What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being emotionally abused
Children need to feel wanted, loved, safe and valued; they also need consistency and discipline. No parent (or carer) gets it right every time and an act of bad parenting does not amount to emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is severe and persistent ill treatment which adversely affects a child's emotional health and development.
If you have concerns, you should act to make sure a child is protected – there are several interventions that can help.
Emotional abuse could include:
- humiliating or criticising a child
- disciplining a child with degrading punishments
- not recognising a child’s own individuality and limitations, like pushing them too hard, or being too controlling
- exposing a child to distressing events or interactions, like domestic abuse or substance misuse
- failing to promote a child’s social development, such as not allowing them to have friends
- persistently ignoring a child, being absent, never expressing positive feelings towards a child, or never showing any emotions in interactions with a child (emotional neglect).
There are different reasons why a parent may emotionally abuse their child. It could be anger towards themselves misdirected onto their child. Or, their negative behaviour may be caused by the trauma of their own past experiences of an abusive childhood. Another reason may be that they have learned bad parenting from others, or that they simply misunderstand their child, like believing that their baby cries to annoy them.
Emotional abuse of children occurs in all kinds of families, but particularly where there are additional stresses on the family. Adult mental health problems, domestic abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, marital break-ups and family disputes are common stressors. All can leave a parent unable to behave or respond appropriately to their child’s emotional needs.
Emotional abuse can affect a child from infancy, through adolescence, and into adulthood.
It can setback a child’s physical development; for example, tense meal times can affect a child’s eating.
It can hold back a child’s mental development, such as their intelligence and memory, and put a child at greater risk of developing mental health problems, such as eating disorders and self-harming.
It can hamper a child’s emotional development, including their ability to feel and express a full range of emotions appropriately, and to control their emotions.
It 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).
A parent’s behaviour is central to a child’s development. If a parent’s negative behaviour towards their child is severe and persistent, it may indicate that a child is being emotionally abused. You may also notice a difficult relationship between a child and parent: a fearful, distant or unaffectionate relationship may indicate a problem.
Signs of emotional abuse may also be present in a child’s actions. A child should be able to understand and express a range of emotions as they grow older. Similarly their mental capacities, such as intelligence, memory and speech should be normal for their age; as should their behaviour. It takes a lot of training to understand if a child’s development is not where it should be. However, if you think a child’s emotions, mental capacities or behaviour seem very different from other children of the same age, it may indicate an emotionally abusive relationship with a parent.
Observing the above signs in a parent’s or child’s behaviour does not necessarily mean that 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, emotional abuse can have a severe and long-lasting effect on a child. There are many therapies that can help a child and their family, so, if you are concerned, it’s worth talking the situation over with a professional.
You can 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.
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 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. However, do not put yourself at risk and try not to do anything that could make matters worse for the child.
NSPCC: Advice and support for adults concerned about a child.
Police: Emergency and non-emergency police services.
Family Lives: 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.