Emotional abuse Who is affected
Children from any background can be at risk of emotional abuse. But some children are more at risk than others – particularly when the family is under additional stress or pressure like:
- mental health problems
- domestic abuse
- drug or alcohol addiction
- relationship problems or marital break-ups
- family arguments and disputes
- financial problems or unemployment
- immigration, moving away from friends and family or being isolated
- language problems because of communication difficulties or not speaking English
Emotional abuse doesn’t just happen at home. Children can also be emotionally abused by adults at school, sports or clubs but this isn’t very common.
"Backing me into the corner until I was whimpering and crying, he would just laugh at me and walk away, satisfied by my distress."
Read Fiona's story
Risk factors for all child abuse and neglect
There’s still a lot we don’t know about why abuse happens, but research has highlighted some similarities among children who have been abused or neglected. These similarities, or risk factors, help us identify children who may be at increased risk of abuse and neglect.
Some risk factors are common across all types of abuse and neglect. But they don’t mean that abuse will definitely happen. A child who doesn’t have any of these risk factors could be abused and a child with multiple risk factors may never experience abuse or neglect. But we do know that having one or more of these issues can increase the risk of harm.
Children who are at risk
Disabled children are over three times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children (Jones et al, 2012).
Some disabled children may not understand that what's happening to them is abuse and that it's wrong. Even if they do, they might not be able to ask for help. If a child is being abused by someone who looks after them or who they rely on to meet their needs it can be even harder for them to speak out or protect themselves.
Parents and professionals might mistake signs that a child is being abused or neglected as part of a child's impairment. And those working with disabled children may not be trained to spot the signs of abuse and neglect.
Children and families who feel isolated or without support due to a limited number of accessible services, may not know who to turn to to get help.
Parents who are abusive or neglectful might excuse their behaviour, blaming it on the difficulties of caring for a disabled child. Professionals focused on supporting parents to meet the needs relating to their child's disability may overlook parenting behaviours that are not good enough.
Professionals working in child protection might not have the specialised skills to accurately assess or understand a disabled child's needs, or to communicate with them properly.
Read our research report: 'We have the right to be safe': protecting disabled children from abuse.
Most children who are in care live safely but a small number do experience harm. There are a number of risk factors related to being in care which can make children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
Children who have been abused or neglected in the past are more likely to experience further abuse than children who haven’t been abused or neglected (Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner, 2007). This is known as revictimisation.
Children who are being abused or neglected are also likely to be experiencing another form of abuse at the same time (Finkelhor, 2008). This is known as polyvictimisation.
There don’t appear to be links between ethnic groups and child abuse or neglect.
But children from black and mixed ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the care system and in the children in need statistics. Children from Asian backgrounds are under-represented.
This may be a result of a variety of issues including:
- racial discrimination
- language barriers
- community and cultural norms and practices, such as female genital mutilation or harsh physical discipline
- inadequate or inappropriate services
- no action being taken for fear of upsetting cultural norms.
Witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse is a form of child abuse.
But children living in homes where there is domestic abuse are also likely to experience other abuse and neglect.
The impact of hearing or witnessing domestic violence can be very traumatic for a child and result in emotional or psychological abuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).
Research has also shown a link between domestic abuse and child physical abuse or child sexual abuse (Hester et al, 2007).
Not all parents who drink or take drugs harm their children, but children living with parents with alcohol or drug problems can be at more risk of harm and neglect.
Drug or alcohol problems can leave parents unable to care for their children or provide the practical and emotional support they need.
Being abused or neglected as a child doesn’t mean that someone will go on to harm others.
But a lot of the people who abuse or neglect children have experienced abuse themselves.
Because the effects of child abuse or neglect can last well into adulthood, some parents who were abused as children struggle to provide safe and appropriate care for their own children.
Just because a parent has learning disabilities or learning difficulties it doesn’t mean they can’t be a great mum or dad. But some parents can struggle to understand what they need to do to provide appropriate care for their child. In some cases, this can lead to a child being neglected.
However, research shows that helping parents to identify and understand their child’s needs can reduce the risk of a child being neglected (Cleaver, Unell, and Aldgate, 2011).
Most parents or carers with a mental health problem give their children the love, care and support they need to thrive. But when parents are ill themselves, they may struggle to look after their children the way they are able to when they are well. For families without strong support networks, this can result in children having to take on extra responsibilities, such as caring for other family members.
Research has also highlighted that some parental mental health problems (such as suicidal or self-harming behaviour, psychopathy or anxiety) could place children at risk of abuse or neglect. It is a common feature in serious child abuse cases.
Mental illness in the perinatal period, just before and just after birth, is known to interrupt healthy parent-child bonding, referred to as “attachment” (Jütte at al, 2014).
Families under pressure
All families come under pressure from time to time. But increased or continued stress can seriously affect how well a parent can look after their child.
Research shows that parents:
- with a low income are more likely to feel chronically stressed than parents with higher incomes
- living in poorer neighbourhoods have high stress levels.
Living in poverty
Children who grow up in poverty might:
- live in a poorly maintained, unsafe or temporary home
- have to move often due to repeat evictions
- have disruptive neighbours.
Someone who is being abused may feel unable to leave their abusive partner and their home.
Housing worries on top of money worries can put a lot of stress on parents. This can stop them being able to provide the practical and emotional support that children need.
Poor housing and multiple moves are common features in serious child abuse cases.
Research has found that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have a greater chance of being on a child protection plan or being taken into care than children in the least deprived areas (Jütte at al, 2014).
There's also a link between physical discipline, stress and lower socio-economic groups.
Lack of support
Support from family, friends, neighbours or the wider community can give parents the resources and emotional support they need to help keep their child safe. But sometimes parents don't have this support. This might be because they live in an isolated area or because they have language difficulties or cultural differences.
Sometimes the services they need just aren’t available or they aren’t able to access them. This can put children at a higher risk of harm and research has found that there are clear links between social isolation and child abuse or neglect (Jütte at al, 2014).
Help and advice for professionals
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Research and resources
Cleaver, H., Unell, I. and Aldgate, J. (2011) Children's needs: parenting capacity: child abuse: parental mental illness, learning disability, substance misuse, and domestic violence (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO).
Finkelhor, D. (2008) Childhood victimization: violence, crime, and abuse in the lives of young people. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K. and Turner, H.A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child abuse and neglect, 31(5): 479-502.
Hester, M. et al. (2007) Making an impact: children and domestic violence: a reader. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Lancet 380(9845): 899-907.
Jütte, S. et al (2014) How safe are our children? 2014. London: NSPCC.
Owen, C. and Statham, J. (2009) Disproportionality in child welfare: prevalence of black and ethnic minority children within 'looked after' and 'children in need' populations and on child protection registers in England (PDF). London: Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).
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.