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Children of Neglect and Emotional Abuse

Abuse isn't only physical

Key points

  • Emotional abuse can have enduring effects, forever altering the way a person relates to others.
  • Children of neglect and abuse are often filled with anger.
  • Emotionally abused children undervalue themselves.

In our culture, we think of abuse as only being physical. However, an equally damaging form of abuse is emotional abuse, which takes away the self-esteem and the self-value of a child. The silent abuse can forever impact the way an adult relates intimately to his or her environment. The mental and emotional damage may never be fully repaired. And although neglect is silent, it is just as virulent.

Children of neglect and emotional abuse operate differently from both their nonabused siblings and their friends. They are often difficult children; sometimes premature or sickly. As a result, they may have colic, cry a lot, and tend to create anxiety in their parents. Young families especially are unable to cope.

When abused children enter school, they become abusive themselves. Even their play can demonstrate aggressive behavior. These children are easily recognized as they avoid other children, eye contact; approach adults in a lateral way; demand attention; and display a whole range of needy behavior. In fact, abused children learn at an early age not to trust adults. Furthermore, they feel diminished and discounted, which often creates the need for self-punishment.

These are the children that pull out their hair, bite their nails, wet their beds, talk, and cry incessantly. Children of neglect and emotional abuse display a generalized anger and rage. Moreover, their need for attention—even negative attention—can reach unreasonable heights.

Frequently, one parent becomes the prime abuser. Sometimes the children display the very characteristics and traits that their parents identify with themselves and, therefore, find disquieting. Or the child might resemble a disliked relative and as a result, bring out the worst in his parents. Occasionally, the abused or neglected child is the scapegoat for the entire family. Consequently, splitting occurs, and this child can become the outcast.

When children are mistreated in this way, they are so emotionally deprived that they develop characteristics of low self-esteem. They then undervalue themselves and others. Since they feel like failures, and feel isolated, they often gravitate to the punishing patterns that they are used to from their family of origin.

Emotional abuse is on the rise because it leaves no physical marks. Yet the emotional damage is profound. In essence, each victim loses some percentage of capacity, and therefore, not only can they become underachievers, but they may actually expect to fail. Moreover, abused children may follow the model of abuse and become abusing parents. It is in this way that abuse becomes cross-generational.

However, there are many ways to intervene and prevent emotional abuse. One is in finding sensitive and trained caregivers who can help parents of at-risk children from the moment of birth. Such programs are in effect in England. When at-risk children are born in England, they are accompanied home by an staff counselor who stays in touch with the parents for six months.

Other remedies include group counseling, which can be delivered using the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the support of a meaningful person can be engaged to help. Other surrogates, lay persons who can visit and be empathetic, can often head off problems, before they start. Task forces and child protection services can also intervene in emotional abuse, as well as friends, doctors, teachers, and other professionals.

Self-help and self-reference can also alter the perception of the abused, allowing them to develop their own standards of behavior. By not investing in the strategies of the abuser, the victim of abuse can alter and break the pattern. Educating and remediating parents and children to discover alternative ways of interacting offers the greatest opportunity for social and emotional well being, in our schools and in our homes.

Finally, it is important to recognize that abusive parents can be rehabilitated and the cycle of abuse stopped. The solution may be simpler than we think. It really does take a village to raise a child and we all must invest in the capital of our future—our children.