Psychological Abuse: More Common, as Harmful as Other Child Maltreatment

Psychological abuse — including demeaning, bullying and humiliating — may be the most prevalent form of child maltreatment. Yet it's among the hardest to identify or to treat

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It may be the most common kind of child abuse — and the most challenging to deal with. But psychological abuse, or emotional abuse, rarely gets the kind of attention that sexual or physical abuse receives.

That’s the message of a trio of pediatricians, who write this week in the journal Pediatrics with a clarion call to other family doctors and child specialists: stay alert to the signs of psychological maltreatment. Its effects can be every bit as devastating as those of other abuse.

Psychological maltreatment can include terrorizing, belittling or neglecting a child, the pediatrician authors say.

(MORE: Child Abuse Pediatricians Recommend Basic Parenting Classes to Reduce Maltreatment and Neglect)

“We are talking about extremes and the likelihood of harm, or risk of harm, resulting from the kinds of behavior that make a child feel worthless, unloved or unwanted,” Harriet MacMillan, one of the three pediatrician authors, told reporters.

What makes this kind maltreatment so challenging for pediatricians and for social services staff, however, is that it’s not defined by any one specific event, but rather by the nature of the relationship between caregiver and child. That makes it unusually hard to identify.

Keeping a child in a constant state of fear is abuse, for example. But even the most loving parent will occasionally lose their cool and yell. Likewise, depriving a child of ordinary social interaction is also abuse, but there’s nothing wrong with sending a school-aged boy to stew alone in his room for an hour after he hits a younger sibling. All of this means that, for an outsider who observes even some dubious parenting practice, it can be hard to tell whether a relationship is actually abusive, or whether you’ve simply caught a family on a bad day.

(MORE: How Child Abuse Primes the Brain for Future Mental Illness)

Psychological abuse can also include what you might call “corrupting a child” — encouraging children to use illicit drugs, for example, or to engage in other illegal activities.

In their Pediatrics paper, MacMillan and co-authors say that 8% to 9% of women and 4% of men reported severe psychological abuse in childhood when the question was posed in general-population surveys of the U.S. and Britain. A number of U.S. surveys have also found that more adults claim they faced psychological maltreatment as kids than claim they experienced any other form of abuse. This suggests that psychological maltreatment may be the most common form of abuse inflicted on kids.

Because of that, pediatricians must be as sensitive to signs of emotional maltreatment as they are to signals of sexual or physical abuse, the authors say. And while it may be possible in the event of psychological abuse to intervene to improve the child’s home life — especially where the root cause is a parent’s own mental-health issue — the authors stress:

Consideration of out-of-home care interventions should not be restricted to cases of physical or sexual abuse; children exposed to psychological maltreatment may also require a level of protection that necessitates removal from the parental home.

MORE: Home Visits: A Powerful Weapon Against Child Abuse


Based on my experience I think that abuse like woes comes not in ones and twos but in threes.  Based on my experience I was not only physically and sexually abused but also suffered ongoing verbal abuse, humiliation etc.  I think that abuse is an entire  environment and to treat the entire experience the therapy needs to address not just the physical and sexual abuse but all the other abuses that go along with these as well as the total neglect of the child's needs.  Among these needs are abused children are not taught coping skills.  Coping skills are important because dealing with one's abuse is in itself traumatic which requires coping skills which the survivor does not have.  The child is not taught any of the skills the child will need to become a functioning adult etc. etc.  The list goes on.


@johndt41  yes. The climate I grew up in was infected.  We grew up in a state of constant fear and dread.  Humiliation, teasing, bullying, shame, emotional blackmail, that was what we knew.  We weren't physically whipped or beaten.  We were brought up to be obedient and available. There were an assortment of sexual games and scenarios our parents played out, but I think now, mainly, it was the CLIMATE of our family that was damaging.  Nobody trusted anybody.  We grew up not knowing what  terms such as 'happiness', 'trust', 'support', 'empathy', ' respect', meant.  I have had to learn these, and it has taken me a lifetime (I'm now 63).

Tara Green
Tara Green

This article is timely and relevant. Such abuse can manifest on such a broad spectrum of behaviors. I also believe that one child can thrive in a given environment, while another will whither. Ultimately, when the well-being of all children becomes our primary focus as a society, the rest will follow. 

Tim Logie
Tim Logie

Logged in with Facebook .

It used my real name.

Can't edit out my name, so No Comment. :)


Psychological abuse is obviously not good and should be minimized.  But how do you scientifically study something like this with adequate controls?   Do you take two groups of kids and randomly assign one group to be psychologically abused and study the outcomes?  Obviously not.   Do you unscientifically assume that correlation is the same as causation?   Do you simply correlate outcomes of those believed to be abused by their parents with those who were not?    If so, how do you know that the bad outcomes are not simply the result of bad genetics passed from the abusive and dysfunctional parents to predictably genetically dysfunctional kids?


I'm glad we're finally starting to recognize psychological abuse of children as a real problem.

For too long, some have had to second guess their perception of being abused when society at large gave no term to it.

These people have not known where to turn or how to recover.

Others don't know how to treat these people because they have no training, no point of reference, and very little understanding of their condition.

To the uninitiated, these can seem overly-sensitive, withdrawn, unsociable, etc.

Human nature fails when the victims become objects of condemnation.


The stresses of motherhood are the subject of The Irish Times article today that is well worth reading.

It's called

There is no best way of combining motherhood and jobs.

The frustrated mother tries to learn from all around her but concludes


Whatever you do, there will be angry voices in the media telling you

that your answer is wrong. But there is no need to listen to them when

there is an angrier adolescent at home telling you just the same thing

with even greater conviction."

It ain't easy.

I say let's get all we can right first. Meet basic needs and work our way up following Maslow's model and stop letting our government waste our money on wars causing more more problems than we can cope with.


my religious idiot father, who went to bars all saturday and never missed a day of church, and my just plain evil mom certainly made me feel like dirt.

thankfully, they're both dead, though only in my old age have I realized just how hateful and crazy they were. 


Maybe if we had Universal Health Care there would be more support systems in place.

Maybe if there was a genuine respect for the job of parenting that would help.

People talk of being pro-life and then support wars and ignorance and deny people their basic rights.

There are no perfect parents. Sometimes autistic people become parents and cannot give all the love the kids need.

Sometimes alcoholics become parents, as do the unemployed and the mentally ill.

Everyone has stresses and strains. Some manage in awful circumstances but others need help.

It's easy to say that those who can't cope are wrong when the kids bear the brunt of frustrations but it doesn't address the causes and America fails miserably in looking after her own people.


Society belittles as well and puts pressure on parents to conform.

Watch Killing Us Softly:

Parents often take their cues from the media. How do we interpret the world around us and what is expected of us as individuals and what is expected of our children?

Capitalism is fine. Unrestricted capitalism that exploits and abuses needs to be stopped.


It's also possible that the parent doesn't intend to keep the child in a constant state of fear. They could be overworked and stressed out to the point that they get home and blow up over the smallest thing. Though this still makes them a lousy parent and should be considered abuse.


Adults in positions of power also bully other adults (such as co-workers or employees), and it is also devastating, yet we fail to recognize the impacts of adult bullying. 

Rusty Gunn
Rusty Gunn

Religious indoctrination before the age of consent. 


Older men are well trained at being a

gentleman, more civilized and capable of supporting whoever they are with, and

understand better how to treat a woman and how to give her what she wants. That’s

why many young women are seeking older men. If you are 40 plus single male, I

would encourage you to join - - - - -  АgelеssМαtch_C_o_m

 - - - - - - and date a younger woman, to

feel young again and make your life more adventurous.


19 US states allow taxpayer funded school teachers, coaches and

administrators entrusted with the care and education of children to hit

them with no safety standards : AL, AZ, AR, CO, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY,

LA, MS, MO, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, WY, Some state laws do Not require

parental consent or notification for children to be hit in school


See Shocking Brutally Violent U.S. Public School Spanking/Corporal Punishment (Sexual Assault) Injuries to students Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade at YouTube Video Trailer for Documentary “The Board of Education” by Jared Abrams


19 US states allow taxpayer funded school teachers, coaches and administrators entrusted with the care and education of children to hit them with no safety standards : AL, AZ, AR, CO, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, MS, MO, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, WY, Some state laws do Not require parental consent or notification for children to be hit in school!


"Teacher Immunity Laws" protect school employees (mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse) from criminal/civil action when students are injured by deliberate infliction of pain by school employees hitting them with wooden boards as punishment of minor infractions.


No Cover Up Here, Just Blatant Abuse and NO ONE CARES! US Lawmkers Turn Blind Eye to Immunity for Abuse of Students K-12 by Mandatory Child Abuse Reporters Public School Teachers Coaches and Administrators 2008 Report “A Violent Education” by Human Rights Watch and ACLU


223,190 Kids Legally Beaten in US Schools annually with Impunity, 20,000 students seek emergency medical treatment 


Federal Bill H.R. 3027 “The Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” is languishing in U.S. Congress NOW, earlier version H.R. 5628 DIED in Congress last year! See


Neglect is also a form of abuse.