Emotional abuse: What it is, what it does to children, what can be done about it
Emotional abuse of children can lead, in adulthood, to addiction, rage, a severely damaged sense of self and an inability to truly bond with others. But—if it happened to you—there is a way out.
Andrew Vachss is a lawyer with an unusual specialty. His clients are all children—damaged, hurting children who have been sexually assaulted, physically abused, starved, ignored, abandoned and every other lousy thing one human can do to another. People who know what he does always ask: “What is the worst case you ever handled?” When you’re in a business where a baby who dies early may be the most fortunate child in the family, there’s no easy answer. . His answer is that, of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruellest and longest-lasting of all.
Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection.
Emotional abuse can be as deliberate as a gunshot: “You’re fat. You’re stupid. You’re ugly.”
Emotional abuse can also be as random as the fallout from a nuclear explosion. In matrimonial battles, for example, the children all too often become the battlefield. I remember a young boy, barely into his teens, absently rubbing the fresh scars on his wrists. “It was the only way to make them all happy,” he said. His mother and father were locked in a bitter divorce battle, and each was demanding total loyalty and commitment from the child.
Emotional abuse can be active. Vicious belittling: “You’ll never be the success your brother was.” Deliberate humiliation: “You’re so stupid. I’m ashamed you’re my son.”
It also can be passive, the emotional equivalent of child neglect—a sin of omission, true, but one no less destructive.
And it may be a combination of the two, which increases the negative effects geometrically.
Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioural, active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often at least as painful as physical assault. And, with rare exceptions, the pain lasts much longer. A parent’s love is so important to a child that withholding it can cause a “failure to thrive”, a condition similar to that of children who have been denied adequate nutrition.
Even the natural solace of siblings is denied to those victims of emotional abuse who have been designated as the family’s target The other children are quick to imitate their parents. Instead of learning the qualities every child will need as an adult—empathy, nurturing and protectiveness—they learn the viciousness of a pecking order. And so the cycle continues.
But whether as a deliberate target or an innocent bystander, the emotionally abused child inevitably struggles to “explain” the conduct of his abusers—and ends up struggling for survival in a quicksand of self-blame.
Emotional abuse is both the most pervasive and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible. In an era in which fresh disclosures of unspeakable child abuse are everyday fare, the pain and torment of those who experience “only” emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse need both time and specialized treatment to heal. But when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults.
That assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer, it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can metastasize if untreated.
When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain. “It wasn’t just the incest,” she said quietly. “It was that he didn’t love me. If he loved me, he couldn’t have done that to me.”
But emotional abuse is unique because it is designed to make the victim feel guilty. Emotional abuse is repetitive and eventually cumulative behaviour – very easy to imitate—and some victims later perpetuate the cycle with their own children. Although most victims courageously reject that response, their lives often are marked by a deep, pervasive sadness, a severely damaged self-concept and an inability to truly engage and bond with others.
Emotionally abused children grow up with significantly altered perceptions so that they “see” behaviours—their own and others’—through a filter of distortion. Many emotionally abused children engage in a lifelong drive for the approval (which they translate as “love”) of others. So eager are they for love—and so convinced that they don’t deserve it—that they are prime candidates for abuse within intimate relationships.
The emotionally abused child can be heard inside every battered woman who insists: “It was my fault, really. I just seem to provoke him somehow.”
And the almost-inevitable failure of adult relationships reinforces that sense of unworthiness, compounding the abuse, reverberating throughout the victim’s life.
Emotional abuse conditions the child to expect abuse in later life. Emotional abuse is a time bomb, but its effects are rarely visible, because the emotionally abused tend to implode, turning the anger against themselves. And when someone is outwardly successful in most areas of life, who looks within to see the hidden wounds?
Members of a therapy group may range widely in age, social class, ethnicity and occupation, but all display some form of self-destructive conduct: obesity, drug addiction, anorexia, bulimia, domestic violence, child abuse, attempted suicide, self-mutilation, depression and fits of rage. What brought them into treatment was their symptoms. But until they address the one thing that they have in common—a childhood of emotional abuse—true recovery is impossible.
One of the goals of any child-protective effort is to “break the cycle” of abuse. We should not delude ourselves that we are winning this battle simply because so few victims of emotional abuse become abusers themselves. Some emotionally abused children are programmed to fail so effectively that a part of their own personality “self-parents” by belittling and humiliating themselves.
The pain does not stop with adulthood. Indeed, for some, it worsens. I remember a young woman, an accomplished professional, charming and friendly, well-liked by all who knew her. She told me she would never have children. “I’d always be afraid I would act like them,” she said.
Unlike other forms of child abuse, emotional abuse is rarely denied by those who practice it. In fact, many actively defend their psychological brutality, asserting that a childhood of emotional abuse helped their children to “toughen up.” It is not enough for us to renounce the perverted notion that beating children produces good citizens—we must also renounce the lie that emotional abuse is good for children because it prepares them for a hard life in a tough world. I’ve met some individuals who were prepared for a hard life that way—I met them while they were doing life.
The primary weapon of emotional abusers is the deliberate infliction of guilt. They use guilt the same way a loan shark uses money: They don’t want the “debt” paid off, because they live quite happily on the “interest.”
Because emotional abuse comes in so many forms (and so many disguises), recognition is the key to effective response. For example, when allegations of child sexual abuse surface, it is a particularly hideous form of emotional abuse to pressure the victim to recant, saying he or she is “hurting the family” by telling the truth. And precisely the same holds true when a child is pressured to sustain a lie by a “loving” parent.
*Emotional abuse requires no physical conduct whatsoever. In one extraordinary case, a jury in Florida recognized the lethal potential of emotional abuse by finding a mother guilty of child abuse in connection with the suicide of her 17-year-old daughter, whom she had forced to work as a nude dancer (and had lived off her earnings).
(Another rarely understood form of emotional abuse makes victims responsible for their own abuse by demanding that they “understand” the perpetrator. Telling a 12-year-old girl that she was an “enabler” of her own incest is emotional abuse at its most repulsive.)
(A particularly pernicious myth is that “healing requires forgiveness” of the abuser. For the victim of emotional abuse, the most viable form of help is self-help—and a victim handicapped by the need to “forgive” the abuser is a handicapped helper indeed. The most damaging mistake an emotional-abuse victim can make is to invest in the “rehabilitation” of the abuser. Too often this becomes still another wish that didn’t come true—and emotionally abused children will conclude that they deserve no better result.)
The costs of emotional abuse cannot be measured by visible scars, but each victim loses some percentage of capacity. And that capacity remains lost so long as the victim is stuck in the cycle of “understanding” and “forgiveness.” The abuser has no “right” to forgiveness—such blessings can only be earned. And although the damage was done with words, true forgiveness can only be earned with deeds.
For those with an idealized notion of “family,” the task of refusing to accept the blame for their own victimization is even more difficult. For such searchers, the key to freedom is always truth—the real truth, not the distorted, self-serving version served by the abuser.
Emotional abuse threatens to become a national illness. The popularity of nasty, mean-spirited, personal-attack cruelty that passes for “entertainment” is but one example. If society is in the midst of moral and spiritual erosion, a “family” concealing the emotional abuse of its children will not hold stand out. And the tide, societal acceptance, shows no immediate signs of turning.
Effective treatment of emotional abusers depends on the motivation for the original conduct, insight into the roots of such conduct and the genuine desire to alter that conduct. For some abusers, seeing what they are doing to their child—or, better yet, feeling what they forced their child to feel—is enough to make them halt. Other abusers need help with strategies to deal with their own stress so that it doesn’t overload onto their children.
But for some emotional abusers, rehabilitation is not possible. For such people, manipulation is a way of life. They coldly and deliberately set up a “family” system in which the child can never manage to “earn” the parent’s love. No matter how hard the child tries, he will never succeed. In such situations, any emphasis on “healing the whole family” is doomed to failure.
If you are a victim of emotional abuse, there can be no self-help until you learn to self-reference. That means developing your own standards, deciding for yourself what “goodness” really is. Adopting the abuser’s calculated labels—”You’re crazy. You’re ungrateful. It didn’t happen the way you say”—only continues the cycle.
Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have only two life-choices: learn to self-reference or remain a victim. When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who cannot or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.
It’s time to stop playing that role, time to write your own script. Victims of emotional abuse carry the cure in their own hearts and souls. Salvation means learning self-respect, earning the respect of others and making that respect the absolutely irreducible minimum requirement for all intimate relationships. For the emotionally abused child, healing does come down to “forgiveness”—forgiveness of yourself.
How you forgive yourself is as individual as you are. But knowing you deserve to be loved and respected and empowering yourself with a commitment to try is more than half the battle. Much more.
And it is never too soon—or too late—to start.
The attorney and author Andrew Vachss has devoted his life to protecting children. Vachss, an expert on the subject of child abuse, examines perhaps one of its most complex and widespread forms—emotional abuse: What it is, what it does to children, what can be done about it.
Condensed from an article originally published in Parade Magazine, August 28, 1994, With thanks