What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being emotionally abused
Emotional abuse is severe and persistent ill treatment of a child.
It can have long-lasting and devastating effects on a child's emotional health and development.
Emotional abuse may be the only form of abuse suffered by a child, or it might be an element of other child abuse and neglect.
If you have concerns, you should act to make sure a child is protected. Call the NSPCC helpline to speak to one of our trained counsellors.
What is emotional abuse
Emotional abuse includes:
- humiliating or criticising a child
- disciplining a child with degrading punishments
- not recognising a child's own individuality and limitations
• pushing them too hard
• being too controlling
- exposing a child to distressing events or interactions
• domestic abuse
• substance misuse
- faling to promote a child's social development
• not allowing them to have friends
- persistently ignoring a child
- being absent
- never expressing positive feelings towards a child
- never showing any emotions in interactions with a child (emotional neglect).
Why emotional abuse happens
Emotional abuse of children occurs in all kinds of families.
No parent or carer gets it right every time, and an act of bad parenting does not amount to emotional abuse.
However, continued ill treatment can seriously harm a child's emotional health and development.
A parent may emotionally abuse their child because they:
- feel anger towards themselves which they misdirect onto their child
- have experienced a traumatic or abusive childhood
- have learned bad parenting from others
- misunderstand their child's behaviour, e.g. believing their baby cries to annoy them.
Children at risk of emotional abuse
Some children are more at risk, particularly where there are additional stresses on the family.
These can leave a parent unable to behave or respond appropriately to their child’s emotional needs. For example:
- adult mental health problems
- domestic abuse
- drug or alcohol addiction
- marital break-ups
- family disputes.
What to look out for: the signs of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can affect a child from infancy, through adolescence, and into adulthood.
A parent's behaviour is central to a child's development. Signs that a child may be suffering emotional abuse include:
- a parent's constant negative and harsh behaviour towards their child
- a fearful, distant or unaffectionate relationship.
Signs of emotional abuse may also be present in a child's actions, or their physical, mental and emotional development.
Effects on physical development
A child's physical development can be delayed. For example, tense meal times can affect a child's eating.
Effects on mental development
Emotional abuse can hold back a child's mental development, such as their intelligence and memory. It can also increase the risk of a child developing mental health problems, such as eating disorders and self-harming.
Effects on emotional development
A child should be able to understand and express a range of emotions as they grow older. Emotional abuse can restrict a child's emotional development, including their ability to feel and express a full range of emotions appropriately, and to control their emotions.
Emotional abuse can put a child at greater risk of developing one or more behavioural problems, such as:
- learning difficulties
- problems with relationships and socialising
- rebellious behaviour
- aggressive and violent behaviour
- anti-social behaviour and criminality
- self-isolating behaviour (making people dislike you)
- negative impulsive behaviour (not caring what happens to yourself).
What you can do
The signs above do not necessarily mean a child is being emotionally abused. There is no such thing as a perfect parent and a child's development can be delayed for a number of reasons.
However, if you think a child's emotions, mental capacities or behaviour seem very different from other children of the same age then it may indicate an emotionally abusive relationship with a parent and you should seek help.
If you think a child is in immediate danger
Contact the police on 999, or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, without delay.
If you are worried about a child, but unsure
Discuss your concerns with the NSPCC. Our counsellors will assess the information you give them and can take action on your behalf, if necessary.
Alternatively, you can contact your local police or children's services.
DO: if the situation is less serious, and if you feel able to, you could try talking to the parent or carer - you may be able to offer some support or encourage them to seek help.
DON'T: put yourself at risk. If you think that you may make matters worse, contact the NSPCC first to get advice.
Further help and advice
Family Lives Provides help and support in all aspects of family life.
Samaritans: Support for people experiencing suicidal feelings.
Young Minds: Support for the emotional problems or behaviour of a child.
Are you a child?
Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.
Worried about a child?
Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.
Information for professionals
Get more detailed information from our website for professionals.