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Emotional abuse

NSPCC research briefing

August 2013

Emotional abuse is the second most common reason for a child to be put on the child protection register or made subject to a child protection plan.

There are elements of emotional abuse in all child abuse and neglect but emotional abuse can also have serious long term consequences for a child when it is the only form of abuse.

This briefing looks at the factors that can lead to emotional abuse and its effects on children.

What is emotional abuse?
How many children are being emotionally abused?
What causes emotional abuse?
How does emotional abuse affect children?
What helps emotionally abused children get better?
Related content
Further reading


All forms of abuse and neglect include an element of emotional abuse. For this reason, emotional abuse has sometimes been overlooked as a significant obstacle to children having a healthy and happy life.

Whether on its own or in conjunction with another form of abuse, emotional abuse can have serious long term effects on a child’s emotional development and physical health.

  • Emotional abuse is the second most common reason for being made subject to a child protection plan or put on the child protection register in England, Wales and Scotland.
  • Emotional abuse is a core element of all other forms of child abuse.
  • Emotionally abusive parents are often found to have experienced abuse as children themselves.
  • Stresses within the family are often linked to emotional abuse.

What is emotional abuse?

The complexity of the connections between emotional abuse and other forms of abuse and neglect can make emotional abuse hard to define (Cawson et al, 2000). There is a wide range of terminology used in the literature which means that different aspects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect are often included under a variety of definitions. Research from the USA, for instance, normally uses the term psychological maltreatment which combines emotional abuse and emotional neglect (Glaser, 2011).

Working together (HM Government, 2013) defines emotional abuse as:

“the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying (including cyberbullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone.”

In a similar way to child neglect, emotional abuse centres around two different types of act which can have different impacts on an abused child; active and passive.

Active emotional abuse
Emotional abuse where someone intentionally tries to scare, demean or generally verbally abuse a child is known as “active” abuse as it requires a premeditated intention to harm that child.

Barlow and Schrader McMillan (2010) defined four main types of active emotional abuse:

  • spurning (rejecting)
  • terrorising
  • isolating
  • exploiting or corrupting.

Cawson et al (2000) used a similar set of categories but also included “ignoring” as a fifth specific way of emotionally abusing a child.

Passive emotional abuse
Emotional abuse where a parent or carer denies their child the love and care they need in order to be healthy and happy. This can be more difficult to identify because it stems from a carer’s lack of care, knowledge or understanding about a child’s needs. It is here that the definitions for passive emotional abuse and emotional neglect are very similar.

Barlow and Schrader McMillan (2010) used five categories of passive emotional abuse.

  • Emotional unavailability, where a parent or carer is not connected with the child and cannot give them the love that they deserve and need.
  • Negative attitudes, such as having a low opinion of the child and not offering any praise or encouragement.
  • Developmentally inappropriate interaction with the child, either expecting the child to perform tasks that they are not emotionally mature enough to do or speaking and acting around the child in an inappropriate way.
  • Failure to recognise a child’s individuality, this can mean an adult relying on a child to fulfil their own emotional needs and not recognising that the child has needs of their own.
  • Failure to promote social adaptation; not encouraging a child to make friends and mix among their own social peers.

How many children are emotionally abused?

Radford et al (2011) found that just under 7% of the 18-24 year olds they questioned had experienced emotional abuse during their childhood.

In 2012 emotional abuse was the most common concern identified at case conferences in Scotland. For England and Wales, emotional abuse was the second most common reason for a child to be placed on the child protection register or made the subject of a child protection plan. The proportion of children subject to a child protection plan or on the child protection register in England and Wales at 31 March 2012 was 28% for emotional abuse. The figures in Northern Ireland were lower at around 13%. This could be because of differences in recording or the small numbers of children on the child protection register in general.

See our page on child protection register statistics.

Physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect all contain negative emotional components. Dong et al (2004) found that 80% of emotionally abused children in their study had also experienced physical abuse and nearly 60% had experienced neglect. Shaffer et al (2009) found that physical abuse and emotional neglect were much more likely to occur with emotional abuse than on their own.

What risk factors are associated with emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse may stem from a poor emotional connection (attachment) between a parent or carer and their child. Problems within the home can take a parent’s or carer’s focus away from providing the emotional love and support that a child needs (Riggs, 2010).

Periods of high stress and tension (e.g. financial problems and unemployment) may lead to a parent taking out their anger and frustration on their child (Glaser, 2011).

Domestic violence or parental substance misuse can increase the chances that a child will experience emotional abuse as such factors can lead to increased aggression and stress for families (Dong et al, 2004; Glaser, 2011).

Social isolation and immigration can also put additional stress onto a family and affect how a parent treats their child. Poverty, language problems, and moving away from friends and family are recognised as factors that are linked to emotional abuse (Glaser, 2011).

Emotional abuse can also occur outside the home. Sports and leisure activities and school are highlighted in the literature as times when children may also be at risk from other emotionally abusive adults (Glaser, 2011). These instances are, however, rare. In a US study, Sedlak et al (2010) found that only 7% of emotional abuse is perpetrated by non-resident adults.

How does emotional abuse affect children?

Emotional abuse can continue at damaging levels for years without there ever being a “crisis point” which brings the abuse to light (Rees, 2010). Emotional abuse is often seen as less serious because it has no identifiable physical effects on children but this does not mean it is any less damaging to their long term health.

Emotional abuse can affect a child throughout their life especially their social and cognitive development (Riggs, 2010). Children who grow up in loveless homes where they are berated and belittled constantly may experience self-confidence and anger problems. Physical intimidation and anger against children can change their behaviour and has been linked with attention deficit disorders (Millitech et al, 2010).

Emotional abuse has also been linked with increased risk taking behaviours such as stealing, bullying and running away. Radford et al (2011) found that children who had suffered emotional abuse during childhood exhibited more rebellious behaviours than children who experienced no emotional abuse (the research uses the term “delinquency”). Gavin (2011) looked at people who had been abused as children and found much lower levels of life satisfaction as well as higher levels of depression and health problems amongst those who had been emotionally abused compared with children who had suffered other types of abuse.

Cognitive development complications can occur, especially if the emotional abuse takes place from an early age. Delays in language and feeding problems have been linked with emotional abuse. These effects develop and become more serious as the child gets older and as the abuse continues. Adolescents who are emotionally abused, especially those who have been abused over a long period of time, are more likely to self-harm and experience depression than children who are not emotionally abused (Shaffer et al, 2009).

Having a poor emotional relationship with parents and other care-givers can affect how a child will relate to others throughout their life (Riggs, 2010).

What helps emotionally abused children?

Emotional abuse needs to be addressed in relation to the relationships and the environment that surrounds a child. It is important to focus on the safety and welfare of the child as well as addressing any factors that may be contributing to the emotional abuse (Glaser, 2011). It is important to understand the factors that have caused the emotional abuse and to work to reduce the impact they have on the child.

Treatment for abuse and neglect involves identifying and working to minimise the emotional damage caused. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2012) mentioned several therapeutic interventions which can help children who have been abused and neglected, as well as, increasing their resilience to the effects of future abuse. Of these, the Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC) Intervention and the Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care for Preschoolers are promising interventions for working with emotionally abused children. Both of these interventions aim to promote healthy attachment and positive relationships by working with children and caregivers in intensive sessions and weekly playgroups. Play therapy has also been shown to have a positive effect on children who have been subjected to emotional abuse (Doyle, 2001; Landreth, 2002).


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

Cawson, P., et al (2000) Child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect. London: NSPCC.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2012) The science of neglect: the persistent absence of responsive care disrupts the developing brain: working paper 12 (PDF). Cambridge, MA: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Dong, M., et al (2004) The interrelatedness of multiple forms of childhood abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. Child Abuse and Neglect, 28(7): 771-784.

Doyle, C. (2001) Surviving and coping with emotional abuse in childhood. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry 6(3): 387-402.

Gavin, H. (2011) Sticks and stones may break my bones: the effects of emotional abuse. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment and Trauma, 20(5): 503-529.

Glaser, D. (2011) How to deal with emotional abuse and neglect: further development of a conceptual framework (FRAMEA). Child Abuse and Neglect, 35(10): 866-875.

HM Government (2013) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). London: Department for Education.

Landreth, G. (2002) Play therapy: the art of the relationship. New York ; Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.

Milletich, R. J., et al (2010) Exposure to interparental violence and childhood physical and emotional abuse as related to physical aggression in undergraduate dating relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 25(7): 627-637.

Radford, L., et al (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.

Rees, C. A. (2010) Understanding emotional abuse. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 95(1):59-67.

Riggs, S. A. (2010) Childhood emotional abuse and the attachment system across the life cycle: what theory and research tell us. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment and Trauma, 19(1): 5-51.

Sedlak, A., et al (2010) Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4): report to congress. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

Shaffer, A., Yates, T. M. and Egeland, B. R. (2009). The relation of emotional maltreatment to early adolescent competence: developmental processes in a prospective study. Child Abuse and Neglect, 33(1): 36-44.

Theoklitou, D., Kabitsis, N. and Kabitsi, A. (2012) Physical and emotional abuse of primary school children by teachers. Child Abuse and Neglect, 36(1): 64-70.

Emotional neglect and emotional abuse in pre-school children
A Core-Info leaflet summarising what is currently known about children aged less than six years who have been emotionally neglected or emotionally abused.

Emotional abuse
Online advice on the types, causes, effects and signs of emotional abuse.

Further reading

Search the NSPCC Library Online for research and resources on emotional abuse.

Contact the NSPCC’s information service for more information about emotional abuse or any child protection topic