April is child abuse prevention month and I wanted to share my experience with emotional abuse in hopes of raising awareness when it comes to childhood emotional abuse.
I could hear her screaming downstairs through my closed bedroom door. She was in another one of her belligerent rages and I was her target. “You don’t do anything around here! You are lazy and nasty. All you do is read and waste the electricity!” I tried to tune her out, to disappear to a place where her words couldn’t hurt me. A place where I was loved and wanted.
However, my momentary escape ended as she barged into my bedroom to continue her verbal assault. With eyes wide open and spit flying from her mouth, she angrily reminded me of how worthless she thought I was.
Occurrences like this happened on a regular basis from the time I was eight until I moved out of my parents’ home at age nineteen to go to college. I didn’t know at the time that what I experienced was emotional abuse. Yes, abuse. It wasn’t just a case of my mom losing control or having a bad parenting day. It was abuse.
According to Prevent Child Abuse America, emotional child abuse is a pattern of maltreatment by parents or caregivers that leads to “impaired psychological growth and development. It involves words, actions, and indifference. Abusers constantly reject, ignore, belittle, dominate, and criticize the victims.”
For example, from middle school on my parents would punish my insolence by choosing not to speak to me for MONTHS. They pretended I was invisible and would communicate with me by sending messages via my little sister. My mother would be spiteful and get McDonald’s and call my younger siblings to eat in her bedroom while I ate whatever leftover there was. They would tell my little sister not to share with me when she tried to sneak me food.
People assume that because the wounds left behind from emotional abuse aren’t visible, it must not be that bad. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The American Humane Association states that emotional abuse “can seriously interfere with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological or social development.”
Additionally, research findings released in 2014 by the American Psychological Association suggest that children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar (sometimes worse) mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused. The study revealed that children who are emotionally abused suffered from “anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused.”
So no, the emotional abuse I endured in childhood left no visible wounds for the world to see. When people look at me they do not see the chronic depression that I struggle with or my battle each day to truly believe that I am indeed worthy of love and happiness. All they see is the strong woman I present to the world.
Some days I am that strong woman. Then there are days when I feel worthless and question my audacity to think that I deserve anything good to happen to me. On those days I’m haunted by the voice of my stepfather screaming at twelve year old me that I will never amount to anything while waving a machete at me like a mad man.
No one was aware of the emotional abuse my siblings and I endured. Not my family, not my teachers, and not my pediatrician. No one was calling child services to tend to the wounds of my broken spirit or offering counseling to help me deal with thoughts of killing myself. I even prayed to God and asked Him to fix me so that my mother would love me, but that love never came. My biological father was out of the picture, and I often fantasized about him coming to rescue me. That didn’t happen either.
I felt invisible and since no one came to rescue me, I figured I must be bad and therefore deserved to be treated poorly.
I never want another child to feel this way. This is why it is so important to bring awareness to childhood emotional abuse and the long term negative impact it can have on the lives of those affected.
Although emotional abuse doesn’t leave bruises or physical scars, the following are some signs that a child may be experiencing emotional abuse. Children who are emotionally abused may:
- Be clingy and constantly attention and affection seeking
- Appear constantly withdrawn and sad
- Have a hard time developing emotional bonds with others
- Struggle to make and keep friends
- Show a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem
- Display sudden unexplained changes in their behavior
- Show signs of sleep difficulties (getting too much or too little)
- Change eating habits (eating too much or too little)
- Appear depressed, scared, and/or anxious
- Suddenly develop incontinence or lack of bowel control (after mastering toileting)
- Behave in a manner too mature for their age
- Have trouble managing their anger and may display frequent angry outbursts
- Experience academic difficulties (poor grades, chronic truancy, etc).
Children don’t always have the words to express what’s going on in their home or they may believe that their parents’ emotionally abusive behaviors are the norm. Some children don’t reveal that they are being emotionally abused because they fear it will make the abuse worse or they worry about getting their abuser in trouble. These children need the adults in their lives to protect them. We owe it to these children to recognize when they are hurting so that they do not continue to suffer in silence.
If you believe that a child is being abused emotionally or otherwise, please contact your local Child Protective Services Agency. If you believe the child is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately. You can find additional information on Child Abuse Prevention Month here.
If you like this article, you might also like: