Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development.

Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them.

Children who are emotionally abused are usually suffering another type of abuse or neglect at the same time – but this isn’t always the case.

Girl by wall

Official definitions of emotional abuse

England

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 cyber bullying), 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.

Northern Ireland

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child. It is also sometimes called psychological abuse and it can have severe and persistent adverse effects on a child’s emotional development.

Emotional abuse may involve deliberately telling a child that they are worthless, or unloved and inadequate. It may include not giving a child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them, or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate. Emotional abuse may involve bullying – including online bullying through social networks, online games or mobile phones – by a child’s peers.

Scotland

Emotional abuse is persistent emotional neglect or ill treatment that has severe and persistent adverse effects on a 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 involve the imposition of age- or developmentally-inappropriate expectations on a child. It may involve causing children to feel frightened or in danger, or exploiting or corrupting children.

Some level of emotional abuse is present in all types of ill treatment of a child; it can also occur independently of other forms of abuse.

Wales

The persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child's emotional and behavioural development.

What does emotional abuse include?

Because there's an element of emotional abuse in all other types of child abuse and neglect, it can be difficult to spot the signs and to separate what's emotional abuse from other types of abuse.

Emotional abuse includes:

  • humiliating or constantly criticising a child
  • threatening, shouting at a child or calling them names
  • making the child the subject of jokes, or using sarcasm to hurt a child
  • blaming, scapegoating
  • making a child perform degrading acts
  • not recognising a child's own individuality, trying to control their lives
  • pushing a child too hard or not recognising their limitations
  • exposing a child to distressing events or interactions such as domestic abuse or drug taking
  • failing to promote a child's social development
  • not allowing them to have friends
  • persistently ignoring them
  • being absent
  • manipulating a child
  • never saying anything kind, expressing positive feelings or congratulating a child on successes
  • never showing any emotions in interactions with a child, also known as emotional neglect.
illustration of umbrella

Emotional abuse is the 2nd most common reason for children needing protection from abuse

Explanation: There were 18,949 children in the UK on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans under the category of emotional abuse on 31 March 2015 (or 31 July 2015 in Scotland). This equates to 33% of all the children on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans. This is based on figures from each UK nation.

These figures represent children identified and assessed as being at ongoing risk of significant harm from emotional abuse.

Children on the child protection register or subject to a child protection plan due to emotional abuse by nation:

  • England: 16,660
  • Northern Ireland: 1,020
  • Scotland: 1,085
  • Wales: 184

See also Indicator 14 in How safe are our children? 2016 and our summary of child protection plan and register statistics in the UK (PDF).

Find out more about the child protection system in the UK.

Types of emotional abuse

Just like child neglect, there are two different types of emotional abuse which affect children in different ways. 

When a parent or carer denies their child the love and care they need in order to be healthy and happy it’s known as “passive” abuse.

It’s just as damaging, but it can be harder to spot than “active” abuse. The definitions for passive emotional abuse and emotional neglect are very similar.

Five categories of passive emotional abuse have been identified (Barlow and Schrader McMillan, 2010):

  1. Emotional unavailability
    where a parent or carer is not connected with the child and cannot give them the love that they deserve and need

  2. Negative attitudes
    such as having a low opinion of the child and not offering any praise or encouragement

  3. 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 in an inappropriate way in front of a child 

  4. Failure to recognise a child’s individuality
    this can mean an adult relying on a child to fulfil their emotional needs and not recognising that the child has needs

  5. Failure to promote social adaptation
    not encouraging a child to make friends and mix among their own social peers.

When someone intentionally scares, demeans or verbally abuses a child it’s known as “active” abuse. This requires a premeditated intention to harm a child.

Active emotional abuse has been defined as:

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

(Barlow and Schrader McMillan, 2010)

Sometimes a fifth category of “ignoring” is also included (Cawson et al, 2000).  

Why emotional abuse happens

Periods of high stress and tension, such as money worries or unemployment, can take a parent’s or carer’s focus away from providing the emotional love and support that a child needs. 

They may: 

  • be emotionally unavailable, because they're not around or too tired
  • forget to offer praise and encouragement
  • expect a child to take on too much responsibility for their age, for example caring for other family members
  • be over-protective, limiting opportunities to explore, learn and make friends
  • expect a child to meet their own emotional needs
  • take out their anger and frustration on their child.

If a parent had a bad experience when they were a child or has bad role models around them now then this can affect the way they look after their own children.

Some parents may find it difficult to understand why their child is behaving in a certain way, and they can react badly. For example, they might think that their baby is crying to annoy them.

Emotional abuse may also be caused by a poor bond or relationship between a parent or carer and their child. 

Signs, symptoms and effects

Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect.
Spotting signs of emotional abuse

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Research, reports and resources about emotional abuse
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References

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

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