4.5 Emotionally Abusive Adults

Yelling, shouting
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Emotional abuse occurs when a child is treated in a negative way over a period of time, affecting their self-esteem and the concept of self (Tufford, 2020).

Emotional abuse can include all acts of omission or commission which result in the absence of a nurturing environment for the child. It is a pattern of behaviour that attacks a child’s emotional development and sense of self-worth. It includes excessive, aggressive or unreasonable demands that place expectations on a child beyond his or her capacity (Rimer & Prager, 2016).

There are many subtypes of emotional abuse, which can range from threatening and belittling the child to negative and slanderous talk about and to the child.  It can include denying emotional responsiveness and nurturing and withholding affection. Negligence is a form of emotional abuse. Engaging the child in corruption or exposing the child to adult conflict/violence or intimate partner violence is also a form of emotional abuse (Jonson & Drake, 2018; Rimer & Prager, 2016).

Possible signs a caregiver may be emotionally abusive can include:

  • Constantly blames, belittles the child
  • Overtly rejects the child
  • Speaks negatively about the child
  • Is not concerned about the child and actively refuses to help the child
  • Make excessive demands on the child
  • Withholds physical and verbal affection from the child
  • Terrorizes the child (e.g., threatens the child with physical harm or death, threatens to harm pet)
  • Constantly ignores child (e.g., uses silent treatment)
  • Compares child to disliked or hated person
  • Blames child for problems
  • Corrupts the child; teaches or reinforces criminal behaviour; provides antisocial role modelling; exploits the child for their own gain
  • Isolates child; does not allow the child to have contact with others, both inside and outside the family (e.g., locks the child in a closet or room)
  • Destroying personal possessions (Wiehe, 1997)
  • Tortures or destroys a pet (Wiehe, 1997)
  • Exposes the child to adult conflict (Tufford, 2020)
  • Exposes the child to intimate partner violence (Tufford, 2020)

(Barlow & McMillan, 2010; “Child Abuse and Neglect,” n.d.; Crosson-Tower, 2020; Durrant et al., 2006; Fallon et al., 2020; Jonson-Reid & Drake, 2018; Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, 2022; Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012; Rimer & Prager, 2016; Sedlak et al. 2010; Toronto Children’s Aid Society, n.d.; Tufford, 2020; Wiehe, 1997)


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Child Maltreatment: An Introductory Guide With Case Studies Copyright © 2023 by Susan Loosley and Jen Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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