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Emotional Abuse: Effects on Children


All parents sometimes get frustrated with their children and say things to their children out of anger. Whether they mean to or not, when parents are angry, they can make their children feel worthless, flawed, or unloved. Most parents do not realize that such behavior is considered emotional abuse.

What is emotional abuse?

Some examples of emotional abuse are:

  • Name-calling, for example, saying "you're stupid" or "you're lazy").
  • Labeling children as bad instead of labeling their behavior. (Instead of saying "You are a bad boy!" say, "I love you, but it's not OK for you to draw pictures on the walls. I get angry when you do that".
  • Telling children they are a burden (for example, "I wish you were never born").
  • Blaming children for causing problems the family may be having (for example, "It's your fault mommy and daddy are getting a divorce").
  • Discounting children's feelings, such as making fun of a child if he cries when hurt or sad.
  • Being cold and unloving or ignoring your child.
  • Exposing a child to pornography or criminal behaviors, or allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol.
  • Not letting children have friends or join activities outside of school.
  • Controlling too much, not controlling enough or being unpredictable.

How does it affect children?

Emotional abuse hurts children just as much as physical abuse. It just shows in different ways. Results of emotional abuse can include:

  • insecurity
  • poor self-esteem
  • destructive or angry acts such as setting fires or being cruel to animals
  • withdrawal
  • poor development of basic skills
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • suicide
  • trouble in school or keeping jobs
  • trouble forming relationships.

How can it be prevented?

Raising children is not easy. Here are some examples of things you could try when you feel angry or frustrated:

  • Leave the room and take a break until you feel more in control of your emotions.
  • Make it clear to the child that you do not like her behaviors but you do love her.
  • Set clear, consistent limits on behavior by using time-outs and sending your child to his room.
  • Talk about your concerns with a pediatric healthcare provider.

Children need praise, attention, and respect to develop healthy self-esteem. Some things you can do are:

  • When children behave in ways that you like or approve of, praise them. (For example, "You did a good job of putting away your toys.")
  • Tell your child at least once a day why you love him.
  • Listen to your child.
  • Ask your child about his day.

When you get frustrated with your children remember:

  • Don't take your child's behavior personally. Children get frustrated too.
  • Children are not little adults. They express feelings differently than adults. Adults can talk about their feelings. Children express their feelings through behaviors (like crying or tantrums) and through play.
  • Never be afraid to apologize to your child. (For example, if you lose your temper and say something you wish you hadn’t, say that you’re sorry. It’s important for children to understand that adults make mistakes too and can say that they were wrong.

Written by Lawrence R. Ricci, MD, and Christina Comenos, LMSW.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-16
Last reviewed: 2011-01-05

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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