Emotional abuse

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

Emotional abuse is sometimes called psychological abuse and it will seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development. Children who are emotionally abused often suffer 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 where parents do or say such serious things, particularly where they are repeated so that children and young people integrate them as part of who they are, this is abuse.

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, 2018

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Emotional abuse may involve communicating to children that they are worthless, inadequate or unloved, 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 chances for normal social interactions. It can mean the child being bullied by peers (e.g. peer on peer abuse) or witnessing the ill treatment of others (e.g. domestic abuse).

Spotting the signs

Signs may include the following:

Physical indicators:

  • delays in physical development e.g. milestones delayed or underweight, lethargic;
  • marks on body from self-harm;

Behaviour indicators:

  • delays in intellectual development;
  • lack of confidence, wary or anxious;
  • lacking a close relationship with parent/carer;
  • over reaction to mistakes;
  • continual self-deprecation;
  • sudden speech disorders;
  • 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 abuse;
  • fear of parents being contacted.
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Some vulnerabilities include:

  • parents/carers who are stressed and under pressure and become emotionally unavailable to their children;
  • parents/carers who may have unrealistic expectations about their child’s ability;
  • parents/carers who do not praise or encourage their child but are critical and never satisfied;
  • parents/carers who belittle or humiliate their children;
  • parent/carers who misuse drugs and alcohol or who suffer from mental health problems without sufficient support.
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What you can do

Create an environment based on equality and informed choice – help 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 is 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 and with your staff. Who would they talk to if they were worried or unhappy? Create the environment where it is OK 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 to one another and analyse what you have seen and the impact to decide what to do

Keep a chronology – record the incidents of concern and build up a picture of the young person’s life. Analyse the impact and consider whether their emotional, developmental and academic progress is not what you would have expected of a similar child.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know they are safe. Usually you will want to talk to a family and think about what is behind the problems. Give yourself a clear timescale for improvement.

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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 school staff summarising emotional abuse
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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