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What is Emotional Abuse of a Child?

While a single incident may be abuse, emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that causes damage over time. Psychological abuse damages a child’s sense of self-worth and negatively impacts their emotional and social development. Often, there is great confusion for the child who is experiencing emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a form of child exploitation. They usually will assume a caring role for their abuser as they are in a situation where they are expected to carry the burdens of adults. In addition to withholding love, the person emotionally abusing the child may also:


  • Tells the child they are unwanted or unloved
  • Rejects or ignores the child
  • Shows little interest in the child
  • Does not initiate or return affection
  • Breaks promises frequently
  • Does not listen to the child or validates their feelings
  • Slanders, screams, and yells at them
  • Plays favorites with one sibling over another
  • Often criticizes, belittles, demeans, or mocks the child
  • Makes the child feel un-loyal if they disagree
  • Demands the child to validate their own feelings Tells lies to justify actions or ideas


  • Threatens to “give” or “drop off” the child with another family member, friend, or stranger
  • Isolates the child from peers or positive activities
  • Sabotages or sets the child up for failure
  • Manipulates and takes advantage of a child’s weakness or reliance on adults
  • Confines the child to a small area
  • Blaming, insulting, punishing, or threatening the child with abandonment, harm, or death
  • Shames or publicly humiliates the child in front of others
  • Forbids play or other age-appropriate child-like behavior
  • Coerces the child to participate in criminal/immoral acts

Expanded (ACEs)

Adverse Childhood Experiences Test

Familial Patterns of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can occur in conjunction with other forms of abuse and is one of the most complex forms of abuse to recognize. Despite the devastating effects of emotional abuse, rarely is it considered severe enough to be “dangerous” for a child. Children often remain loyal to their abusers because they are afraid of what will happen if they disclose the abuse or because of their love for the parent/adult. An emotionally abused child also might think that being called names or denied affection is a usual way of life. They might not tell anyone about the abuse because they believe their experiences represent “normal” family behavior.

This information is from our child safety and prevention training Watchful Eye.

How to Identify Exploitation and Abuse

Through our interactive training, Watchful Eye, we simplify how to identify and prevent child exploitation. No matter your skill level, you can learn to recognize behavior patterns and subtle indicators through this life-saving training.

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