Help Us Help Others:

Psychological abuse: The invisible middle-class pandemic
Research has found that physical and psychological maltreatment usually co-exist in families reported to CPS, whereas in community samples, psychological maltreatment often occurs alone. (Claussen & Crittenden, 1991) In other words, verbal and emotional abuse is common among middle-class families who from all outward appearances can otherwise seem perfectly normal. It damages children without leaving marks or bruises, and represents an invisible form of child abuse that manages to stay under the radar.

The definition of psychological abuse
There is no universally agreed upon definition of psychological or emotional maltreatment, not because there isn’t a general consensus about what’s harmful, but because it can come in so many different forms that often blend into one another and are difficult to categorize or quantify. Hibbard, Barlow and MacMillan (2012) from the Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry define psychological maltreatment as “a repeated pattern of parental behavior that is likely to be interpreted by a child that he or she is unloved, unwanted, or serves only instrumental purposes and/or that severely undermines the child’s development and socialization.” They go on to state that such abuse “may be verbal or nonverbal, active or passive, and with or without intent to harm.” (p. 373; see also Glaser, 2002)

Psychological maltreatment is often expanded to include different forms of parent pathology (narcissism, depression, etc.) as well as questionable parenting practices, all of which are detailed in other chapters throughout this book. For this discussion, we’ll focus exclusively on direct forms of verbal and emotional battery.

Different types of psychological abuse
Verbal and emotional abuse can come in many different forms:

  1. Direct attacks and name calling (you’re such a fat pig).

  2. Putting children down through diminutive statements (Can’t you ever do anything right?)

  3. Using negative comparisons to demean a child (Johnny would have done better) .

  4. Excessive blaming and/or criticizing children for things they can’t control.

  5. Depreciation – The act of devaluing a child through discounting or trivializing their needs, desires, or feelings.

  6. Humiliating or mocking a child; laughing at them in a demeaning way.

  7. Using abusive forms of psychological control. For example, think about the abusive husband who tells his wife when she can or can’t go to the bathroom and who suspiciously follows her every movement, and then apply that type of behavior towards children.

  8. Invalidation – The act of taking away a person’s identity and defining reality for them; telling them what they think or feel or leading them to question their own subjective experience.

  9. Intentionally isolating a child from the outside world or restricting their basic freedoms within the home.

  10. Rejecting children as a person (See also: unwanted children).

  11. Terrorizing – Using fear and intimidation to manipulate a child and/or intentionally exposing them to threatening situations (whether physical or psychological).

  12. Intentionally withholding love, affection, or other things important to a child.

  13. Using manipulative or passive-aggressive behavior to make children conform to parental whims and demands.

  14. Exploiting or corrupting a child in ways that direct them towards behaviors that will jeopardize their safety and/or social-emotional welfare (i.e., encouraging them to steal).

Help Us Help Others: