Adverse Childhood Experiences

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience).

The ACE study defines emotional abuse as a parent or other adult in the household often swearing at you, insulting you, putting you down, humiliating you, or acting in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt. It’s important to notice the word “often” here; a single instance of parental bad behavior is not enough to cause a lifetime of trauma for children. And the perception of the victim is also important here; it is the victim’s interpretation of the incident rather than the actual incident itself that is important. 

Much emotional abuse often stems from anger and frustration at children, poor understanding of child development, poor understanding of how to discipline a child, poor ego strength on the parent’s part, and poor parental attachment.

It is well known that physical abuse is likely to result in interactions with child protective agencies, so many parents feel emotional abuse is a way for them to harm kids without legal consequences, and that it may be safer. But the pain and fear it generates are the same, in every way that we can measure. Actions that make the child fear physical harm can include seeing a parent abuse another parent, seeing a parent abuse a sibling, seeing a parent abuse a pet, and brandishing a weapon at a child. 

The ACE study found just under 11% of participants experienced emotional abuse. This is a much higher figure than state child protective agencies typically show, but many states either don’t investigate emotional abuse, don’t consider it a separate category, or put artificial barriers on reporting it (in some states only licensed therapists who are treating a child can report emotional abuse). 

Maternal home visiting programs can help with most of the causes of emotional abuse. By helping parents improve their life circumstances, helping them understand child development, and help them understand nonviolent parenting, they remove some of the frustration and can teach about non-violent discipline. Helping a parent bond with their child also makes parenting less frustrating and helps them exercise their ego strength and impulse control.


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