Abuse is any behavior that is designed to control or dominate another person. Whether that is through fear, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, guilt, blaming, manipulation or denial. Therefore, emotional abuse is simply any abuse that is emotional rather than physical. It can include belittling, discounting, manipulating the emotions of another and constant criticism. It can be less obvious than that, such as continuous disapproval, or the refusal to ever be pleased by another in any way. It can be giving children age-inappropriate behavior, or engaging in age-inappropriate confidences. When a parent tries to engage a child to take his/her side against the other parent, this is emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse of children is often more subtle than the systematic wearing away of their self-esteem and self-confidence. Emotional abuse cuts to the core of their being, creating scars, impressions and perceptions that are far deeper and longer-lasting than physical ones. An attempt to distort or undermine a child’s perception of the world is emotional abuse. Here’s an example:
I was talking with a new client recently. She told me that her husband, without talking with her, had told the children that they were getting a divorce. Imagine what this potentially did to the children!
Many things are wrong with this in this case:
- The parents had not yet decided between them to get a divorce.
- The parents did not have the conversation with the children together.
- The children were being used as pawns in the game of “make Mommy wrong.”
- The children’s lives were disrupted by information that could only cause an emotional upheaval for them, and in this case, was inaccurate.
- The parents may not be getting a divorce, which then leaves the children confused and unnecessarily upset.
- The father was attempting to get the children to be “on his side,” against their mother.
This is emotional abuse of the children. It purposefully played with their emotions, with the intent of making them side with the husband as he went in to detail about it being Mommy’s bad temper that was causing the divorce. The father was not thinking of the children. He was manipulating the situation to his advantage.
The children are under the age of ten, with no ability to comprehend the idea of divorce except in a self-referential way. It is abusive to tell them that a divorce was pending when no such thing had been decided or undertaken. The children are too young to process this information. At their ages, they are very concerned with parental approval and love, as well as for their own survival, and have no ability to separate out things using logic and consequences.
Another problem in this scenario: at this age, the children will, at some level, believe and internalize that they could have done, or can do, something to prevent this, or that it is their faults. That is true, whether or not they give voice to it. It could easily affect their lives and their perception of relationships for their adult lives. No, this is not alarmist thinking. It happens all the time and certainly shows up in my office when adults come for therapy.
Is this emotional abuse of children? Yes, it certainly is. And, it is completely unnecessary.
Emotional abuse is something immature people engage in!