Psychological child abuse, also referred to as emotional abuse or maltreatment, is a pattern of acts by parents or caregivers that undermine a child's emotional, mental, and social development. Children typically experience psychological child abuse along with other types of abuse and neglect. Because psychological child abuse has no physical scars, and child protective services can't intervene without evidence, it is often difficult to diagnose and prevent.

Types of psychologically abusive behavior

Psychological abuse of a child may include any of the following behaviors:

Rejecting. Belittling, ridiculing, shaming, or refusing to communicate with a child.

Terrorizing. Bullying, threatening, or placing a child or child's loved one in a dangerous situation.

Isolating. Confining a child or keeping a child away from friends and family.

Exploiting. Encouraging drug and alcohol abuse, criminal acts, prostitution, or other self-destructive behavior.

Ignoring. Denying the child's needs to interact and be recognized, and failing to be present physically or emotionally.

Single punishing acts or occasional negative remarks are not considered abuse. But if these behaviors are chronic and consistent, and impair a child's self-worth, they more than likely constitute psychological abuse.

Signs of psychological child abuse

Psychological child abuse may be present if a child is overly aggressive, passive, or demanding; acts much older or younger than his or her age; shows delays in emotional or physical development; or attempts suicide.

The parent-child relationship in cases of psychological child abuse is often marked by a lack of attachment or overt rejection of the child.

Consequences of psychological child abuse

Emotional and psychological effects of child abuse can translate into long-term psychological problems and disorders. These include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, panic attacks, suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attachment disorder.

When infants are emotionally deprived, they may fail to thrive and even die. In less severe cases, they may be slow to develop physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Psychological child abuse can also lead to behavioral issues, such as drug abuse, destructive or angry behavior, an inability to maintain intimate relationships, and job instability. There is also a greater chance of continued psychological abuse by abused victims towards their own children.

Additional resources:

Child Welfare Information Gateway: Emotional Abuse

Child Welfare Information Gateway: A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect

American Humane Association: Emotional Abuse

Prevent Child Abuse America: Recognizing Child Abuse-What Parents Should Know

Related Legal Guides:

The Basics of Child Abuse

Child Abuse Types

Child Abuse Consequences

Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act