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Emotional Abuse

"She and my father were oddly matched. Their life together was a thirty-year war. The only prisoners they could take were children. But there were many treaties and bills, conferences and armistices signed before we could assess the carnage of that war. This was our life, our destiny, our childhood."
                                                                                                                                                    Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

Emotional abuse is the most insidious type of abuse, because there is no physical evidence. But the damaging effects of it will live with the child for a lifetime.

Emotional abuse is the failure of the adult to provide emotional nurturing or physical and cognitive stimulation needed for the child to develop. This failure to provide adequate affection and love can impair a child’s mental or emotional health.

Emotional abuse also includes unreasonable demands put on a child that are beyond his capabilities or endurance. This may be administered in the form of threats, teasing, belittling or rejecting behavior. It is an attack on the child's spirit.

Children view themselves as the center of the universe. When anything happens in their world, they believe they caused it.

"Now see what you made me do," his father said to him when he cut his hand on the electric saw.

"If you hadn’t been talking I would have seen that red light," his mother told him when she got in the accident.

The harshness of the parent’s voice pains the child. The child is filled with feelings of inadequacy.

Children who are continually yelled at or blamed have a difficult time developing a healthy self-esteem. The constant "you are so stupid" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Children need these emotional gifts from their parents:

•  attention
•  affection
•  approval

Children who feel valued and important in the family will have faith and trust in their environment. This basic trust is the key to the development of a sense of positive self-identity. They know they are cared for and loved.

Emotional abuse is also the result of every other form of abuse, and it accompanies them. The emotional effects of abuse may not appear until the person is an adult. The anger he was not allowed to express when he was a child will surface unexpectedly at a later time. The bottled-up rage may explode, and he will become an abuser of his own children. He finds himself guilty of behavior he deplores.

This is not always the case. Many will not abuse their own children, but they may develop physical ailments such as colitis, ulcers or frequent headaches.

Empathy is the ability to be sensitive and responsive to another person’s feelings. Some people regard children as non persons. They do not consider explaining things to them or exploring their wishes.

An empathetic parent will consider the age and capabilities of the child. A two year-old child does not understand boundaries as a four year-old will. The younger the child, the more self-centered he is. One should not expect adult behavior from a seven year-old child.

Consistency of family rules will keep the child from being confused. In healthy families each member knows the physical and psychological boundaries of the other. There is no taking the other’s belongings without permission. When physical boundaries are established, the child becomes aware of the psychological boundaries. Each member knows what is "off limits."
Boundaries change as the child gets older. A closed door is respected.

Parents should not dispose of clothes or toys without the child’s permission. A violation of this rule can leave the child with an unstable sense of identity.

Verbal Abuse
The use of words as a put-down is a destructive assault on a child’s self-esteem. The person who heaps verbal abuse is using that means to relieve himself of tension. It is probably the only way he knows how to deal with his anger or express himself. He’s attacking the child’s self-worth. The scars of abusive words last longer than scars from a beating.

Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect is different from emotional abuse, in that nothing harmful is ever said or done to the child. A baby needs stimulation, touch and contact with her parents. Children who are deprived of this become underdeveloped physically, socially and mentally.

The emotionally neglected child never has a clear picture of who he is or what he feels. No one ever answered his needs, and so he asks nothing from anyone. He is always apologizing and filled with anxiety.

The need for protection and safety is more important need than the need for love. A family atmosphere that is filled with tension and violence is stressful for the child. He learns that the best way to survive is to be quiet and stay out of the way. This will be the coping method he will use in adulthood.

The belief system is formed in childhood and it is created by the experiences of the child. If that view is distorted by false boundaries, rage and isolation, the child is handicapped and slated for a difficult life.

"I am and always will be worthless," my mother says.
"No matter what I do, it doesn’t make any difference."
If most of the people in his world hurts him, a child will conclude, "That’s the way the world is and I deserve it."

Children feel valued when:

•  They can express their anger.
•  They are allowed to express their fears.
•  They are allowed to say no.
•  They feel safe and protected.
•  They know they are wanted and loved.

Educational Neglect
Every child is entitled to receive the tools that prepares him to take his rightful place in the community.

These tools are:

•  know how to read and write
•  have social skills, ability to get along with people
•  have language skills
•  learn discipline
•  have perseverance, and ability to finish a project
•  high morals, knowledge of right from wrong
•  stability
•  ambition to set goals
•  the satisfaction of achieving
•  the ability to give and receive love

If the environment a child grows up in is one of loneliness, restrictions and unreasonable demands, he’ll feel stifled. He loses the ability to dream and create. Another factor that may block or stifle a child’s development is shame and guilt.

Shame and Guilt
The child may suffer stigma and prejudice because of differences in cultural background. The economic status of his parents may embarrass him. Children don’t like to look or appear different from their peers.

I couldn’t speak English very well and didn’t understand what was going on most of the time. My parents couldn’t help me either. We were poor and I didn't have the nice clothes the other kids had. I felt ashamed of my parents and hated the way we lived.

It takes time for the immigrant to fit into the American way of life. The child must receive a great deal of love and support at this time. Many children live in a state of self-imposed isolation. 

They don’t want to bring other children into their home. It takes a great deal of maturity in the child to accept his parents’ ways and understand the difference in cultures. They are tortured by feelings of guilt. They love their parents and yet are caught between two worlds.

Praise by the parents and others bolsters a child’s self-esteem. Children need their parents. They need both parents. They need two healthy parents. If the parents have not resolved their own pain and rage, the child is raised in a shaming environment.

Effects on children living in a shaming environment:

•  fear intimacy
•  low self-esteem
•  blame others
•  feel angry
•  feel worthless
•  high anxiety
•  procrastinate
•  are depressed
•  have compulsive behaviors
•  frequently feel controlled
•  think they have caused all the difficulties

A child raised by parents who feel powerless and worthless will develop these same traits. Children raised by alcoholics or drug abusers are confused. There is nothing they can count on or put their trust in.

"If it wasn’t for you kids, I could do something."
The unwanted child has a great burden. When the parent doesn’t take an interest in school activities, the child feels a great loss. Constant humiliation is traumatic for the child. He’s made to feel ugly, flawed and imperfect. All normal spontaneous expression is outlawed. He’s afraid to express anger. He does not learn that anger is normal and does not have to be volatile.
"You look funny, stop making a fool of yourself."

The abuse of feeling flawed and "not measuring up" instills a pain that will not go away. It lives inside the child and is passed on to other people through envy, control, contempt, blame and rage. It can transform a loving parent into a murderer.

Trauma of Abandonment and Confinement
The pain of being abandoned can never go away. A child who cries and cries and no one comes to comfort him will carry that need through adulthood. The "drug addict" is saying, "I crave, I need, I want to be comforted."

An act that is impossible for most of us to comprehend is the act of confining a child to a closet, or even worse. A confined, crying child will cry through adulthood. His anger will lead to anxiety. The anger he feels toward someone who is supposed to care for him is filled with guilt and turns into depression. It is a catch-22.

Webster's dictionary defines trauma as "a painful emotional experience or shock, often producing a lasting psychic effect."

That is the ultimate result of child abuse. The adult is traumatized forever. The next chapter will explore how to recognize the child who is abused, and further chapters will cover the process of healing.

Emotional abuse also accompanies other kinds of abuse.

The scars of emotional abuse are hard to erase and show up in adulthood through antisocial behaviors.

Children need to feel valued and wanted. They also need to feel protected and safe.

A child who is valued develops faith and trust in his environment.

The emotional effects of childhood can explode in volatile behavior in adulthood.

Emotional abuse affects the personality, attitude and behavior of the child. 

Emotional neglect is the act of ignoring the emotional needs of the child. A child should be allowed to be angry, to voice his needs and desires.

The need for protection and safety is an even more important need than the need for love. Consistency of family rules will keep the child from being confused.

Abandonment and confinement of a child carries great pain into adulthood.

Childhood trauma is a painful emotional experience which produces lasting psychic effects.