Emotional abuse

Emotional harm can be present in all forms of abuse, as well as exist on its own, and can have significant long-term effects on a child’s mental health, education, future expectations and ability to relate to others.

Emotional abuse can seriously damage a child’s health and development. Children who are emotionally abused may also be experiencing other forms of abuse at the same time. The key elements are about persistent maltreatment that has long-term effects. Every parent gets things wrong from time to time, but repeated behaviours, such as those described further down this page are abusive.

Free emotional abuse poster

Download our emotional abuse poster here


To sign up to our monthly posters by post service, click below

Sign up

Definition of emotional abuse

“The persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.”

Keeping Children Safe in Education

Quotation marks

Emotional abuse may involve communicating to children that they are worthless, inadequate or unloved, including not giving them the opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate.  It may impose unreasonable expectations on a child which are inappropriate to their age and stage of development.

It may also involve over protection, limiting exploration and learning opportunities and/or chances for normal social interactions. It also includes the child feeling frequently frightened or in danger, being bullied by peers or other children (e.g., child on child abuse) or witnessing the ill treatment of others (e.g. domestic abuse).

Spotting the signs

Signs may include the following (this is not an exhaustive list):

Physical indicators:

  • delays in physical development, e.g., milestones delayed, being underweight, experiencing unusual lethargy;
  • marks on body from self-harm.

Behaviour indicators:

  • lack of confidence, withdrawn, wary or anxious;
  • lacking a close relationship with parent/carer;
  • over reactions to mistakes;
  • continual self-deprecation;
  • sudden speech disorders;
  • wetting/soiling;
  • social isolation (may not mix or has few friends);
  • extremes of compliance, passivity and or aggression/provocativeness;
  • compulsive stealing;
  • rocking, thumb sucking, hair twisting, etc;
  • drug, alcohol or solvent misuse;
  • inability to play;
  • fear of parents being contacted.
Exclamation Mark

Some vulnerabilities include:

Parent’s or carers who:

  • are stressed and under pressure, and become emotionally unavailable to their children;
  • who are experiencing post-natal depression;
  • who may have unrealistic expectations about their child’s ability;
  • who do not praise or encourage their child but are critical and never satisfied;
  • who belittle or humiliate their children;
  • who misuse drugs and alcohol or who suffer from mental health problems without sufficient support.
Exclamation mark

What you can do

Create an environment based on equality and informed choice – help children/young people think about the issues and attitudes behind emotional abuse and bullying particularly in relation to gender and other equality issues. Ensure you have an environment where bullying and other concerns are dealt with swiftly and consistently.

Ensure young people know the risks – talk about emotional abuse in an age appropriate way.

Check young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers, with other children and with your staff. Who would they talk to if they were worried or unhappy? Create the environment where it is okay to talk, even about the most difficult things.

Spot the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident to raise emotional abuse as a possibility. Talk with your DSL and deputies to help them to analyse what you have seen and the likely impact to decide what to do.

Keep a chronology – record the incidents of concern and build up a picture of the child/young person’s life. Analyse the impact and consider whether their emotional, developmental and academic progress is what you would expect of a similar child/young person.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know they are safe.

Question mark

For resources to develop staff knowledge of safeguarding, subscribe today.

Termly subscription

from £99+VAT per setting.

Subscribe today

Join safeguarding network for more information on how to identify and intervene in schools.

  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for staff summarising emotional abuse
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
See sample About us