It’s seen and heard all the time: parents belittling their children, talking down to them, or ridiculing them for minor acts of misbehavior or disobedience.
Yet, how many times have these acts occurred in public and someone actually intervened the same as if it were a punch to the stomach, or an inappropriate touch?
Studies reviewed and compiled by Pediatrics, a journal offering guidance to child medical care practitioners, show that while these acts don’t leave visible bruises, anguish caused by emotional abuse can result in wounds just as deep as what is inflicted in physical and sexual abuse.
“Psychological maltreatment has been linked with disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology,” said the report, published July 30. “Potentially effective treatments include cognitive behavioral parenting programs and other psychotherapeutic interventions.”
Children who have experienced mental abuse may find it hard to make friends, keep relationships, succeed at certain professions and maintain high self-esteem, researchers concluded.
According to psychologist Natasha L. Smith, of Columbia, Md. the degree to which emotional abuse affects a child depends on the severity of the abuse, the temperament and resiliency of the youth, and how often the incidents take place.
“Emotional abuse is one of those things that is more difficult to define, observe, or measure. With physical abuse you can see when a parent puts his or her hands on a child that leaves a mark. It’s cut and dry,” said Smith.
“Emotional abuse, on the other hand is hard to define. Is it a parent who says `You are stupid?’ A parent who says `That was stupid?’ Or a parent who doesn’t talk to their child at all-which is another form” of abuse.
“It’s hard to draw the line between abuse and unpleasant interactions.”
Smith says that while it may be upsetting to watch, there is deep psychology behind bystanders taking no action when they see emotional abuse in public spaces.
“Research says that several factors contribute to whether or not a person is going to take action in those social situations,” said Smith, founder and owner of Universal Outcomes, a licensed psychology practice that specializes in treatment of children, adolescents, and those with special needs or emotional concerns.
“Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t intervene for fear of the consequences, others might say it’s none of their business, and then you have those that see it and may not even realize it’s emotional abuse.”
According to the study, which was published in conjunction with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Child Maltreatment and Violence Committee, emotional abuse is very prevalent in highly developed Western countries and is the most common form of abuse among children and adolescents.
Other forms of emotional abuse include imposing “rigid or unrealistic expectations accompanied by threats if not met,” and failing to give praise when necessary during developmental periods.