During National Child Abuse Prevention Month, it would be remiss if we did not address Covert Emotional Abuse as a form of child abuse which affects so many. As it does in adults, emotional abuse against children is often a precursor to other types of abuse but not always. This is especially true now that many states have issued shelter-in-place mandates to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Children being brought up in abusive homes are even more powerless than usual to find a reprieve from the maltreatment and trauma. A recent article in The Atlantic pointed out that though the virus isn’t infecting as many children as adults, there are many detrimental ramifications children face to their well-being, child abuse being among them(1). The consequences of this virus and abuse can be life-altering and possibly life-endangering. It is crucial that we equip ourselves with the proper information so we can help to put a stop to this form of abuse before it is too late for the child.
To begin, Covert Emotional Abuse is considered one of the most destructive forms of abuse. This is because it significantly harms one’s perceptions, memories, thinking and ultimately, their sanity. Children in the developmental stages of life can face lifetime emotional and physiological consequences. Covert Emotional Abuse is difficult to identify and challenging to confront. Confronting abuse is also nearly impossible for children. Due to its deceptive nature and catastrophic consequences, especially in children, Covert Emotional Abuse is a topic on which we should all educate ourselves. Unfortunately, it is seldom discussed. As a result, many of us engage in Covert Emotional Abuse without even realizing it.
Some adults may have grown up believing that emotionally abusive behaviors were experiences all kids have to go through. Generational misconceptions about proper parenting and nurturing of a child have led to many kids growing up with myriad issues because they were emotionally abused during their development, and led to believe that parents “just talked like that.” Too many are mirroring the destructive patterns in their adult years.
- Humiliating. Hand in hand with constant criticism, the humiliation of a child on a regular basis is devastating to their sense of self and identity. Children need healthy adults to help them develop proper perspectives about themselves. They cannot do it alone. When in doubt of whether something will embarrass or humiliate a child, err on the safe side, and show respect for their boundaries. Some common ways we humiliate children are by publicly sharing a story of something they did that they are embarrassed about, joking sarcastically about something the child does or has done, or publicly disciplining them.
- Being absent. Regularly ignoring or rejecting a child when they want physical affection or quality time is depriving them of a needed support system. Kids with absent parents will feel alone and as if they have no one to depend on. This is a form of abandonment.
- Threatening. Sometimes, parents and teachers become overly angry or aggressive when disciplining a child or trying to steer them in the right direction. They resort to abusive tactics like name-calling or making threats, such as, “I’m going to kill you,” or “You’ll be sorry that you were ever born.” These are horrible things to say to any person but especially a child who does not have the emotional maturity to understand that these threats likely won’t manifest. As a result, the child can develop fear and anxiety as well as intense self-doubt.
- Isolating. Cutting off a child from being able to make or access friends such as not allowing them to throw or attend birthday parties and playdates. Isolation can lead a child to feel lonely. Persistent disengagement from their peers can lead to difficulties in forming friendships later on in life. Loneliness is considered to be an epidemic among American adults that can lead to many mental health concerns. This is ever more true in the developing child and can be prevented by allowing children the opportunity to form healthy friendships.
- Minimization. Minimizing a child when they come to you with their fears, concerns, anxiety or terrors communicates to them that their feelings aren’t valued and their experiences are not important. It teaches them that they shouldn’t speak up or expect to be taken seriously when they need help. Minimization dismisses the child’s real needs, making them feel as if their voice and their desires are not worth sharing. This is a deeply dangerous message to ingrain in a child. Children who grow up in supportive systems that value their personal voice and boundaries are better able to detect danger as they grow, recognize predators, speak up and steer away from harm.
Emotional abuse in children can result in significant social and cognitive developmental delays as a result of excruciating mental trauma. Children who grow up being emotionally abused are at greater risk of developing issues such as depression, anxiety, and physiological health problems. The aftermath of going through emotional abuse during developmental years is devastating, and we must all partner together to curb this as much as possible by recognizing emotional abuse when it occurs and learn how to support those going through it.
If you know or suspect that a child with whom you are close is being emotionally abused, there are different services you can contact for advice and support. NSPCC and the National Child Abuse Hotline recommend the best way to proceed in helping the child who could be in danger(2). By calling their hotline, you will learn whether or not you should report a child you believe is experiencing abuse.
If we are honest with ourselves, many of us can acknowledge having engaged in these behaviors at some time. It doesn’t mean you are an abuser, while at the same time, if you don’t strive to correct this behavior that’s exactly what you are. A healthy mindset encourages self reflection and in order to grow we will commit to stopping behaviors that could cause harm to the children in our care. This is true for all of us but particularly important for those first responders working with children on a regular basis: parents, teachers, pastors, coaches. Consider the way you relate to children in your care and ask yourself if any of these tactics are things you have done or currently do. Set up safeguards for yourself and your children against Covert Emotional Abuse.
If you find it too challenging to shift your behaviors, but want to, please remember that it is never too late to seek counseling, find a support group or ask for an accountability partner to make sure you do not let bad communication habits or current anger issues become a serious issue. Take this time to look at some of the definitions of Covert Emotional Abuse on our website to learn more. By understanding and refraining from the behaviors we describe, you can protect yourself from harming others with whom you are in relationship.
We urge you to help spread awareness about child abuse during the month of April by sharing this blog along with a caption about something you wish people knew about child abuse.