Types of Emotional Abuse

There are six types of emotional abuse:

Rejecting | Isolating | Ignoring | Corrupting | Exploiting | Terrorizing

Witnessing family violence warrants a section of its own. Due to the ever-increasing spousal violence statistics, I've treated this form of violence (witnessing) separately under Terrorizing.

Types of emotional abuse #1: Rejecting

Putting down a child or youth's worth or putting down their needs.

    »  constant criticism
    »  name-calling
    »  telling child he/she is ugly
    »  yelling or swearing at the child
    »  frequent belittling-use of labels such as "stupid", "idiot"
    »  constant demeaning jokes
    »  verbal humiliation
    »  constant teasing about child's body type and/or weight
    »  expressing regret the child wasn't born the opposite sex
    »  refusing hugs and loving gestures
    »  physical abandonment
    »  excluding child from family activities
    »  treating an adolescent like she/he is a child
    »  expelling child from family
    »  not allowing youth to make own reasonable choices

Did You Know

The most insidious type of emotional abuse comes under rejection.

Victims report that 2 of the most damaging statements a caregiver can say to a child or youth are:

"I wish you were never born."

"I wish you were dead."

Did You Know

A U.S. study that randomly assigned rejection experiences to students found that rejection can dramatically reduce a person's IQ and their ability to reason while increasing their aggression (Baumeister, 20021).

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Types of emotional abuse #2: Isolating

Keeping a child away from family and friends.

    »  leaving child in room unattended for long periods
    »  keeping child away from family
    »  not allowing child to have friends
    »  not permitting child interaction with other children
    »  keeping child away from other caregiver if separated
    »  rewarding child for withdrawing from social contact
    »  ensuring child looks and acts differently than peers
    »  isolating child in closet
    »  insisting on excessive studying and/or chores
    »  preventing youth participating in activities outside the home
    »  punishing youth for engaging in normal social experiences

Isolated emotional child abuse has had the lowest rate of substantiation of any of the types of emotional abuse (Kairys, 20022).

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Types of emotional abuse #3: Ignoring

Failing to give any response to or interact with a child or youth at all.

    »  no response to infant's spontaneous social behaviours
    »  not accepting the child as an offspring
    »  denying required health care
    »  denying required dental care
    »  failure to engage child in day to day activities
    »  failure to protect child
    »  not paying attention to significant events in child's life
    »  lack of attention to schooling, etc.
    »  refusing to discuss youth's activities and interests
    »  planning activities/vacations without adolescent

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Types of emotional abuse #4: Corrupting

Encouraging a child or youth to do things that are illegal or harmful to themselves.

    »  rewarding child for bullying and harassing behaviour
    »  teaching racism and ethnic biases
    »  encouraging violence in sporting activities
    »  inappropriate reinforcement of sexual activity
    »  rewarding child for lying and stealing
    »  rewarding child for substance abuse and sexual activity
    »  supplying child with drugs, alcohol and other illegal substances
    »  promoting illegal activities such as selling drugs
    »  teaching and promoting prostitution

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Types of emotional abuse #5: Exploiting

Giving a child or youth responsibilities that are far greater than a child/youth that age can handle. It is also using a child for profit.

    »  infants expected not to cry
    »  anger when infant fails to meet a developmental stage
    »  child expected to be 'caregiver' to the parent
    »  young child expected to take care of younger siblings
    »  blaming child or youth for misbehaviour of siblings
    »  unreasonable responsibilities for jobs around the house
    »  expecting youth to support family financially
    »  encouraging participation in pornography
    »  sexually abusing child or youth
    »  requiring child or youth to participate in sexual exploitation

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Types of emotional abuse #6: Terrorizing

Causing a child or youth to be terrified by the constant use of threats and/or intimidating behaviour. This includes witnessing, which is when a child or youth observes violence, hears violence, or knows that violence is taking place in the home.

    »  with infants and children, excessive teasing
    »  yelling and scaring
    »  unpredictable and extreme responses to child's behaviour
    »  extreme verbal threats
    »  raging, alternating with periods of artificial warmth
    »  threatening abandonment
    »  beating family members in front of or in ear range of child
    »  threatening to destroy a favourite object
    »  threatening to harm a beloved pet
    »  forcing child to watch inhumane acts against animals
    »  inconsistent demands on the child
    »  displaying inconsistent emotions
    »  changing the 'rules of the game'
    »  threatening that the child is adopted and doesn't belong
    »  ridiculing youth in public
    »  threats to reveal intensely embarrassing traits to peers
    »  threatening to kick adolescent out of the house

Children and youth who witness family violence experience all six types of emotional abuse.

A 1995 telephone survey identifying types of emotional abuse suggested that by the time a child was 2 years old, 90% of families had used one or more forms of psychological aggression in the previous 12 months (Straus, 20003).

Many people including parents, members of the law enforcement community and journalists, think that infants and young children who witness violence are too young to know what happened. They don't take it in. "They won't remember." In fact, infants and young children can be overwhelmed by their exposure to violence, especially--as it is likely to be the case with very young children--when both victims and perpetrators are well known and emotionally important to the child and the violence occurs in or near the child's own home.

Osofsky, 1996

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Witnessing Family Violence

When children and youth are exposed to family violence they frequently:

  • fear the parent/caregiver's reactions, and are placed in a constant state of anticipating the adult's moods

  • watch over siblings in order to protect them

  • suffer from sleeplessness

  • watch assaults on family members

  • are forced to lie about the events going on in their home

  • may be injured while trying to protect siblings and/or the battered caregiver

According to The Family Violence Prevention Project, 1990, 4:104, these children and youth who are exposed to theses types of emotional abuse learn that:
  • violence is an acceptable form of conflict resolution

  • violence has a place in the family dynami

  • if violence is reported, there are few, if any, consequences

  • appropriate roles within the family include inequality of power and decision-making

  • violence equals stress management

  • victims of violence should tolerate and accept responsibility for others' violent behaviour

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Spousal Violence Statistics

In tracking types of emotional abuse, the most common form was exposure to family violence at 58% (Health Canada, 20015).

Half a million children in Canada have witnessed at least one violent episode of spousal abuse during the past 5 years (Statistics Canada, 20006).

25% of Canadian women have experienced violence at the hands of a current or past marital partner since the age of 16 (Statistics Canada, 19937).

Aboriginal women have the highest risk for spousal violence: 25% of Aboriginal women were assaulted by a partner during a 5-year period, which was twice the rate for Aboriginal men (13%). In approximately 50% of the assaults, children had been a witness (Health Canada, 20018).

According to the General Social Survey, 20% of Aboriginal men and women reported being assaulted by a spouse in a 5-year period as compared with 7% of the non-Aboriginal population (Health Canada, 20019).

Women who reported having a violent father-in-law were 3 times as likely as women with non-violent fathers-in-law to be assaulted by their partners (Statistics Canada, 199310)

Approximately 500,000 Canadian households experience marital violence every year (Jaffe, Suderman & Reizel, 199211).

81% of assaults classified by police involved a male offender, 9% a female offender, and 10% involved both male and female offenders (B.C. Institute on Family Violence, 1995, p.712).

Impact of Witnessing Spousal Violence

Children and youth who witness family violence are experiencing terrorizing. These children almost always feel responsible for the anger, tension and violence in disputes between their caregivers. Often, they blame themselves for the ensuing violence.

When children are forced to witness violence, they develop feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and helplessness. They may attempt to "keep the peace" within the family, and/or exhibit inappropriate behaviour.

The greater the amount of violence towards a spouse, the greater the probability of physical abuse of a child by the abusive spouse (Ross, 1996, p.59513).

52% of children and youth whose histories of emotional child abuse included witnessing violence developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Famularo, Fenton & Kinscherff, 1993, p.75714).

Suicidal tendencies or attempts, and disruptive disorders were reported by the majority of children and youth who experienced a variety of types of emotional abuse. 72% of these children and youth experienced emotional and behavioural disorders. 85% of the maltreated children and youth reported Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from either sexual abuse or witnessing spousal violence (DeBellis et al., 200115).

[Of the types of emotional abuse that may have a direct link to future criminality,] Canadian adolescents who reported witnessing spousal violence were 11.14 times more likely to use drugs, 8.43 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, and 4 times more likely to be charged with a criminal offence than those who were not witnesses (Manion & Wilson, 1995, p.27 & 2916).

If a child develops a map of the world that depicts people and places as hostile and the child as an insignificant speck relegated to one small corner, we must expect troubled development of one sort or another: a life of suspicion, low self-esteem, self-denigration, and perhaps violence and rage. We can also expect a diminution of cognitive development and impediments to academic achievement and in-school behaviour.

(Garbarino, June 1993, pp.312-313

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Sections you'll find here and elsewhere on this site:

E/A Signs E/A Effects E/A Statistics


NOTE: Information pages on this site were based on material from the Canadian Red CrossCanadian Red Cross RespectED Training Program. Written permission was obtained to use their copyrighted material on this site.

1 Baumeister, Roy. (2002, forthcoming). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

2 Kairys, S. & Johnson, C. (2002, April). The psychological maltreatment of children—Technical report. Pediatrics, 109(4), e68.

3 Straus, M. & Field, C. (2000). Psychological aggression by American parents: National data on prevalence, chronicity and severity. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.

4 The Family Violence Prevention Project (1990). A handbook for the prevention of family violence. The Community Child Abuse Council of Hamilton-Wentworth.

5 Health Canada. (2001). Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect: Final report. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

6 Statistics Canada. (2000). Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile. Catalogue No. 85-224-XIE. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

7 Statistics Canada. (1993, November 18). The violence against women survey. The Daily. Ottawa: Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology.

8 Health Canada. (2001). Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect: Final report. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

9 Health Canada. (2001). General social survey (GSS) on victimization. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

10 Statistics Canada. (1993, November 18). The violence against women survey. The Daily. Ottawa: Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology.

11 Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., & Wilson, S. (1990). Children of battered women. Newbury Park: SAGE Publications, Inc.

12 B.C. Institute on Family Violence. (1995). Family violence in British Columbia: A brief overview. Vancouver: B.C. Institute on Family Violence.

13 Ross, S. (1996). Risk of physical abuse to children of spouse abusing parents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20(7), 589-598.

14 Famularo, R., Fenton, T., & Kinscherff, R. (1993, July). Child maltreatment and the development of post traumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Diagnostic Categories, 147, 755-760.

15 De Bellis, M., Broussard, E., Herring, D., Wexler, S., Moritz, G. & Benitz, J. (2001). Psychiatric co-morbidity in caregivers and children involved in maltreatment: A pilot research study with policy implications Child Abuse and Neglect, 25, 923-944

16 Manion, I, & Wilson, S. (1995). An examination of the association between histories of maltreatment and adolescent risk behaviours. Ottawa: National Clearinghouse on Family Violence.

17 Garbarino, J. (1993, June). Psychological child maltreatment: A developmental view. Family Violence and Abusive Relationships, 20(2), 307-315.

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Updated Feb 21, 2017

E-book: Victim To Victory

From Victim to Victory
a memoir

How I got over the devastating effects of child abuse and moved on with my life


E-book: Victim To Victory

From Victim to Victory
a memoir

How I got over the devastating effects of child abuse and moved on with my life


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