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Emotional Abuse: A Silent Storm in Childhood

abuse complex ptsd emotional abuse parental abuse ptsd trauma Dec 04, 2023


This week I've been reflecting on how many people I meet in my work who experience mental health issues related to emotional abuse during childhood. Due to its subtlety, it is an often-overlooked form of trauma. Trauma during childhood and adolescence, as our concept of our selves and the world is forming, has a more profound effect on mental health than if trauma has occurred only during adulthood. And emotional abuse in childhood impacts profoundly on identity formation, emotion regulation, and ability to feel safe and trust others. Given it is usually perpetrated by a child's parent/s, and can occur alongside otherwise normal parenting behaviours like providing basic needs, material resources and physical safety, and it often targets just one child in the family, it can be especially confusing for the young mind to manage.

Emotional abuse, often overshadowed by its physical counterpart, can be just as damaging, leaving invisible scars that echo throughout life. It's a complex and insidious form of maltreatment, often difficult to pinpoint but with lasting consequences.

What is emotional abuse?

It's not just yelling or name-calling (but yes, it includes these). Emotional abuse encompasses a range of behaviours that undermine a child's sense of self concept, self-worth, security, and happiness. Here are some key forms:

  • Verbal abuse: Insults, put-downs, belittling, constant criticism, threats, and blaming.
  • Invalidation: Dismissing or denying a child's feelings, reactions, experiences, or needs. (This is particularly prevalent behaviour in the parents of people who go on to meet the criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder). 
  • Isolation: Withholding affection, excluding them from activities, or using silence as punishment.
  • Controlling behaviour: Dictating choices, restricting autonomy, or manipulating through guilt or obligation.
  • Shaming: Deliberately embarrassing or publicly demeaning a child, including to others. 
  • Blaming the child for negative interactions that the adult, as the caregiver and grown-up, are responsible for managing.
  • Emotional neglect: Failing to provide emotional support, warmth, or responsiveness.
  • Terrorising: Intimidating, threatening, or creating an environment of fear.
  • Exploitation: Using a child for personal gain, financial dependence, or emotional labor.
  • Gaslighting: Twisting reality, denying events, telling the child or otherwise convincing them there is something wrong with them or that they are "crazy."

The impact of childhood and adolescent emotional abuse:

The effects of emotional abuse are far-reaching, impacting a child's emotional, social, and cognitive development. Here are some potential consequences:

  • Low self-esteem and self-worth: Feeling worthless, unlovable, and constantly seeking validation.
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges: Difficulty coping with emotions, increased risk of self-harm, and vulnerability to addiction.
  • Attachment issues: Difficulty forming healthy relationships, fear of intimacy, or clinging to unhealthy dynamics.
  • Emotion regulation difficulties: being unable to calm oneself, or needing to use maladaptive coping strategies (eg; the kids that start to smoke weed in adolescence, self-harm, or develop bulimia etc). 
  • Difficulties with trust and communication: Struggling to believe in others, expressing needs openly, or setting boundaries. This can include difficulty being honest for fear of being criticised or punished. 
  • Academic and professional struggles: Lack of motivation, difficulty with focus, and challenges with authority figures.
  • Physical health problems: Increased susceptibility to headaches, stomachaches, and other stress-related ailments.

Recovery from emotional abuse in childhood and adolescence:

Healing from emotional abuse is possible, but it takes time and support. Here are some steps:

  • Acknowledging the abuse: Recognising and naming the behaviour is crucial to moving forward. (This seems to be especially difficult  for survivors of this type of abuse given the impact gaslighting and shaming has had on identity formation, and due to the dual role of caregiver and abuser the person has had in the survivor's life.) 
  • Seeking professional help: Therapy can provide tools for coping, processing trauma, and building self-compassion.
  • Connecting with supportive communities: Surround yourself with understanding individuals who can offer validation and encouragement.
  • Practicing self-care: Prioritise activities that nourish your mind, body, and spirit.
  • Educating yourself: Learn about emotional abuse and its effects to understand your experiences and empower yourself.

Remember, if this has happened to you, you are not alone. Emotional abuse IS a serious issue, but with awareness, support, and self-compassion, its possible to heal and build a brighter future.

Please reach out if this is ringing bells for you. It's completely possible to work through this, and build a life of peace and joy. But it's important not to try to do this alone. (My books are closed to new clients for individual sessions for now, but I have amazing colleagues to refer you to, if you need to work on this as we head towards the pressures of christmas!)

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