DEFINITION of the TERM: Emotional/Psychological
Emotional/Psychological abuse is referred to in
the professional literature by many interchangeable terms such as: emotional
abuse, covert abuse, psychological maltreatment, coercive abuse, abuse by proxy,
and ambient abuse.
Psychological maltreatment is a concerted attack
by an adult on a child’s development of self and social competence, a pattern of
psychically destructive behavior to the child. (Garbarino, et al, 1986, as
cited in Tomison & Tucci, 1997).
Psychological abuse can be defined as a repeated
pattern of damaging interactions between parent(s) and child that becomes
typical of the relationship… when a person conveys to a child that he or she is
worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting
another’s needs (Kairys & Johnson, 2002).
Emotional abuse is the
systematic, patterned and chronic abuse that is used by a perpetrator to lower a
victim's sense of self, self-worth and power (Mezey, Post & Maxwell, 2002).
It [psychological/emotional abuse] is most
damaging to children, who are not aware, nor have control over, the pattern of
relationships surrounding them, is almost always a precursor or accompaniment to
physical aggression, and is based on maintaining consistent power and control
over time (Garbarino, 1994).
Emotional/Psychological abuse can alone but is also always a component of
physical or sexual abuse. Indeed, it is the emotional/psychological abuse
component of physical and sexual abuse which is most damaging to children
and leads to the long term harmful consequences of such abuse.
- The United States
National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect reports an overall rate
of child maltreatment of 1.5 million children.
- 204,500 of these
children are recorded for emotional abuse
- 212,800 of the 1.5
million children are recorded under the category of emotional neglect
(Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996)
Emotional/psychological abuse is the most common form of child abuse.
According to Doyle’s Child Abuse Review which surveyed a population of 504
respondents, 29% had been emotionally abused by caregivers compared to the
9% who had been sexually abused and the 14% who had been physically abused
- Children raised in
homes where they are exposed to domestic violence between the parents but
are never hit themselves experience the same emotional and behavior problems
associated with verbal/emotional abuse, i.e., exposure to marital abuse is a
form of emotional/psychological abuse of children.
Psychological/emotional abuse involves behavior patterns that involve one or
all of the following: Rejecting, Degrading, Terrorizing, Isolating,
Corrupting/Exploiting, Denying Emotional Responsiveness (Garbarino, 1994).
- Examples of these
behaviors includes encouraging children to develop behavior that is
self-destructive, behavior that is threatening or is likely to place the
child or child’s loved ones in danger, ignoring a child’s attempt to
interact, interacting without emotion, and preventing a child from
interacting with other children or adults outside of the home (Garbarino et
- Name calling,
threatening to kill the victim's family or pet; controlling access to
finances; isolating the victim from family and friends; coercing the victim
to perform degrading, humiliating or illegal acts; interfering with job,
medical or educational opportunities; or making the victim feel powerless
and ashamed (Mezey, Post & Maxwell, 2002).
- Perpetrators of
emotional/psychological abuse often consciously employ a strategy called,
“gaslighting” in which they present an alternate reality to their victims,
police, therapists and judges. Gaslighting involves denying what occurred,
offering plausible but untrue accounts of what occurred, or suggesting the
victim is imagining things, exaggerating or lying. Gaslighting strategies
leave victims doubting their own perceptions, memory or sanity and serve to
confuse police, judges and therapists into inaction or worse, supporting the
abuser, while leaving the victims feeling helpless and alone against the
abuse (Forward, 2003; Engel, 2002, Stern, 2007).
- Monopolization of
perceptions is often part of the abuser’s brainwashing-like tactics whereby
the abuser insists upon the children also believe what he/she says is true
and that they’re perceptions, opinions or ideas are mistaken or unworthy.
- Constant criticism,
demeaning behaviors, threats, use of male/parent privilege, withholding
affection or threatening abandonment for non-compliance with abuser’s
demands and personal humiliation are further consistent, on-going tactics of
the emotional/psychological abuser (Pilowsky, 1993; Parkeer, 1996;
Follingstad, 1990; Marshall, 1996; Hoffman, 1984; Alexander, 1993, Chang,
1996; Jacko, 1995; Loring, 1997).
- The continuous and
unrelenting patern of emotional abuse is often interspersed with warmth and
kindness to create an “in and out” of bonding , “crazy making” experience
for the children and spouse. (Loring, 1997).
of Children Victimized by Psychological/Emotional Abuse
Research indicates that
abuse/maltreatment of any type adversely affects children’s academic
achievement, cognitive skills and social/psychological adjustment
(Kendall-Tackett & Eckenrode, 1996; Kendall-Tackett, Meyer & Findelhor, 1993;
Oddone, Genuis & Violato, 2001).
Research finds that exposure to
high levels of inter-parental conflict is harmful to children (including covert
conflict such as placing the child in the middle of conflicts) resulting in
higher levels of behavior problems, poorer academic achievement and higher
levels of emotional distress (Amato, 2000; Amato & Resac, 1994; Pruett, et al,
2003 and Adamson & parley, 2006).
Verbal/emotional aggression by
parents is more strongly related to children’s aggression and interpersonal
problems than is physical aggression (Strauss, et al, 1991)
The most common symptomatic
outcomes found with children exposed to emotional/psychological abuse are eating
disorders, substance abuse, aggressive behavior, withdrawal , criminal activity,
suicide and self harm (Doyle, 1997).
Research finds that as the amount
of verbal/emotional abuse by parents increases the probability of children’s
behavior problems also increases including aggressive behaviors, delinquency and
Fear, isolation, withdrawal,
feelings of abandonment and helplessness, overly compliant/submissive behavior,
self-blaming, and humiliation are common responses of children to
emotional/psychological abuse (Tomison & Tucci, 1997).
Societal Costs of
Childhood victims of abuse and
neglect are significantly more likely to be arrested as juveniles or adults for
non-traffic offenses and violent crimes (National Center on Child Abuse &
Preventative measures need to
occur to stop the cycle of psychological harm occurring in families with young
children. Without intervention, children living with families who are
psychologically manipulative and abusive will suffer long-lasting effects on
their mental health and well-being (Bifulco et al., 2002). This ultimately
results in higher health care costs and judicial time and expense.
Childhood psychological abuse is
highly related to chronic or recurrent adult depression, delinquency,
aggression, suicidal behavior, personality disorders and child victimization
(Bifulco, et. al, 2002) resulting in costly medical expenses for treatment and
juvenile justice involvement.
Research has shown emotional abuse
to be a strong indicator of increased risk for psychiatric and physical
illnesses among adult females (Spertus, et al, 2003).
Children who suffer emotional
abuse often grow into adults who see themselves through the eyes of the abuser
carrying a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness that negatively impacts their
job performance, marital and social relationships and increases antisocial
behaviors (National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence, 2007).
Juvenile and adult criminal
$69 Billion per year
Child Welfare System costs to
$24 Billion per year
(Prevention Child Abuse,
Why is new FL legislation
- The current child
abuse statute in the State of Florida does not provide protection for
victims of emotional/psychological abuse despite it being of greater
prevalence than physical and sexual abuse and having the more grave
long-term consequences for life adjustment and mental health.
(Florida Statute ch. 827 § 03, 2007).
HB 1169/SB 2736 will enhance the capacity
of the State of Florida to protect children of abuse by
expanding the existing child abuse statute to
include the definition of “mental injury” as provided in F.S. 39.01 (Florida
Statute ch. 39 § 01(41), 2007) and provide compensation for victims of
emotional abuse (House Bill 1169, 2007)
Speech and acts protected by the First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or s. 4, Art. I of the FL State
Constitution are exempted from prosecution under the proposed legislation
(House Bill 1169, 2007).
- Current Florida Law
regarding domestic abuse and neglect appears to be counter-productive by
creating an incentive not to report for victims. Victims often fear that
the abuser, if primary breadwinner, might be incarcerated placing the family
in serious financial jeopardy; threats of which the perpetrator uses to
silence and control family members. . International comparisons suggest our
current system may significantly decrease reporting of abuse by as much as
80% . Thus our present system itself employs a form of “financial abuse”
through standard judicial interventions.
- The Courts need to
establish a system for domestic violence cases similar to the St Lucie
County Circuit Court’s Mental Health Court for domestic violence issues.
The Domestic Violence Court could look to the practices in those countries
with a history of more effective practices for domestic violence issues
(psychological/emotional and physical) such as The Netherlands. Such
Domestic Violence Courts would focus on establishing temporary protective
strategies such as, removal of the offender from the home and/or restraining
orders while simultaneously mandating optimal, on-going treatment programs
for both victims and perpetrators. Incarceration of offenders would be
reserved as a last resort intervention for non-compliance with treatment or
- Mandated treatment
programs must be consistent with best-of-practice guidelines. Therapeutic
interventions must be on-going (a year or more minimum) and intensive.
Moreover, treatment must be provided only by experienced mental health
practitioners with specific training in working with domestic violence,
abuse, trauma, developmental theory, personality disorders, parent
coordination and conflict resolution.
- A court appointed
Domestic Violence Coordinator needs to be assigned by the courts with
responsibility for ensuring comprehensive treatment plans (particularly
those involving children) are implemented, complied with, coordinated and
effective in regard to measurable outcomes.
- Treatment should be
mandated not only for perpetrators but for all victims including both the
affected children and the spouse (Iwaniec & Herbert, 1999).
- A collaborative
partnership needs to be encouraged between police, courts, attorneys and
mental health professionals to improve knowledge and skills regarding
recognizing signs of emotional/psychological abuse as well as effective
interventions. The primary goal being to better care for victims and
provide optimal treatment for offenders.
- Expertise in
identifying the signs of, and the effective treatment of domestic violence -
including psychological/emotional abuse- must be improved among mental
health professionals as well as family doctors, pediatricians, police
officers and teachers.
- Treatment for children
who are victims of emotional/psychological abuse needs to include an
emphasis on establishing personal boundaries, a sense of autonomy,
recognizing appropriate versus inappropriate parental behaviors
(particularly in divorce/marital conflicts). Supportive therapy treatment
for the victimized spouse should focus also on recognizing gaslighting
strategies and recognizing their vulnerability to such abuse so as to avoid
- Prosecutors should
make efforts to adopt a multidisciplinary team approach by incorporating
services available to children such as victim support, advocacy, economic
assistance, counseling, health and social services (Model Guidelines, 2001).
The United States, in comparison with other advanced nations, has a less than
exemplary record in regard to protecting children. Only two countries have
failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, 1989,
Somalia and the United States. We are one of less than a handful of nations
around the world that have yet to declare the use of corporal punishment of
children in schools as illegal (though statutes forbid corporal punishment to
discipline military personnel, prisoners, etc.). Florida should take a
leadership role nationally in protecting its most vulnerable citizens, children,
by passing legislation and establishing intervention services to protect
children from physical, sexual and emotional/psychological abuse and thereby
extend to them their constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of
[Document prepared by graduate students in the
Mental Health Counseling Program at Florida Atlantic University, August 2007]