There often aren’t any obvious physical symptoms of emotional abuse or neglect but you may spot signs in a child's actions or emotions.

Changes in emotions are a normal part of growing up, so it can be really difficult to tell if a child is being emotionally abused.

Babies and pre-school children who are being emotionally abused or neglected may:

  • be overly-affectionate towards strangers or people they haven’t known for very long
  • lack confidence or become wary or anxious
  • not appear to have a close relationship with their parent, e.g. when being taken to or collected from nursery etc.
  • be aggressive or nasty towards other children and animals.

Older children may:

  • use language, act in a way or know about things that you wouldn’t expect them to know for their age
  • struggle to control strong emotions or have extreme outbursts
  • seem isolated from their parents
  • lack social skills or have few, if any, friends.

Things you may notice

If you're worried that a child is being abused, watch out for any unusual behaviour. 

  • withdrawn
  • suddenly behaves differently
  • anxious
  • clingy
  • depressed
  • aggressive
  • problems sleeping
  • eating disorders
  • wets the bed
  • soils clothes
  • takes risks
  • misses school
  • changes in eating habits
  • obsessive behaviour
  • nightmares
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • self-harm
  • thoughts about suicide

If you're worried about a child, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse.

These signs don’t necessarily mean that a child is being emotionally abused. Some children are quiet and teenagers may have challenging behaviour. Sometimes it can take a long time for the symptoms to show. But you should look out for any behaviour that seems out of character for a child.

Parents' behaviour

All parents tell their children off from time to time. And sometimes the relationship between them might seem strained. But if you notice severe or constant harsh behaviour, or that a child seems scared or unfeeling towards their parent, it could be a sign that the child is being emotionally abused.

Effects of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is often seen as less serious than other forms of abuse and neglect because it has no immediate physical effects.

But over time emotional abuse can have serious long term effects on a child’s social, emotional and physical health and development.

A child who is being emotionally abused may develop risk taking behaviours such as stealing, bullying and running away. 

Emotional abuse can increase the risk of a child developing mental health problems, eating disorders or can lead to them self-harming

The experiences that a child has when they’re a baby or toddler, can affect them throughout their life. Some research suggests there’s a link between emotional abuse in early years and a child developing problems with eating or language. As a child gets older, or the abuse continues, these effects can become more serious. 

Teenagers who have been emotionally 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).

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.

Children who grow up in homes where they are constantly berated and belittled may experience self-confidence and anger problems.

Children who don’t get the love and care they need from their parents may find it difficult to develop and maintain healthy relationships with other people later in life.

 Adults who have been emotionally abused as children have a much lower satisfaction with life and higher level of depression and health problems compared to those who have experienced a different form of child abuse (Gavin, 2011).

Emotional abuse can cause a child to change the way that they behave. They might not care how they act or what happens to them, this is also known as negative impulse behaviour. Or they may try to make people dislike them, which is called self-isolating behaviour.

Some research has also shown a link between emotional abuse and attention deficit disorders (Milletich et al, 2010).

Further information and advice

Who is affected

Children from any background can be affected by emotional abuse. Find out more about who is affected and why.
Find out who is affected by emotional abuse

Keeping children safe

How to keep children safe from emotional abuse
Keeping children safe from emotional abuse

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.