Emotional and psychological child abuse: do we know what we are talking about

Kieran O’Hagan clarifies the distinction between emotional and psychological abuse

Imagine the scene: you are a social worker in court being questioned about a child who you allege is being significantly harmed by being subjected to emotional and psychological abuse. You are asked three questions by the parents’ solicitor: What do you mean by emotional abuse? What do you mean by psychological abuse? Is emotional abuse the same as psychological abuse?

This happened to me once. Fortunately I had predicted the questions and was reasonably confident about the logic of my replies. The reasons for this were two-fold: first, our authority’s solicitor had tried to dissuade me from alleging such abuse, believing that I might get into all kinds of difficulties, and that the magistrates simply wouldn’t accept it. Second, it was the first time that anyone in our authority had claimed that a child was being significantly harmed by being emotionally and psychologically abused.

I did get a rough ride from the mother’s solicitor, but the court did grant a care order.

Whatever the reluctance of council solicitors in trying to persuade a court that a child is being harmed by emotional and psychological abuse, the harsh reality is that these abuses are far more common than physical and sexual abuse for several reasons. It is relatively easy for carers to emotionally and psychologically abuse and not realise they are doing so; the same is unlikely to be said about physical or sexual abuse. Many victims, particularly very young children, do not realise what’s really happening to them emotionally and psychologically, and therefore are incapable of describing such abuses perpetrated against them.

Child care professionals often have difficulty in understanding and recognising these concepts. They are often more likely to label them differently, and explore less complicated (though equally serious) abuses and deprivations a child may be suffering. In other words, emotional and psychological abuse is often missed or ignored.

Child care professionals’ duty to assess a child’s welfare from a holistic perspective (looking at the child’s physical, emotional, psychological, social, educational, religious and cultural life), is enshrined in child care legislation; the codes of practice of many child care and related professions; government guidelines and stipulations; and international laws and conventions.

If, then, child care staff are so obligated to understand, and to be able to identify and intervene in cases of emotional and psychological abuse, why are so many of them uncertain and confused about what precisely these terms mean? There are several possible origins to this state of affairs, chief of which is a traditional reluctance and difficulty in differentiating between emotional and psychological abuse; this has led to both terms being conveniently, though erroneously, used interchangeably and synonymously.(1)

Second, child care professionals know that emotionally abusive behaviour is likely to also be psychologically abusive, and vice versa; surely then, some might think it’s the behaviour that’s more important than the impact. If the same behaviour constitutes both types of abuses, why the need to differentiate between them? Thus many practitioners, workers and textbook writers don’t even try. A third possibility is that in its 1999 publication Working Together to Safeguard Children, the Department of Health chooses the term “emotional abuse” as an all-embracing term to subsume psychological abuse.

Child care staff often use the terms “emotional development” and “psychological development”. They know that although both types of development are related and to some extent mutually dependent, they are nevertheless not one and the same thing. They also know that the Children Act 1989 makes a clear distinction between emotional and psychological development, and obligates anyone working with children to do likewise. Interestingly however, when the words emotional and psychological are combined with abuse, the distinctions appear to be blurred.

We develop emotionally and psychologically. Our mental life is about how our crucial mental faculties function, such as intelligence, memory, recognition, attention, perception, and our moral sense. Psychological abuse is sustained repetitive behaviour which impedes or impairs normal development of these faculties. How does a carer impede or impair the development of any of these mental faculties? There are numerous ways. If you never provide intelligence-stimulation in a baby or small child, you will impede and impair the development of intelligence. If you repeatedly subject a child to something so fearful or unpleasant that the child’s memory is fixated on the experience, continuously recalling it and reliving all the misery it generates, you will adversely impact on the memory’s proper functioning, so vital in the development of all other mental faculties. And if racist or sectarian prejudices are inculcated in a child, there will be damage to the child’s developing perception and their developing moral sense will be perverted. These are all components of psychological abuse.

Emotional abuse is different. Most of the near 100 human emotions are negative, surprisingly, and many of them are destructive. Normal emotional development, however, enables us to feel and express a relatively small number of positive, pleasurable emotions most of the time.

Emotional abuse consists of repetitive, inappropriate emotional responses to the child. It retards the process by which a child acquires the ability to feel and express emotions, and later, to regulate and control them. A common example of emotional abuse is when a toddler returns from the nursery clutching the painting that she wants to show to her parent, and hear lots of praise. She is excited, happy, and proud. But the parent is indifferent or angered by the child, and ignores her.

If this behaviour and responsiveness on the part of a parent were typical it would constitute damaging emotional abuse. The child would learn of too high a risk in feeling and expressing positive emotion. She would eventually stop doing so; worse, over years, she would lose the ability to feel and express positive emotion. Her emotional repertoire could then become dominated by negative emotions like despair and hatred.

Many behaviours are both emotionally and psychologically abusive, for example, domestic violence, bullying, sexual abuse, divorce and separation (without explanation and preparation), sudden desertion, racism, and torture. The long-term impact will depend on age, social and family context, the emotional and psychological resilience of the child, and whether or not the child has reached the milestones of emotional and psychological development preceding the abuse.

Emotional abuse and psychological abuse are neither mysterious nor indefinable. They are both the consequences of sustained and repetitive attacks against normal emotional and psychological development. Such development is central in all child care training.

Kieran O’Hagan was a front-line child protection worker for more than 20 years. He became a reader in social work at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1991 and took early retirement in 2000. He has written eight books, most of them on child protection. His new book, Identifying Emotional and Psychological Abuse, is due for publication this summer by OUP.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article explores some of the difficulties in recognising and understanding emotional and psychological abuse. It provides reasons for its central claim that such abuses are far more common than physical and sexual abuse. It investigates why there is such confusion surrounding the two concepts and provides examples, explanations and comprehensive definitions of both terms.

(1) D Glaser, “Emotional abuse and neglect (psychological maltreatment): a conceptual framework”, Child Abuse and Neglect, 26(6/7) 697-714, 2002

Further information

  • J Garbarino, E Guttman, J W Seeley, The Psychologically Battered Child, Josey Bass, 1986
  • S N Hart, R Germain, M R Brassard, ‘The challenge: to better understand and combat the psychological maltreatment of children and youth’, in M R Brassard, R Germain, and S N Hart (Eds) Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth, Pergamon Press, 1987
  • K P O’Hagan, “Emotional and psychological abuse: problems of definition”, Child Abuse and Neglect, 19(4): 449-461, 1995

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