Emotional abuse is more difficult to prove than physical abuse. Jenni Whitehead looks at how emotional abuse is defined and how it can be recognised

School teachers are well placed to pick up on possible emotional abuse due to the amount of time teachers spend with children, this is especially true of primary schools where children, (for the most part) will have the same teacher for a full year.

Unfortunately emotional abuse tends not to be addressed with the same urgency as physical abuse of children, as it is far more difficult to prove. However, early intervention is necessary to avoid long-term consequences for the emotional health of the child. Emotional abuse is a feature of all types of abuse but can also occur in isolation to other forms of abuse.


In Working Together to Safeguard Children, the Department of Health defines emotional abuse as:  ‘the persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.’

The report goes on to state: ‘It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. It may involve causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children.’

This is amplified in the Children and Young People on Child Protection Registers report in 2001: ‘Because it is invisible, emotional abuse is the most insidious and under-recognised form of child abuse. Emotional abuse occurring alone accounts for the smallest number of cases on child protection registers. The percentage of children registered for emotional abuse rose from 16% of children on the registers in 1997 to 18% in 2001.’ Moreover, recent surveys by the NSPCC indicate that emotional abuse of children is the most common form of mistreatment, rather than the least common.

Gabarino (1978) described five types of damaging behaviour: rejecting, isolating, terrorising, ignoring and corrupting as the main components of emotional abuse.

Components of emotional abuse – Gabarino (1978)

  1. Rejecting: The adult refuses to acknowledge child’s worth and legitimacy of child’s needs.
  2. Isolating: Adult cuts the child off from normal social experiences and contacts and prevents child from making friendships – makes child believe he is alone in the world.
  3. Terrorising: Adult verbally assaults the child – creates a climate of fear, bullies and frightens the child – makes the child believe the world is capricious and hostile.
  4. Ignoring: The adult deprives the child of essential stimulation and responsiveness, stifling emotional growth and intellectual development.
  5. Corrupting: The adult mis-socialises the child – it stimulates the child to engage in destructive antisocial behaviour – reinforces that deviance and makes the child unfit for normal social experiences.

Gabarino, J (1978), ‘The elusive “crime” of emotional abuse’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 2: 89-99

Recognising children at risk of emotional abuse

The child who experiences emotional abuse presents a range of behaviour, from extreme passivity and over-compliance to extreme aggression and rage.

The child may:

  • appear very anxious or depressed
  • avoid doing things with other children
  • behave much younger than his or her age
  • behave like an adult, eg a ‘little mother’
  • lag in physical, emotional and intellectual development
  • soil or wet the bed
  • self-harm
  • attempt suicide
  • blame themselves for all their family’s problems
  • believe that they are ‘bad’, ‘evil’ or possessed.


Sometimes the indicators of possible abuse come from the child’s parents as much from the child themselves. The parent may blame the child for the family’s problems, belittle the child in front of staff and their peers, withhold love and attention, treat the child’s siblings differently (for the better), appear unconcerned about their child’s problems or express strong negative feelings about their child to staff. In some cases, the parent may become obsessed with the idea that their child is the source of the family’s problems and – at the extreme – the family may believe that the child is ‘evil’ or possessed.

Proving emotional abuse

Without signs such as bruising and injury or disclosure from the child or parent it is particularly difficult to prove emotional abuse. However, teachers are skilled in understanding where they expect children to be developmentally in relationship to their peers and where they assess a child as lagging behind physically, emotionally and intellectually, emotional abuse may be a factor and should be considered. Remember that a lag in development is only an indicator that something is wrong and does not in itself diagnose child abuse. Clusters of indicators should cause more concern and it is important to make sure that as much information as possible is gathered to inform the referral process.

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