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Identifying Psychological Abuse in Children

What is Psychological Abuse?

In the context of child abuse, psychological abuse is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. Also referred to as emotional abuse, this can include neglectful treatment and hostile behavior toward the child.

This type of maltreatment can have a massive impact on children. “Children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused,” one study found.

The younger the child—and the less developed their sense of self and identity—the more serious the physical, social, and emotional consequences. For example, the emotional abuse of an older child with a well-established sense of self may have less of an impact than the same abuse perpetrated on a younger child.

Since it leaves no physical trace, psychological maltreatment can be difficult to identify. For mandated reporters, it can also be confusing to know what constitutes as maltreatment, as states often have different definitions for emotional abuse. While your state may not classify the full list below as reportable offenses, psychological abuse generally manifests in the following ways.

Types of Psychological Abuse

Terrorizing 

Terrorizing involves intentionally frightening a child into submission. Perpetrators use threats of physical violence or other punishments and consequences to make the child behave. The caregiver intentionally stimulates intense fear, creates an unpredictable and threatening climate, or sets unattainable expectations and punishes the child for not meeting them. 

The caregiver may tease or scare a young child in the name of humor but instead actually traumatize them. Additionally, they may choose to discipline the child by playing into fears that are normal for the child’s age (eg, “If you don’t behave, the monsters will take you away.”). Discipline techniques are usually arbitrary or beyond the child’s ability to understand, causing intense fear of punishment.

Verbal Assault

Verbal assaults can include repeated name-calling, threats, and sarcastic put-downs that lower the child’s sense of self-worth through humiliation. Caregivers repeatedly note what the child is doing wrong without regard for what they do well. The use of verbal disapproval, hostility, and contempt conveys to the child that they are a disappointment. 

Children who endure verbal abuse are twice as likely to suffer a mood or anxiety disorder later in life. This type of abuse can make children feel incapable of any achievements. Therefore, they are unable to recognize positive social feedback when it is given. 

Exposure to Violence

This form of psychological abuse can include exposure to community violence or intimate partner violence. Exposure to chronic or extreme violence can result in PTSD-like symptoms, including emotional numbing, depression, and violent behaviors. 

The impact of violence on a specific child varies depending on a number of factors:

  • The length of time the child is exposed to violence
  • The age and developmental stage of the child
  • What support systems are available to the child
  • The presence of other risk factors
  • The presence of stressors such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse

Corrupting 

Parental corrupting or exploiting teaches and reinforces antisocial or deviant behaviors. This can include encouraging or rewarding children for dangerous actions, such as those involving violence or drug use. In serious corruption cases, the caregiver continues to provide reinforcement and encouragement as the child’s antisocial behavior becomes destructive to themselves, others, or property.

Corrupting can begin by a caregiver laughing at and supporting antisocial behaviors, such rewarding the child for sexual contact, creating drug dependence, and encouraging violence. Disregarding deviant behavior can also be considered a form of corruption.

Ignoring

Some caregivers neglect their child by simply refusing to acknowledge them. When the parent or guardian is physically or psychologically unavailable, the lack of mental stimulation can cause a severe, negative effect on the child. 

Likewise, being ignored can lead to physical detriments in the child. This behavior often results in the caregiver neglecting to provide for a child’s basic needs, such as ensuring the availability of food and medicine. While ignoring some forms of misbehavior is a CDC-recommended parenting tactic, it can become neglectful when caregivers do not address a child’s destructive or dangerous actions.

Rejecting

Rejection occurs when a parent or caregiver refuses to show proper affection to the child, refuses to properly acknowledge the child’s accomplishments, or demeans age-appropriate behavior. Children in these situations are often belittled, called names, and humiliated publicly or privately. They may be told or made to feel like they have little or no worth, leading to poor self-esteem.

Parents may reject their child for a number of reasons: mental illness, family scandals or conflicts surrounding the child (eg, child of an affair), or they could be repeating the negative parenting methods used on them as a child. 

Isolating

Isolating occurs when caregivers prevent children from properly socializing or having normal contact with their peers or adults. These caregivers may be afraid of what the child will be exposed to or of imagined dangers found in the outside world. Isolating can still be abusive even when the intention is to protect the child.

This behavior results in poor emotional and social development for the child. Isolating may also be a sign of sexual or ritualistic abuse occurring within the family, as it can be a method for preventing a child from coming forward.

Over Pressuring

Over pressuring occurs when a caregiver consistently has inappropriately high expectations for their child. This behavior often begins when the child is young. For example, a parent may start toilet training too early or attempt to teach the child to count and read before their brain has reached that stage of development. 

As children age, disappointments may come in the form of a second-place trophy or average test scores, which are seen by the caregiver as a result of the child not trying hard enough. The failure to meet these types of expectations can lead to other forms of abuse. Over pressuring also impairs cognitive and emotional development and can result in stress-related illnesses and depression

Ritualistic Abuse

Ritualistic abuse is a rarer form of maltreatment that refers to premeditated, repeated acts. It may involve systematic misuse of the child physically, socially, sexually, or emotionally. Ritualistic abuse is carefully integrated with a symbol of overriding power, authority, and purpose (eg, religion). 

Victims and perpetrators of ritualistic abuse are typically removed from normal social interactions and are taught an antisocial value system. The family environment is one of absolute control, and the child may be told they are of no value outside of their use to the group’s leader. This can lead to survivors feeling shame or guilt for their forced participation in ritualistic activities, especially if they perpetrated abuse themselves.


For mandated reporters, being equipped to identify and report psychological abuse can save children from potentially dangerous situations. Stopping abuse early is imperative; it can improve a child’s cognitive and emotional development, minimizing the damage to the their wellbeing as they age. 

Please visit our bookstore for scientific resources on child abuse and neglect.

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