What to Know About Child Emotional Abuse

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on July 29, 2023
3 min read

Child emotional abuse is a pattern of parental behavior that impacts your child's emotional development and feelings of self-worth. Emotional abuse includes the impact of negative talk as well as a lack of love and support. Learn more about the signs, symptoms, and lasting effects of emotional abuse on a child.

Emotional abuse isn’t always as obvious as physical abuse. While injuries leave visible marks on a child, signs of emotional abuse may be more difficult to identify. Emotional abuse may impact a child for the rest of their life.‌

Emotional abuse negatively impacts a child by: 

  • Limiting their emotional abilities
  • Changing their patterns of behavior
  • Impacting their ability to concentrate and learn at school 
  • Damaging their self-esteem‌
  • Providing a distorted view of what parents should be ‌

Child emotional abuse includes yelling, criticizing, and negative attitudes. It's also characterized by withholding love, attention, and nurturing.‌

Emotional abuse often goes with physical or sexual abuse as a means of controlling a person. While it is damaging at all ages, emotional abuse is critically harmful at younger ages.

Newborns, infants, and toddlers especially suffer from a lack of positive interactions. Children who don’t receive the love and care they need may be withdrawn and anxious. They might fail to develop basic social and language skills early on in life.

Once you know the signs of emotional abuse among all ages, it’s easier to identify it among children in your life. Children who have experienced child emotional abuse may:

  • Be withdrawn, depressed, and lacking empathy
  • Be clingy to anyone who gives attention to them
  • Act out and seem to have behavior problems
  • Have less fear than other kids of the same age 
  • Stick very strictly to rules of any adult in a supervisory role like teachers, doctors, and babysitters 
  • Suffer from disorders related to sleeping, eating, and communicating 
  • Develop self-soothing mechanisms like repetitive motions or rhythmic rocking
  • Wet the bed or struggle to potty train without persistent accidents
  • Show a lack of interest in interacting or communicating with other people and lack attention to detail ‌
  • Make comments frequently like, “Mommy/Daddy say that I’m always bad.”‌

These signs may be symptoms of other cognitive disorders and conditions, and should never be dismissed. If you think a child you know might be affected by emotional abuse, reach out and ask for help on their behalf.

Signs a parent might be an abuser. Be aware of the signs a parent is acting as an emotional abuser in their home. Pay attention to things like:

  • Placing unreasonable demands on a child that are above the child’s capacity or ability
  • Including the child in arguments and conflicts or treating them as a “battleground” in the marriage
  • Satisfying the parent’s ego through the child when the child is too young to understand 
  • Referring to a child as “it” instead of as he/she in conversations with others ‌
  • Allowing the child to witness domestic violence in the home‌

Emotional abuse often breaks a child down. Eventually, children may:

  • Start to live up to the negative words being spoken to them
  • Stop believing good things about themselves
  • Give up and allow themselves to become the negative image being projected onto them 

It’s often difficult to prove emotional abuse because there are no physical marks. In cases of child emotional abuse, witnesses to the abuse need to make sure parents or caregivers are held accountable, and children get the help they need.

Parents who emotionally abuse their children may have experienced abuse as children. It’s a vicious cycle that needs a lot of strength to break. Child emotional abuse treatment is important for both children and parents in abuse situations, so everyone can heal and move forward in a healthy way.

If physical or sexual abuse is suspected, or the emotional abuse is severe, the safety of the children is the first priority. Treatment can begin after the child's safety is secured. Treatment isn't a short-term solution and needs a long-term commitment from everyone involved. ‌

In some cases, medical care is necessary. Most of the time, children receive therapy from a trained professional who specializes in child psychology. A professional helps by: 

  • Helping a victim of abuse learn how to trust again
  • Showing a child what healthy behavior and relationships look like
  • Teaching a child how to manage conflict ‌
  • Boosting self-esteem and establishing a sense of self-worth

Family therapy may be beneficial, too.