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Emotional Abuse

The image is a quote from a sign that this man was court-ordered to carry for 5 hours in public.

All humans need to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of age. Parents have legal, physical, intellectual, emotional, and financial power over their children in order to care for them, to ensure their safety, welfare, appropriate development, etc. Using this power for any other purpose is wrong, just like it's wrong to mistreat prisoners of war. Children are in an even more vulnerable position because they don't process information the same way adults do; their brains are still developing, so what might be a stupid joke to an adult can cause serious trauma to a child. Young children believe what their parents tell them, and emotional abuse can cause them to draw very inaccurate conclusions about themselves and their place in the world. Older children understand that they're being mistreated, but have no recourse: they can't yell back, cut their parent off, or sue for harassment. They are stuck without options, forced to endure maltreatment. Taking advantage of this vulnerability is abusive.

Emotional abuse of children is usually a part of any other type of abuse (e.g. physical, sexual, or neglect), and is mostly treated as an aggravating factor rather than a separate crime. It lacks legal definition, which makes it hard to address when it's the only type of abuse inflicted on a child. It's nearly impossible to prosecute in criminal court, but Child Protective Services work independently of law enforcement, and might remove the child from their parent's custody if they feel it would be in the child's best interest, regardless of whether the parent is convicted of any crime or not. Unfortunately, children get abused in foster care too, so the question often isn't whether the emotional abuse is "bad enough," but whether foster care would be any better.

Verbal abuse

All parents criticize their children sometimes, that's how children recognize their mistakes and learn. This criticism needs to be offered calmly, politely, and constructively, focusing on specific actions rather than on the child's personality, e.g. "try putting your pants on before your shoes" rather than "you're a moron". Parents are human, and most of them occasionally raise their voice or say something insulting. For example, if your 11yo sets your house on fire, you might lose it and say "that was a dumb thing to do" or even "what the hell is wrong with you?" A decent parent then takes a deep breath, apologizes to the kid, and gives a more appropriate response. Abusive parents, on the contrary, routinely engage in yelling, swearing, and name-calling, degrading their child, devaluing them as a human being. For example, this girl from Arkansas, USA, believed her name was Idiot, because that's how her parents addressed her.

Humiliating punishments

All children misbehave occasionally; most parents enforce consequences so that their child can learn where the lines are; most consequences cause some degree of embarrassment to the child. The line between acceptable parenting and abuse is crossed when embarrassment is the goal rather than a byproduct of the parent's actions. For example, when a 13yo girl sends selfies to boys in her school, an appropriate consequence could be removing her data plan or suspending her phone privileges. This dad from Washington state, USA, on the other hand, cut off his daughter's hair and humiliated her on camera. When the video ended up on Youtube, the girl killed herself. That wasn't appropriate punishment, because it didn't address her problematic behavior, but attacked her dignity, and aimed to humiliate her.

Threats, lies, and mind games

It's perfectly normal and appropriate to warn children about consequences of their behavior, such as "If you don't clean your room by 8PM tonight I'll ground you for a week." This way a child can choose to clean their room or accept the consequences, and thus learns to take responsibility for their choices. That's very different from threatening a child without giving them any option to rectify the problem, playing mind games with them, or lying to them for the sole purpose of terrorizing them. For example, this grandma from Oklahoma, USA, would dress as a witch and sneak up on her 7yo granddaughter at night to torment her, because she "couldn't control the girl anymore." There's a fiction story The Worm by Fyodor Sologub, where a 12yo girl accidentally breaks her foster parent's favorite teacup, and to punish her for that he convinces her that a worm will crawl into her mouth at night, move down her throat, and slowly eat away her innards; the girl gradually believes him, and dies as a result. It's a morbid fiction story, but many survivors of emotional abuse would find the experience familiar.

Jokes

Children don't perceive humor the same way adults do because they are powerless against their parents, and might be unclear on the line between reality and make-pretend; if a mother tells her 5yo "You're cute enough to eat," he might genuinely worry that she'll follow through on this plan. Every parent makes mistakes, but deliberately and repeatedly taking advantage of the child's vulnerability is emotional abuse. For example, this woman from Philippines considered her son a pet, and posted photos on Facebook that featured him standing on all fours, naked, with a rope around his neck and a bowl of dog food in front of him. At his age he didn't know yet if he was a human being or an animal; he trusted his mother on this, and taking advantage of this trust isn't funny. Older children understand that they are being joked with, but have no way to opt out if they find the joke offensive. For example, this high school science teacher from Florida, USA, to punish her students for tardiness by making them wear "cones of shame," aka dog collars. When confronted, she explained it as a joke, but jokes are only funny when both participants find them funny and can reciprocate; her students couldn't.

Pranks

Children need safety and predictability, and pranks undermine both, so it's a shaky ground by definition. Some parents are into pranks, and it's somewhat possible to engage in them without causing serious trauma to the child. However, it's important to keep in mind that a child can't escape their prankster parent if they want to, so if the "fun" is not mutual it crosses into emotional abuse. Specifically, pranks involving death, injury, damage to property, humiliation, punishment, or giving the child away are never OK, just because the child shouldn't have to doubt their safety, even for a minute. For example, these parents from Maryland, USA, lost custody of two of their children over pranks that they filmed and posted on YouTube. The pranks included: yelling, swearing, and threatening to punish a 9yo boy for something he didn't do, smashing his new tablet to pieces in front of him, and pretending to give him away for adoption.

Rivalry

Parent-child relationship is not equal: a parent is an adult, exercising control over the child's life, and responsible for providing support and structure: schedules, routines, rules, and consequences (both positive and negative). This way the child knows right from wrong and can learn to act appropriately. Some parents fail to do that, and treat their children like equal adults (roommates, friends, or spouses). This results in children misbehaving, and if the parent still fails to act as as a parent rather than a peer, they often resort to arguments, power struggles, revenge, or even rivalry with their children, sabotaging them in order to "win" the fight. Bad parenting is traumatic to children, but isn't necessarily emotional abuse. Yet, at the very minimum, the parent needs to clearly communicate their expectations, not in broad terms (e.g. "be respectful") but listing specific actions (e.g. "don't raise your voice" or "mop the floors every Thursday"), so that the child can fulfill these expectations, go to their room, and be left alone. Constantly picking on a child without setting clear rules, constantly changing rules to undermine their success, or setting them up for failure is emotional abuse.

Parentifying

Some parents not only view their children as adults, but even parentify them, i.e. reverse the roles and burden the child with their problems, hold them responsible for the parent's wellbeing, blame the child for things he/she can't control or influence. For example, they might solicit legal, financial, or relationship advice from their children, unload their emotional problems on the child (expecting therapy), or actually force the child to care for them: pay their bills, cook their meals, keep track of their appointments, etc. This type of emotional abuse is rarely recognized while the child is still underage because the child usually adopts their parent's perspective and genuinely feels responsible for caring for their parent. However, they often grow up into a highly codependent adult who tries to solve problems of everyone they encounter, which results in stress, sense of failure, depression, and very dysfunctional relationship patterns. Eventually they enter therapy and start to recognize that what their parent did was wrong.

Exploitation

Most parents want to think of themselves as good, but some of them lose track of what makes them look good vs what's actually best for their child. For example, some children are forced to miss school, sleep, or social life to participate in beauty pageants, sports competitions, cheerleading, etc. There's nothing wrong with engaging your child in extracurricular activities and being proud of their achievements, but it shouldn't interfere with the child's best interest. Sometimes it's the parent who wants the prizes, while the child would benefit from a more balanced lifestyle. Putting your own wants/needs above the needs of your child is exploitative, and a form of emotional abuse. Some parents take it a step further, and drag their children into custody disputes, forcing them to testify against the other parent, sometimes falsely. Some involve their children in crimes, e.g. social security fraud or drug dealing. Here's an extreme example: when this woman from New York, USA, murdered her boyfriend, she had her two children help her dispose of his body (one of the children was over 18 and was prosecuted along with her).


The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.
~ Albert Einstein
This page was last updated on September 27th, 2017
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