Actually, it is. It is just harder to prove than physical or sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is insidious and complex. It is known as “emotional maltreatment,” “psychological battering,” “psychological abuse,” “soul murder,” and has been identified in the psycho-legal literature as “the core issue and most destructive factor across all types of child abuse and neglect.” Redefining the Emotional and Psychological Abuse and Maltreatment of Children, Sana Loue, J.D., Ph.D., M.P.H. Journal of Legal Medicine, 26:311-337 (2005).
The findings of a different exploratory study on the relationship of childhood abuse and PTSD found that “emotional maltreatment had the strongest impact on psychological functioning when compared to other forms of abuse and neglect.” And, that “emotional abuse is a unique predictor of post-traumatic stress symptoms…” Differential relationships of Childhood Abuse and Neglect Subtypes to PTSD Symptom Clusters Among Adolescent Inpatients, Sullivan, et. al. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 19, No. 2, April 2006, pp 229
In yet a third study, researchers concluded that “parental verbal aggression was a potent form of maltreatment.” Sticks, Stones and Hurtful Words: Relative Effects of Various Forms of Childhood Maltreatment, Teicher, et. al., Am. J. Psychiatry, 2006; 163:993-1000. In that study, researchers note that although exposure to verbal aggression has not received the same level of scrutiny as physical and sexual abuse, the negative impact “may be at least as important as witnessing domestic violence.” Children who were “the targets of frequent verbal aggression, such as swearing at and insulting a child, exhibited higher rates of physical aggression, delinquency, and interpersonal problems than other children.”
Verbal abuse (defined as scolding, yelling, swearing, blaming, insulting, threatening, demeaning, ridiculing, criticizing, belittling, etc.) may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, and “in combination with physical abuse and neglect, produce the most dire outcome.” Yet, most child protective agencies, doctors, lawyers, and courts are most concerned about the impact and prevention of physical or sexual abuse.
In the end, verbal abuse and emotional maltreatment is serious. It is correlated with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, promiscuity, self-harming behaviors, and suicidality which were commonly associated with sexual abuse.
Verbal abuse is not the only form of emotional abuse. An attempt to alienate a child from a parent, where the alienation is not designed to protect a child from actual abuse, is considered a form of emotional abuse. This happens when a parent in a divorce sets upon a deliberate campaign to keep a child from the other parent, without good cause. Alienation is a complex subject and beyond the scope of this simple blog.
It can start with subtle, yet persistent negative comments over time (e.g. reminding a young child that the other parent “dropped” the child when they were a baby and the child cites that as a reason why five years later they “refuse” to see that parent for contact). It can also be overt by convincing a child that he/she has been abused by the other parent when in fact, there has never been any such abuse. Keeping a child from an otherwise loving parent, without a serious and objective reason, can also be considered a form of emotional abuse.
Alienating a child from the love or contact with a non-abusive parent is an act of child abuse. It can be conscious or unconscious. Don’t do it. If you find that you might be doing this, please contact a highly skilled mental health provider. Start working through your intense emotions now so that you do not ruin your children as part of your unresolved issues with your former spouse. Also, say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean!