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Emotional Abuse - Easier Than You Think

3 Mar 2006 10:21 PM - Dr Roger Morris

Abuse and maltreatment of children is one of the most significant public health problems, with major implications for the mental and physical health of the abused child. Psychological or emotional abuse refers to a pattern of relationship with the child that involves damaging attitudes, feelings and responses to a child’s emotional needs. Neglect, also a form of abuse, is the failure to provide physical and emotional requirements for healthy development. Chronic neglect reflects a repeated failure to meet the child’s basic needs, and can have physical, developmental and emotional consequences.

There are five main categories of psychological abuse:

  1. Emotional unavailability, unresponsiveness and neglect - In this the child’s primary care givers are usually preoccupied with there own difficulties (for instance post-natal depression, substance abuse), and are unable to respond to the child’s emotional needs. A mother with significant depression may attempt to provide basic physical care of her child, but be unable to respond to the child’s emotional needs. Infants who experience severe emotional deprivation have been found to have developmental deficits, particularly in the area of language and learning. They are at risk of ongoing insecurity in attachment relationships.
  2. Negative attributions or misattributions to the child - This form of abuse includes hostility, denigration and rejection of a child due to perceived negative attributes. For example a child may be seen and described by the parent as bad, lazy, deliberately defiant and provocative. This type of abuse is particularly damaging to the child’s developing self-concept and self-esteem and is linked to ongoing relationship and personality problems. Some children come to accept and identify the negative traits attributed to them.
  3. Developmentally inappropriate or inconsistent interactions with the child - This may take several forms. It may involve expectations of the child beyond their developmental capabilities. It may involve overprotection of the child, with limitation of exploration and learning. It may also involve exposure to confusing or traumatic events and interactions, including domestic violence, adult distress and adult suicidal behaviour. Some parents inappropriately expect their child to be independent at an immature age or to take responsibility for the family functioning or well-being of the parent. Parents with their own emotional difficulties may expose children to these complex adult issues inappropriately or treat the child as a confidant or friend, rather than a child. A child who has witnessed violence directed toward their primary care giver is particularly damaging to the child’s sense of security.
  4. Failure to acknowledge the child’s individuality - This occurs when a parent lacks the ability to see the child’s reality as separate and distinct from their adult wishes and they may use the child for fulfilment of their own psychological needs. The problem often occurs in custody or contact disputes in parental divorce proceedings. An emotionally needy parent may have unrealistic expectations of a ‘perfect child’ that has its own needs and personality separate and distinct from the parent’s expectations. Another example is a parent who has fixed and rigid ideas about the child – interests, beliefs, future career choice – that are not modified as the child develops, leading to anger and conflict. A healthy parent is able to allow their child to develop a sense of separate identity.
  5. Failure to promote the child’s social adaption - In this form of abuse, there is failure to provide opportunities for social learning and moral development, and sometimes direct encouragement of antisocial behaviours and attitudes. A family involved in criminal behaviour may involve the child and indoctrinate the child with antisocial attitudes and behaviours as an acceptable norm.

Other behaviours and practices are sometimes referred to as forms of ‘child maltreatment’. These include exposure to drugs or alcohol in the uterus and exposure to domestic violence. There is considerable evidence suggesting the experience of child abuse, including psychological/emotional abuse and neglect, is traumatic and has far-reaching implications for ongoing physical and psychological development. The risk of developing mental health problems is increased by up to four times in those who have experienced abuse. In particular, abuse perpetrated by a primary care giver is linked to severe disturbances in personality development and later relationship functioning.

Source: ‘Child Abuse & Neglect’, (Newman), Australian Doctor, Aug 2004 (29-36).