What is emotional abuse?
WHAT’S THE ISSUE: More people are being educated on what constitutes physical abuse…but how much do people know about emotional abuse? With the recent rise of domestic violence here in Greece during the Coronavirus lock-down measures (as well as in other countries around the world), I think it’s time we started talking about emotional abuse. Emotional abuse affects the wellbeing of many students and young adults, yet few people know what it is. I find that a lack of education amongst parents (who never learnt about emotional abuse in school) is often at the heart of of issue. A lot of parents are completely unaware that the way they are speaking to their child is, in fact, abusive. We need to educate parents so that they know what constitutes emotional abuse. If you know better, you do better.
HOw does emotional abuse link to other types of abuse?
Emotional abuse is the most common form of child abuse. Here’s why: “Those who are being physically abused, sexually abused, or neglected, are also being emotionally abused.” I wrote this down during a teacher training session that I had the good fortune of participating in as part of my continued professional development. If you read at Page 8 of the 2019 Department of Education’s publication, “Keeping Children Safe in Education: Statutory Guidance for Schools and Colleges”, you see the same point: “Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, although it may occur alone.”
The focus of the training session were I deepened my understanding of emotional abuse was two-fold: first, it aimed for teachers to understand how to know if a child they are teaching is potentially being abused, and second, it aimed to impress upon teacher that we are responsible for reporting any signs of concern to the designated person in our school.
Since emotional abuse is often present when one or more of the other types of abuse are present, it can be tricky to separate the signs of potential emotional abuse from the signs of the other types of abuse. However, if you were to isolate some of the signs that a child may be experiencing emotional abuse, they would include:
- Low self-esteem
- Needing regular reassurance
- Feeling very guilty
- Looking withdrawn
- Lack of eye contact
- Relationship problems
In the same training session, I learnt that only about 3% of child abuse happens from a stranger… a shocking 97% of abuse happens because of neighbours, family members, drivers, nannies, and friends. Granted, these statistics are about the situation in the UK. But it does make you sit up a bit and think twice about the old belief that Stranger Danger is the most common form of child abuse.
The first thing that comes to most people’s mind when they think of child abuse is the obvious, more easily identified types of abuse (physical abuse/sexual abuse). We often forget that there are another two categories of child abuse: emotional abuse, and neglect.
Understandably, it can be particularly challenging for parents to be willing to educate themselves on the nature of emotional abuse and neglect. It can be absolutely devastating to come to the realization that they are in fact (often without realizing it; this isn’t something parents were taught when they were in school) speaking to their child in an abusive way. As difficult as it is to have these conversations, we can make progress in this area of wellbeing education if parents are willing to learn more about emotional abuse.
emotional abuse: Shaming
It can come as a surprise to a lot of parents who grew up in conservative societies to know that shaming your child is an act of emotional abuse. In some social circles, it can be quite common for parents to ‘discipline’ or ‘reprimand’ their child by saying things like:
- “Shame on you!” or
- “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Because so many people do it, it can be hard for parents to come to terms with the fact that this is not okay. People often assume that anger is a bad emotion because they associate it with memories of emotional abuse, such as memories of angry outbursts that involved shaming. However, anger in and of itself is simply information. It’s okay to act on this information by say to someone “When you (fill in the blank e.g. make jokes about my weight in front of other people), I feel angry.” What’s not okay is to shame someone, simply because you’re feeling angry. That’s wrong. It’s abusive.
Shaming as an act of emotional abuse can be direct, or indirect. When it is direct, a parent overtly shames their child. When its indirect, a child hears their parent shaming someone else, whether while talking about someone at the dinner table, on the phone, or what have you. In the Department of Education’s (2019) definition of types of abuse and neglect, you see that emotional abuse: “may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another”.
It is one thing to call out someone’s bad behavior, and it is quite another thing to make statements like “Shame on him!”, or “Dropi!”, as we say in Greek. A child overhearing a parent who makes frequent statements shaming someone the child knows, whether it be a family member, a teacher, or even someone the child has never met, like a public figure, is not having their emotional needs met of feeling like their home is a safe environment in which to talk.
Kids need to grow up in an environment where they can feel safe to express their emotions. It’s highly unlikely that a child will feel safe to talk about their feelings when they routinely hearing their parents shaming other people – either in person, or behind their backs.
EMOTIONAL ABUSE: HUMOUR
Early on in my teaching career, I noticed a pattern: secondary school students who were bullying other students in the classroom via emotional abuse would try to get away with it. How? By using phrases that minimized the seriousness of their inappropriate, emotionally abusive comments. You’d often hear them using phrases like:
- “I was just kidding!”
- “It was just a joke!”
- “What’s wrong with you!”
- “Don’t you have a sense of humour?”
These were classic, textbook responses used by teenagers in the school I used worked in when I began my teaching career who were bullying the more well-behaved, well-mannered students. These were the excuses I’d hear whenever I would called them out on their inappropriate, aggressive sense of “humour”. It was clearly put-down humour. Often, a sarcastic kind of humour. Put-down sarcasm. The purpose of such retorts was of course to avoid responsibility, to avoid punishment, and to try and normalise their mean-spirited sense of humour.
I’ve noticed that when parents have developed a pattern of using humor as a form of covert aggression towards their child (whether intentionally or not), it tends to have gone a step further than this. You’ll often hear a parent who makes emotionally hurtful jokes to their child trying to justifying their behavior as: “This is who I am”, “I find it funny, but my child doesn’t find it funny. She/he takes things so seriously. I have a sense of humour. I’m the kind of person who laughs about things.” What is implied is that their child doesn’t have a sense of humour, and that’s why they don’t find these jokes funny.
In workplace settings and in romantic relationships, you can sometimes see people who stand up for themselves by calling out an incident of emotional abuse that is packaged in the form of a ‘joke’ receive the following minimizing responses from the aggressor:
- “Why do you have to be so sensitive?”
- “Why do you have to take everything personally?”
- “You have to grow a thicker skin.”
You’d never go up to a sheep and advise it to ‘grow a thicker skin’! Sheep have soft and fluffy wool, and crocodiles have hard and scaly exteriors. Some people are born being more sensitive! How is it logically to advise someone to become something that they are not? How is it wise to fail to appreciate the value of having highly sensitive people in the workplace, who can bring more intuitive knowledge, humanity and warmth into an environment?
The bottom line is this: If someone’s feeling hurt by your locker-room style ‘jokes’ at work or in the home, you’re joke failed to achieve it’s goal of making that person laugh. It may be time to re-evaluate the quality of this kind of “humour”.
Emotional abuse: name-calling
Name-calling is perhaps the most easily identifiable form of emotional abuse. It can be obvious verbal abuse, but it can also be more subtle and indirect. Some of the more obvious example of name-calling include:
- “Bad child!”
- “You’re so bossy.”
- “You’re such an idiot.”
- “You’re so dumb.”
Indirect forms of emotional abuse, where name-calling is so subtle, people often don’t realize that it’s happening, can be delivered in the form of an order, or a question:
- “Don’t be stupid.”
- “Are you dumb?”
- “Are you sure you want to go out dressed like that? You look like a sl*t.”
It’s one thing to challenge a child’s behavior (“That behavior is unacceptable”/ “That child is badly behaved”). Calling out the bad behavior is a normal part of how we educate a child to understand right from wrong. It’s a normal part of the process of socialisation.
What’s not okay is name-calling. That’s not about disciplining a child; it’s a verbal attack. Saying that somebody is a bossy person, or calling someone stupid, is attacking them as a person. It’s name-calling. It’s emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse: Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a manipulative, emotionally abusive act where an aggressor lies to avoid being held responsible for their inappropriate or aggressive behaviour. When you’re being gaslighted, it’s not uncommon to feel confused, frustrated, and angry, because you can see the manipulation tactic (especially if you’re an empath who can’t understand why someone would do such a thing). Here are some examples of common phrases you hear people say when they use gaslighting to deflect attention away from their behavior in order to avoid taking responsibility for what they said or did:
- “I never said that”
- “That never happened”
- “Are you crazy?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
The purpose of gaslighting is to make you question the facts. It’s an aggressive, offensive conversational move designed to deflect attention away from focusing on the aggressor’s problematic behaviour by pushing you on the defence. Gaslighting is a way of deliberately silencing a child, and deliberately silencing a child is an aspect of emotional abuse.
emotional abuse: being controlling
One of the ways a parent can behave in a way that is controlling is by deliberately and routinely interrupting their teenage child’s or young adult child’s sleep. This could be done by barging into an adolescent’s or young adult’s room and forcing the curtains open…just because the parent believes their child “should” be awake by a certain time on Saturday and Sunday mornings. A parent can also be controlling over their child’s sleep by blasting the hoover outside their child’s bedroom, or turning up the radio early in the morning in the middle of the summer holiday, with the goal of waking them up as a matter of “principle”.
Sometimes you see parents exhibiting this rude awakening type of controlling behaviour over sleep who try to justify it and normalize this behavior by saying things like:
- “I do it because I care about you.”
- “Lazy people sleep all day.”
- “I just want to do what’s best for you.”
To be clear: being controlling is NOT in your child’s best interest. Behaving in a controlling manner is not being responsive to a child’s basic emotional needs, and emotional abuse is when a parent repeatedly fails to be responsive to their child’s basic emotional needs. I’ve worked with young adults who are experiencing a tremendous amount of stress because their parents disregard their emotional needs for sleep via controlling behaviour, whenever they come back home on holiday from university.
This routine behaviour is not okay. If you are concerned about your child’s sleeping patterns, there are more loving, gentle ways of showing this concern that do not involve being controlling. You could, for example, find a coach who can help your child improve their morning and evening routines. You could seek professional advice to rule out the possibility that your child might be clinically depressed.
It is a well-known fact that sleeping problems often correlate with mental health problems. Just like it is a parent’s responsibility to take their child to a doctor if they are suffering from a physical illness, it is a parent’s responsibility to take their child to a mental health practitioner if there is a chance that their child may be suffering from a mental illness.
If you are a parent who is ready to change, consider the possibility that it may be time to stop behaving in a controlling way by barging into your child’s room and forcing them to ‘rise and shine’ on a Saturday or Sunday morning. You may want to start thinking of more compassionate ways of responding to your child’s bad sleeping habits.
Consider whether it’s time that you get your child professional help. They need to take ownership of the process of developing healthier sleeping habits for themselves; they are no longer children, they are adolescents and young adults. They are responsible for their life choices, and for the consequences of these life choices.