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DEFINITION of the TERM: Emotional/Psychological Abuse

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).


Prevalence of Emotional Abuse





Behaviors of Emotional/Psychological Abusers








Behavioral  Symptoms 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 interpersonal conflicts.


·         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 Abuse

·         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 & Neglect, 1995).


·         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).



Long term consequences                                                     

·         Juvenile and adult criminal activities                               

·         Mental health services                                                                           $69 Billion per year

·         Domestic violence

·         Substance abuse services                                                          


Direct Costs

·         Child Welfare System costs to investigate allegations       

·         Treatment Costs                                                                                          $24  Billion per year 

·         Teen  pregnancy

(Prevention Child Abuse, 2001)


Proposed Legislation: Why is new FL legislation needed?

(Florida Statute ch. 827 § 03, 2007). 


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)



Recommendations for Intervention











NOTE:  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 happiness.






[Document prepared by graduate students in the Mental Health Counseling Program at Florida Atlantic University, August 2007]