Emotional Abuse: Warning Signs We Often Miss

Emotional abuse often goes unnoticed because it leaves no visible scars.  In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, today I’m sharing my experience with emotional abuse.  I’ve also included warning signs of emotional abuse in children.

I could hear her screaming downstairs through my closed bedroom door.  She was in another one of her 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.  However, every word she said cut through me like a dagger. I wanted to disappear to a place where her words couldn’t hurt.  A place where I was loved and wanted.

Occurrences like this happened on a regular basis when I was a child. No one thing would set my mother off.  Sometimes it was because she didn’t like how I did a chore.  Other times it was because she didn’t like my attitude.  Sadly, I believed the mean things my mother said about me.  After all, she is my mother. It never dawned on me that what she was doing was emotional abuse.

emotional abuse

According to Prevent Child Abuse America, emotional abuse is a pattern of maltreatment by parents or caregivers that leads to impaired psychological growth and development. Abusers constantly reject, ignore, belittle, dominate, and criticize their victims.  This is more than just a parent having a bad day or using poor judgment when disciplining a child.

For example, when I misbehaved, my parents wouldn’t 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. She would get McDonald’s and call my younger siblings to eat in her bedroom. I had to eat whatever I could find.  My mom would even tell my little sister not to share with me when she tried to sneak me food.

Many people don’t believe emotional abuse is really abuse.  They 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 also 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.”

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 talk about what’s going on in their home. Many kids are taught that whatever happens at home stays at home. Some children don’t report emotional abuse because they fear it will make the abuse worse or get their abuser in trouble.  Sadly, there are also kids who believe that their parents’ emotionally abusive behaviors are the norm.  These children need someone in their lives who can recognize the pain they are in so they can protect them.

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:

Helping Kids Learn Stress Management Skills

Getting Kids To Talk

Getting Kids To Talk

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  1. I was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused from the day I was born until I finally left at age 18. I was even afraid to leave. A friend had to force me. I had been paying rent to share an apartment with her after graduation for 4 months before she helped/made me move in. I no longer have the lack of self esteem but I live with anxiety depression and shyness. It has stolen my life. I am 58 years old and have a high IQ but remain unsuccessful despite a lifelong work and struggle to achieve. It’s the damages from the abuse that hold me back. Other people and I can’t relate as they expect relating to go. I find a lot of people still abusive in usually passive aggressive type ways but also in downright rude and exploitative ways. I’m never that way to anyone. That’s why I at least have self esteem.

  2. Thank you for being so vulnerable! I appreciate your honesty in an effort to raise awareness for others!

  3. Hi, I don’t really know where to start…. I have 3 children that are being mentally abused by their stepmom to the point they have gotten on antidepressants. I have had the kids in therapy for over 2 years who are advocating that the stepmom have no accesses to the children . However, we are in Texas and other lawyers and their therapist all day for emotional abuse a judge won’t keep away the wife because they are married. The things she says , tells the kids , call the kids etc the therapist have some of it verbatim and it’s awful . It never stops! My kids are getting to the point of no return and I have spent weeks trying to find more outlets and help from people who are advocating about it and not concentrating on physical etc… Not that that’s not VERY important. I am a desperate mother who is going against and narcissistic ex-husband and a wife that is very brazen, no filter, knows no boundaries but can play a very good role when it needs to be. Anything you could give me …. I want the word to get out about the seriousness of this and help me maybe show along w/the therapists the effects it really has. He refuses to let them participate in after school activities, extracurricular activities, friends bdays …….I want to protect my kids because I went through both physical and emotional abuse growing up and I swore I would NEVER allow this to happen to my kids .

    1. Hi Sarah-I’m so sorry to hear that you and your family are going through this. Narcissistic abuse is insiduous and its effects can take a lifetime to heal. There aren’t many scientific studies done on narcissistic abuse, however, many mental health professionals have written about it. For instance, psychologist Karyl McBride has done a lot of work in this area. She also works with narcisstically abused children in a residential treatment facility. I’ll leave a link to one of her articles.


      Here’s another article by a psychologist as well.


  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I understand how you felt as a child being emotionally abused. I unfortunately suffered the same fate along with sexual and physical abuse. Children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They are shaped by their environment. When that environment is toxic, it can cause many difficulties for that child as an adult. I have Complex PTSD as a result of my childhood torturers. I found a great therapist and I am fighting to regain my life. This is the first time I have posted anything about my youth. Thank you for giving me the courage to do so.

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