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How to Spot Emotional Child Abuse

29th February 2024 Print

Abusive households are an unfortunate reality of contemporary Britain, with as many as half a million children in the UK suffering abuse in some form each year. ‘Some form’ is an apt way of discussing abuse, too, given the many pernicious forms it can take. Emotional abuse is an especially pernicious form, being difficult to detect and difficult to manage. How can you spot emotional abuse in children close to you?

What is Emotional Abuse?

First, it is important for us to paint an accurate picture of what we mean by ‘emotional abuse’; it is a term that is becoming increasingly common outside of medical circles, and which has been often misconstrued or even mischaracterised through colloquial usage. Emotional abuse is a form of domestic abuse, wherein someone seeks to exert or reaffirm their position of power over their victim by weaponising their emotions. An example might be constant criticism for perceived slights or flaws, denigration of character or even emotional blackmail.

This definition seems somewhat broad from the outset, but is necessarily so; there are many different forms that emotional abuse can take, some of which are less obvious than others. Online and in casual conversation, colloquial usage of the term can miss the nuances therein, devaluing the term through applying it to less-relevant or irrelevant situations.

How Does Emotional Abuse Affect Children?

Most conversations around emotional abuse address power dynamics between partners, wherein an abusive husband might use emotional abuse tactics to maintain coercive control over their spouse. But emotional abuse is not limited to this power dynamic; indeed, it can be even more prevalent and impactful when it comes to wielding power and control over a child. Emotional abuse is an extremely common form of abuse suffered by child victims as a result.

How to Recognise Emotional Abuse

With physical forms of abuse, there are often visible signs that can alert others that someone is a victim. With emotional abuse, the signs are less easy to read – and with children, unique adult-child power dynamics can make it much harder for them to share what they are experiencing. Emotional abusers will often tell their victims that they aren’t allowed to share their experience, or even that it is normal.

As such, you need to be able to notice indirect signs of emotional abuse. Emotionally abused children might be more withdrawn than usual, or more prone to lashing out at others. They might prefer to play alone, and their play might reflect some of their abusive experiences. With older children, academic performance can also be a factor to track.

Protecting Children from Abuse

The most immediate way to protect an abused child is to remove their abuser’s access to them. This is where legal support can be especially important, given the likely role of abuser as relative or familial mentor. An abused child should also be put in immediate contact with a medical professional or trained child therapist, in order to start unpicking the damage done – and discovering the full extent of the abuse endured. From here, criminal proceedings may or may not be necessary.