Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent maltreatment of a child which causes severe and adverse effects on a child’s emotional health and development. Scaring, ignoring, humiliating, isolating and undermining a child or young person are forms of emotional. Emotional abuse may occur when an adult acts in an uncaring or hostile manner towards a child or young person - maybe through bullying, frightening, rejecting, criticising, or evening exploiting them.

The inconsistent behaviour of an adult may result in the child or young person to never know how the adult may react. The adult may be controlling or over possessive towards a child and may be the subject to blame when things go wrong. The child or young person may be made to do activities or tasks that may not be appropriate for their age and/or may not be allowed to take part in childhood activities.


Emotional abuse may also be the result of hearing or seeing ill-treatment of others such as domestic abuse, bullying, or a child to feel constantly frightened or in danger. Some levels of emotional abuse may be involved in all types of ill-treatment of a child however it may occur alone.


Different types of emotional abuse


Passive emotional abuse

Passive emotional abuse is when the parent or carer denies a child or young person love and care in order to be happy and healthy (Source NSPCC)


Barlow and Schrader McMillan categorise passive emotional abuse in five categories:

1. Emotional unavailability – where the parent or carer does not feel connected with a child and does not provide the child with love they require and deserve. 


2. Negative attitudes – not encouraging or praising the child and having a low opinion of the child. 


3. Developmentally inappropriate interaction with the child – speaking or acting inappropriately in front or to the child and either asking the child to undergo tasks that they are not emotionally mature for.


4. Failure to recognise a child’s individuality – this may mean that the adult relies on the child to fulfil their emotional needs and not recognising the needs of the child.


5. Failure to promote social adaptation – lack of encouragement in the child to make friends and mix among their own social peers.

(Source: Barlow, J. and Schrader McMillan, A. (2010) Safeguarding children from emotional maltreatment: what works. London: Jessica Kingsley)


Active emotional abuse

When someone intentionally scares, demeans or verbally abuses a child it’s known as “active” abuse. This requires a premeditated intention to harm a child Barlow, J. and Schrader McMillan, A. (2010)


It can be defined as rejecting, terrorising, isolating, corrupting or exploiting a child. Ignoring can also be included (Cawson et al, 2000).  


Recognising the signs of emotional abuse

The following signs may be present in children where parents are over critical and emotionally distant, or who are unable to meet their child’s emotional needs:

  • Excessive behaviour in children – such as wetting the bed, overacting, rocking, head banging;
  • Children who self-harm – may cut themselves or overdose;
  • A child that has attempted suicide;
  • Children who constantly running away from home;
  • High level of anxiety, withdrawal and do not feel happy;
  • Children may look for affection or avoid affection;
  • Children who may be over affectionate to people they have only known a little while or to strangers;
  • Lack of trust, do not accept praise and have low-self esteem;
  • Attention seeking behaviour;
  • Children who may be over anxious and watchful and constantly want to please;
  • May feel social isolation and have few friends;
  • May be aggressive to other children or animals;
  • Do not appear close to their parent or carer;
  • Use of language or act in a particular way that you wouldn’t expect them to do so for their age.

Directory of Resources in Richmond and Kingston

From our local learning we have developed details of resources around sexual abuse, sexual health and emotional wellbeing in Kingston, Richmond, local and national for parents, children and young people.  Download here.