and develop, children who are anxious, and often have bad self-esteem.

Even though the visible signs of emotional abuse are difficult to see, the scars that are under the surface can show themselves in many behavioral ways, such as insecurity, destructive behaviors, angry acts such as animal cruelty or fire setting, withdrawal, unsatisfactory development of basic skills, suicide, drug use, trouble forming relationships, and poor job histories. 

These kids often grow up thinking they are bad or 'less than' in some way. Unfortunately, this abuse often continues into the next generation, because these kids often continue the cycle with their own kids. 

3 Identifying and Preventing

Some kids only face emotional abuse, however according to the American Humane Association it is usually associated with, and results from other kinds of abuse and neglect, which makes it a huge risk factor in child abuse and neglect cases. Emotional abuse that exists without other forms of abuse is the hardest kind of abuse to identify and stop because CPS needs to have physical evidence in some way, shape, or form that harm has been done to a child before they can step in.

Researchers now have diagnostic tools to help those who work with children, such as daycare workers, social service workers, teachers, etc. to identify and treat emotional abuse. They're taught the risk factors, how to ask questions about the family's history and behaviors, and to provide resources to help parents create safe and stable environments for their children and themselves. 

2 What You Can Do

All children need love, to be encouraged, accepted, disciplined, structure, stability, and good, positive attention. Now, what can you do when you think your behavior towards your child is not what you feel is right, and is bordering on emotional abuse? According to the American Humane Association, some suggestions are:

- Do not be afraid to apologize to your child! Kids need to know that we grown-ups make mistakes too! If you say something cruel that you didn't mean, apologize for it.

- Never call your child names such as stupid, lazy, ignorant, idiot, or use phrases like “you can never do this” or “you're so stupid it hurts”. This can tear at a child's self-esteem. Children deserve respect.

- Discipline appropriately. Make note of the behavior that is not good, and use appropriate techniques, such as time-out, and natural consequences, to step in and show the child that this is not acceptable. Discipline is meant to correct behavior and teach them the right behavior, never to humiliate a child.

- Compliment your child when they do things you approve of! This includes simple, basic tasks, and good behavior they should be doing every day anyhow.

- Leave when you feel like you're losing control. Step away, leave the room, take some deep breaths, and come back when you have calmed down. (Always make sure the child is safe before leaving them in a room alone.)

If you feel you are being emotionally abusive, get help. Support is available for families at risk of emotional abuse through local child protection services agencies, community centers, churches, mental health facilities, and schools. 

1 Where To Find Help

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. Serving the United States, its territories, and Canada, the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who, through interpreters, can provide assistance in over 200 languages. 

The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are confidential. If you suspect a child is being abused, call the Childhelp National Hotline, and make a report. You can be the first link in saving a child's life.

For UK readers, there is the NSPCC helpline at the number 0808 800 5000 . There is also a helpline for reporting and advise for those under age 18 at 0800 1111

In Australia, there is the Department for Child Protection and Family Support Crisis Care Helpline, at the number (08) 9223 1111 or 1800 199 008 .(country free call)

Information for this article is cited from the American Humane Association, and can be found here.

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