Emotional abuse is a type of abuse in which a person intentionally subjects another person to negative behavior that results in psychological trauma and mental disorders. It usually results from neglect and isolation, physical abuse, bullying, emotional detachment, humiliation, withdrawal, and gaslighting. Emotional abuse is the most underrated and unreported of abuses and has shown skyrocketing numbers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is a type of abuse in which a person exposes or subjects another person to negative behavior that results in psychological trauma and/or mental disorders such as severe stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, eating and conduct disorders, depression, etc. Emotional abuse is also known as psychological abuse (PA) or psychological maltreatment. A 2013 article 1 states that “Emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation. It is often a precursor to physical abuse because it targets the victim’s emotional and psychological well-being.” Emotional abuse is a distinct concept from physical abuse. It encompasses a variety of forms and is worthy of its own theories and prevention strategies.
It is considered as the most difficult type of abuse to recognize as it is often overt and subtle. It is typically done as a way to control the other person through blame, shame, manipulation, fear, isolation, bullying, embarrassment, discrediting and other manipulative strategies. In the long run, it can eat away the victim’s sense of self and self-esteem, making them doubt their own sanity and perceptions. It is common in various types of relationships, such as family, romantic partners, co-workers and even friends.
Emotional or psychological abuse goes unreported due to fear, guilt, ignorance, or shame attributed to socio-cultural reservations. Victims, clinicians, and law-officers under-report it due to poor recognition of the problem 2, lack of understanding of reporting methods and requirements, and concerns about victim-confidentiality.
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Understanding Emotional Abuse
Studies show that emotional abuse is an under-recognized and under-reported phenomena, especially in children and adolescents. Because of the sensitive strings and societal prejudice attached, it also goes unaddressed in cases of abuse between intimate partners or in the elderly population. Research 3 shows that psychological abuse reached a spiraling upward count following the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological abuse is influenced by a number of factors, namely –
- Severity of the symptoms
- Property damage
- Perpetration of further abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
It is related to incidences of power imbalance and abuse, particularly of human rights, in hierarchical relationships 4. It is perpetrated through a variety of forms, namely, bullying, gaslighting, conducts of torture, conducts of violence, and prolongued violation of human rights. In legal contexts, it can mean violent state-custody, false convictions, detention without trial, false accusations, and extreme defamation perpetrated by an individual/a group/state/media.
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Signs Of Emotional Abuse
Emotional or psychological abuse may occur in different ways depending on the abuser and the relationship they share with the victim. Here are some common signs of psychological abuse:
- Emotional blackmail
- Making decisions on behalf of the victim
- Constantly criticizing or belittling the victim
- Publicly humiliating or shaming them
- Playing the victim or accusing the victim of abuse
- Unreasonably blaming the victim when arguing
- Downplaying or denying the occurrence of abuse
- Isolation from friends and family
- Gaslighting or making the victim doubt their own sanity
- Intimidation and/or threats
- Financial control
- Withholding affection or constantly ignoring them
- Disrespecting the victim’s boundary or invading their personal space
- Acting jealous, making demands and being dominating
- Making the victim feel unimportant
- Emotional outbursts
Apart from these common signs, there may be many other ways someone can abuse another person such as derogatory nicknames, character assassination, belittling the victim’s achievements, spying, unpredictability, being indifferent, using guilt etc.
Read More About Gaslighting Here
Emotional Abuse In Childhood
Emotional abuse in childhood comprises behavior by a parent or parents, a caregiver, or a guardian that interferes with a child’s physiological, emotion, cognitive, and social development. “Childhood emotional abuse is a more hidden form of childhood maltreatment, which can be characterized as degrading, terrorizing, isolating, denying/rejecting, and exploitive/corruptive caregiving,” explains a 2015 study 5.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) states that such acts from parents or caregivers can cause significant psychological harm to the child. Apart from parents, other perpetrators may include caregivers, teachers, relatives, foster parents, etc. Child psychological abuse stems from poor parenting or inadequate care-giving and includes bitter experiences of interpersonal violence, psychological aggression, neglect, and verbal aggression. Such parents tend to struggle with –
- Domestic disharmony
- Pathological divorces
- Stress and mental disorders
- Social isolation
- Financial hardships
- Lack of adequate resources for raising children
Some abuses arise from inappropriate expectations from children and perpetrating pressure on children to conform to established value systems.
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Signs Of Childhood Emotional Abuse
Children subjected to emotional abuse show signs of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive impairment, such as:
- Physical and verbal aggression
- Low self-esteem and insecurity
- Substance abuse
- Negative emotion-driven impulsivity
- Emotional unresponsiveness
- Destructive behavior
- Poor learning skills
- Poor social skills
- Gynecological problems
- Inclination towards self-harm and suicide
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Impact Of Childhood Emotional Abuse
Studies 6 find that child psychological abuse is connected to a bevy of neurodevelopmental disorders 7 and mental health disorders, such as personality disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, disorders associated with trauma, depressive and schizoaffective disorders, etc. More specifically, they display signs of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) 8, social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and PTSD.
Unfortunately, emotional abuse is an under-recognized and under-reported phenomena in children and adolescents. Research 9 also shows that, each year, there are over 3 million referrals to child protective authorities. Only about 10% of the referrals in these cases are from medical personnel. The fatality rate is approximately two deaths per 100,000 children.
Emotional Abuse In Intimate Relationships
Emotional abuse in intimate relationships involves chronic mistreatment in families, marriages, dating, and other intimate relationships. This mistreatment comprises (but not restricted to) psychological abuse, violence, depravation and neglect, sexual abuse, the exercise of control, harrassment, manipulation, and fear, and so forth. It is the most reliable predictor of later physical aggression, mental disorders, substance abuse, suicide, and homicide in intimate relationships.
Its most common forms are intimate partner violence (IPV) 10 and domestic violence, both of which are considered human rights violations and public health issues throughout the world. Such abuse occurs in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
1. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
It involves the psysical and psychological abuse of a romantic and/or sexual partner by the fellow partner. IPV has been recognized to be of 4 different types:
A. Denigrating damage to partner’s self-image or esteem
It includes employment of derogatory behavior and profane vocabulary.
B. Passive aggressive withholding of emotional support
It includes deliberate emotional unresponsiveness and isolation, lying, and neglect and abandonment of emotional support.
C. Restricting personal territory and freedom
It includes taking away the abused partner’s autonomy, violating personal boundaries, and deliberately isolating the partner from social and familial support.
D. Threatening behavior
It includes elicitation of harm, rape, threats of separation or divorce, reckless behavior, and homicidal attempts on the abused partner.
Studies show age and gender are major factors in intimate partner violence. Research shows that women are more vulnerable to IPV than men, and the former are less likely to report abuse. Research shows that 80% of women experienced emotional abuse, 40% of women and 32% of men reported expressive aggression, and 41% of women and 43% of men reported coercive control. A study from 2005 11 shows that 29% of women and 23% of men have experienced IPV during their lifetime.
2. Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is abuse and violence between spouses and partners that occurs in a domestic setting, such as in cohabitation or in a marriage. It produces an intergenerational cycle of violence, encompassing abuse of and violence against parents, children, and the elderly who reside within or in the vicinity of the abusive domestic setting. The most common cases of domestic violence involve current or former spouses and partners. Here, the most common psychological abuses consist of –
- Coercive control
- Repeated stonewalling
- Constant personal devaluation
- Unrelenting criticism
- Threats of isolation
- Financial abuse
- Deprivation of basic needs and personal access
- Verbal assault
This conduct, in extreme cases, is also accompanied by physical aggression such as marital rape, strangulation, acid attacks, suicide, and homicide. Domestic violence is among the most underreported crimes worldwide, with its victims being overwhelmingly women. Research 12 shows that at least 5 million acts of domestic violence occur annually to women aged 18 years and older, with over 3 million involving men.
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Elder Emotional Abuse
In elder abuse, the most common cases pertain to psychological abuse, besides physical assault and material abuse. A recent research paper explains that it is “a direct action, inaction, or negligence toward an older adult that harms them or places them at risk of harm either by a person in a position of presumed trust or by an outside individual targeting the victim based on age or disability.” The majority of the abusers belong to a position of trust or authority over the individual and typically includes children, relatives, friends, caregivers in paid care environments, etc. Research 13 shows that a mean of 8.8% elderly people suffer from psychological abuse worldwide. India reported the highest prevalence at 10.8%, while Canada, United States, and Europe had lower mean rates of 1.4%, 1.5%, and 2.9%, respectively.
Impact Of Elderly Abuse
Elderly people subjected to psychological distress are found to be vulnerable to –
- Mental disorders, like depression, anxiety, schizoaffective disorders, dementia, Obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc.
- Substance abuse, commonly drugs and alcohol
- Self-harm and suicide
These mental distress serve to fuel neglect, poverty, and physical incapacities, 14 such as declining functional abilities, malnutrition, cardiac decomposition and bedsores.
A 2017 study 15 shows that elder emotional abuse creates complications for the victims, the caregivers, and the society. Apart from risks of morbidity and mortality, the victims are vulnerable to increased dependency on ever-expensive health care, heavy expenditure, and debt. For care-givers, it provides greater pressure on care-giving resources and medical infrastructure, leads to poor control of chronic diseases, and makes this group vulnerable to loss of productivity, motivation, and financial security.
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Psychological Abuse In The Workplace
Emotional abuse in the workplace is psychological abuse in organizational culture. It can occur between supervisor and subordinate, among co-workers, employees and customers, and mostly between an organization and its employees. It most commonly comprises workplace bullying and mobbing, especially in younger and/or less qualified workers. The other types of workplace aggression consists of –
- Mobbing 16 or ganging up
- Emotional distancing
- Constant criticism
- Overbearing supervision
- Blocking promotions
- Sexual harrassment
Workplace psychological abuse can have serious adverse effects. It leads to decline in employee morale in organizational culture, financial insecurity (debt and joblessness), mental health disorders, adjustment disorders, sleep deprivation 17 and fatigue, physical ailments, and even work-related suicide. Research 18 shows that in western countries 11 percent appears to be an approximate baseline rate for bullying in the workplace.
Dealing With Emotional Abuse
If you are being emotionally abused on a regular basis, then there are a few steps one can take to better cope with the situation and protect their mental health, such as –
- Tell yourself that the abuse is not your fault and you do not deserve it.
- Avoid confrontation with the abuser.
- Prioritize your own health and well-being more instead of taking care of the abusive person.
- Set strong personal boundaries and be assertive about your opinions and needs.
- Limit your exposure to the abusive person and if needed, end the relationship.
- Seek professional help as a therapist can help you recover from emotional abuse and move on in a healthy way.
- Seek help and support from trusted loved ones and support groups to get out of this negative situation and to make the right decisions.
- Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to heal by taking one step at a time.
If you feel threatened physically or in any other way, make sure to call emergency services or a crisis hotline.
Prevention Of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse can be effectively addressed with the following helpful ways:
1. Providing Assurance
The victims of psychological abuse should be provided a safe environment and assured that the experiences endured are no fault of theirs. Reporting of emotional abuses should be done with great confidentiality and be handled sensitively. Reassurance of additional assistance at any time should be given to protect the patient from harm and break the cycle of abuse.
2. Recognition And Assessment Of Abuse
As opposed to physical abuse or sexual violence, operationalizing emotional abuse is plagued with ambiguity and complexity. This, in turn, hampers its research and redressal. Authorities handling victims of psychological abuse should cautiously recognize the abuse and the source of abuse. They should evaluate the emotional and physical status of the victims, document history and interventions, and determine the risks to the victim and assess safety options. They should also counsel the victim on prevention, develop a follow-up plan, and refer to other intervening authorities (such as counseling, legal services, shelter options, etc.) if required.
3. Medical Treatment
Victims of emotional abuse should avail mental health services (such as therapy, group support, self-help programs), prevention programs, and state and non-governmental welfare services to combat abuse. Victims should avail hospitalization only after consulting a doctor or a mental health professional.
4. Legal Help
When abuse and violence escalates, victims should avail legal aid. They should report to law authorities, get their abuse proved by laboratory tests (involving techniques of hematology, imaging, urine test, etc.), and sustain special documentation to avail all the help they can get. They should also take legal services to address abuse.
5. Awareness And Education
The long-term prevention of emotional abuse involves psychoeducation and community- involvement and support. Free guides, detailing history, physical, diagnostic testing, documentation, treatment, and legal issues in psychological abuse, should be easily accessible. Campaigns should create awareness about this abuse. Routine screening by healthcare, governmental, and non-governmental bodies should be conducted to check the prevalence of such abuse.
Emotional abuse is the most underrated and unreported form of abuse and has shown skyrocketing numbers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. It comes with consequences of distress, mental disorders, disease and death, and should be effectively mediated and addressed for the welfare of society.
Emotional Abuse At A Glance
- Emotional abuse is a type of abuse in which a person exposes or subjects another person to negative behavior that results in psychological trauma and/or mental disorders.
- It is an under-recognized and under-reported phenomenon, especially in children and adolescents.
- Emotional or psychological abuse may occur in different ways depending on the abuser and the relationship they share with the victim.
- Childhood emotional abuse, emotional abuse in intimate relationships (IPV and domestic violence), geriatric emotional abuse, and workplace abuse are the most common forms of emotional abuse.
- Emotional abuse can be kept at bay with self-help strategies, such as avoiding the abuser, reporting the abuse, seeking support, and patiently recovering from the negative impact of such abuse.
- Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: the role of gender and age. Violence and victims, 28(5), 804–821. https://doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00041 [↩]
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- Campbell A. M. (2020). An increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic: Strengthening community collaborations to save lives. Forensic Science International. Reports, 2, 100089. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsir.2020.100089 [↩]
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