The Effect of Emotional Abuse

The Blows that Damage One’s Self-Image

More than physical abuse, emotional maltreatment damages a child’s self-image, because it communicates a stronger message of negative worth than a smack or a kick.[1] Parents sabotage their child’s self-worth by “blaming it, belittling it, humiliating it, intimidating it, terrorizing it [and] secluding it.”[2]

Parents overwhelmed by raising children use such humiliations to lower their children’s self-confidence, because that’s how they disarm assertive children. Then the parents are back in control, even though the child had never aspired to be the boss.[3]

The message parents communicate a child, for example whether it is valuable or lovable, determines a child’s future self-image. It will carry this learned self-image with it its whole life long. Loved babies, for example, learn that the world is safe. They grow up to be self-confident adults who can always fall back on this image.[4] The APSAC-manual on child maltreatment mentions how important the early trust is that babies hope to get from their parents:

“Babies learn that they have the power to express their needs. If their signals to caregivers elicit responses, babies have their first experience of competence and what developmental psychologists call effectance—the discovery they can influence the world around them. This is what we want for all children. With that foundation of trust and security, children venture out with self-confidence and enthusiasm, while they use their attachment figures as a safe have from where they explore the world around them and learn about it.”[5]

Emotional maltreatment damages the child’s ability to engage in social interaction with other people, but because emotional blows don’t leave visible wounds, even science pays little attention to the subject.[6]

Regardless, emotional maltreatment is the most common form of child maltreatment.[7] It causes greater mental damage than for example physical or sexual violence.[8] Emotionally neglected children stay behind socially, have greater difficulty making friends, and their problem solving skills lag behind in comparison to peers.[9]

“Expressed Emotion”

In order to avoid insulting parents and to secure their co-operation with scientific research, researchers invented the more subtle term “expressed emotion” to denote emotional abuse, because it gives parents who bark at their child the idea that they’re merely expressing their emotions, rather than being guilty of much more damaging verbal abuse.[10]

Nonetheless, it appears that when both parents enjoy ‘expressing’ their emotions, and thereby showed their child their exaggerated meddling, hostility or arrogance, in forty percent of the cases, they saddled their teenage children with schizophrenia, compared to zero percent for more loving parents.[11]

By age seventeen, almost ninety percent of all emotionally maltreated children suffered a mental disorder; at least seventy percent suffered even two or more.[12] Parents who emotionally maltreat their children thus purvey to the mental health system!

Just as blows to the head, emotional and verbal blows cause permanent damage to the brain. Adults who as a child systematically suffered emotional maltreatment or neglect ended up having an altered brain structure.[13] They more frequently suffer negative thoughts about themselves. Even in new situations, they more often compare new situations to negative situations they had experienced earlier in their lives.

Because they never built up a cushion of positive memories to fall back on, emotional maltreatment affects the quality of life for decades to come.[14]

[1]Anne-Laura Van Harmelen, “Childhood Emotional Maltreatment: Impact on Cognition and the Brian” (Universiteit Leiden, 2013), 8–9.

[2]Ibid., 10.

[3]Guus Kuijer, Het Geminachte Kind (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1980), 28–30.

[4]Martha Farrell Erickson and Byron Egeland, “Child Neglect,” in The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, ed. John E.B. Myers, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2011), 112.


[6]R.K. Oates, The Spectrum of Child Abuse: Assessment, Treatment, and Prevention (New York City: Brunner/Mazel Inc., 1996).

[7]Van Harmelen, “Childhood Emotional Maltreatment: Impact on Cognition and the Brian,” 7.

[8]Erickson and Egeland, “Child Neglect,” 109.


[10]John Read et al., “Child Maltreatment and Psychosis: A Return to a Genuinely Integrated Bio-Psycho-Social Model,” Clinical Schizophrenia & Related Psychoses 2, no. 3 (2008): 240.


[12]Erickson and Egeland, “Child Neglect,” 111.

[13]Ibid., 104.

[14]Van Harmelen, “Childhood Emotional Maltreatment: Impact on Cognition and the Brian.”

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