Trigger Warning: Childhood emotional or sexual abuse. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
When we think of “childhood abuse,” usually the first types that come to mind are physical and sexual abuse. And while we should talk about these types of abuse, oftentimes they are the only categories that get discussed. Too often we overlook an equally damaging and often hidden kind of abuse — emotional abuse.
To open up this conversation, we’ve listed and analyzed five kinds of childhood emotional abuse we don’t often hear about. Before beginning, we want to preface by saying this list is not an exhaustive one, but merely a small part of the large and under-discussed category of childhood emotional abuse.
1. Emotional Neglect
According to the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), there are four common types of childhood neglect: physical, educational, emotional and medical. Because physical, educational and medical neglect are fairly outwardly presenting, childhood emotional neglect (CEN) — defined by failing to meet a child’s need for nurture and stimulation — is often the type that gets missed. But neglecting a child’s emotional needs can be just as damaging as the more visible types of neglect.
This is something Scary Mommy contributor Anna Redyns wrote about in her piece, “I Suffer From Childhood Emotional Neglect. Here’s What That Means”:
“The tricky thing about CEN is that it’s not an active type of neglect. You can’t see it the way you can a child’s bruised cheek or hear their grumbly belly. As a child, you don’t know it’s happening. As an adult, you might not be able to remember specific instances because it was simply a condition of your environment. Childhood emotional neglect is an invisible force that often goes unnoticed until symptoms appear many years later.”
So what kind of symptoms present in adulthood as a result of childhood emotional neglect?
According to Dr. Mari Kovanen, a UK-based clinical psychologist, some common symptoms are feelings of emptiness, fear of being dependent on others and poor awareness and understanding of emotions.
Mighty contributor Tori S. detailed her own experience with being emotionally neglected and how it affected her as an adult in her story, “22 Things I Do Now Because I Experienced Emotional Abuse as a Child”:
“As a child, my feelings were neglected and shoved aside. They were made to feel “less than” and unimportant. They were made to seem like burdens. If I felt something different from what the rest of my family was feeling, I would be told I was wrong or needed to just move on and forgive like everybody else had.”
It’s important to note this type of neglect can be present in even the most “well-to-do” of households. Just because a child has their physical, educational and medical needs met does not necessarily mean their emotional needs are. Sometimes emotional neglect comes from parents struggling with substance abuse or mental illness, who can’t prioritize the emotional needs of their children. Sometimes it can look like absent workaholic parents who are never home. The point is, we need to talk about this type of abuse because it’s often hidden and the impact can be incredibly damaging.
If you are a survivor of childhood emotional neglect, know you aren’t alone. Of her own experience, Redyns wrote that learning to identify her emotional needs and believing she deserved to have them met was key in her recovery.
2. Covert Incest or Enmeshment
Covert incest, also known as enmeshment, describes a “too close for comfort” relationship between a parent and child where boundaries are blurred and the child can end up feeling less like a child and more like a romantic partner.
According to Dr. Kenneth Adams, a mental health professional who specializes in enmeshment issues, in situations of covert incest, oftentimes a parent turns a child into a surrogate partner to cope with their own troubled marriage. Though these kinds of relationships don’t always involve sexual touching (as in overt incest or other kinds of childhood sexual abuse), the child may be prematurely exposed to sexual talk or be on the receiving end of sexualized commenting as their body matures.
This is something Mighty contributor Monica Sudakov wrote about in her piece, “Covert Incest: The Type of Childhood Emotional Abuse We Don’t Talk About”:
“The worst aspect of this unhealthy relationship exhibited was that I was exposed to sex talk from a very young age. I knew all about sex by the age of 5 and was aware of every man my mom slept with, how the sex was and details thereof. As I got older, this boundary became even more blurred when it came to privacy. I was often told that she was entitled to look at me naked because I came out of her body, as if that ascribed some kind of ownership of my body to her. She would comment about my maturing body, tell me to wear short skirts to show off my pretty legs, tell me to wear low cut blouses to show off my boobs because “men like that.” I felt like a prostitute being pimped out by my own mother. Objectified and told that my value lay solely in catching a man and having sex.”
This type of abuse is damaging because it can affect a child’s development, often negatively impacting sexual functioning in adulthood, the ability to form healthy boundaries in relationships and the ability to develop a personal identity outside of the parent. And while these consequences are very real and can be debilitating, Adams asserts in an interview with Psychology Today that recovery is possible:
“Healing is absolutely possible. People have to set healthy boundaries with the parent (if they’re still alive), and they have to work on reclaiming their sense of self, moving away from always signing up for the role of caretaker in their relationships. And that’s not easy…. It’s a long-term management issue where you always have to keep track of it, like an addiction. But it doesn’t have to rule your life anymore.”
3. Verbal Abuse and Degradation
Though as children we are taught the “sticks and stones” adage, the reality is, words do hurt — particularly when the person inflicting harmful words is a parent or adult in charge of protecting and providing for you. In a study examining whether childhood verbal abuse increased the risk for developing personality disorders (PDs), it was found that childhood verbal abuse may contribute to development of some kinds of PDs and other co-occuring psychiatric disorders.
The impact of verbal abuse can be devastating on a child’s psyche (even affecting a child’s developing brain), and unfortunately, the effects can continue long into adulthood. Mighty contributor Keith Gottschalk, who grew up with a verbally abusive father, knows what it’s like to struggle as an adult because of an abusive upbringing. In his piece, “Why I Still Carry the Words of My Abusive Father as Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder,” he shows how he internalized the abuse and explains how it affected his own thought life and mental health:
“Stupid. Whiny. Spoiled. Lazy…
I hear these words every time I fall a little short or make a mistake… I try to catch myself whether I call myself “stupid” for spilling milk on a counter or a “useless jackass” for forgetting my keys — but it’s tough. Through most of my life, the only constant has been his voice in my head; always judging, condemning, belittling.”
Though retraining thoughts after experiencing childhood verbal abuse is difficult, it’s possible. According to Beverly Engel, L.M.F.T., the key to healing from verbal abuse in childhood is self-compassion:
“Like a poison, toxic shame needs to be neutralized by another substance — an antidote — if the patient is to be saved. Compassion is the only thing that can counteract the isolating, stigmatizing, debilitating poison of shame.”
If you are experiencing difficulties in adulthood because of verbal abuse in your childhood, reach out. Consider mental health treatment options like individual psychotherapy and group therapy. If you are in need of immediate support, you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
4. “Grooming” for Sexual Exploitation
It’s a well-documented fact that in most cases of sexual violence, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows — this is also true in cases of childhood sexual abuse. According to RAINN, (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) of the sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93 percent of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator.
But what we don’t often talk about are the psychologically abusive tactics sexual predators can use to abuse a child — one of them being “grooming.” Grooming is the process of identifying potential victims, gaining their trust, isolating them and breaking down their defenses in order to engage in contact the perpetrator finds sexually gratifying.
Once a sexual relationship has been established, the perpetrator will often use secrecy and blame to guarantee continual participation and silence from the child or adolescent.
Unfortunately, this is something Mighty contributor Dany T. has experience with. In her piece, “What’s It’s Like to Be Groomed by an Online Predator,” she detailed her experience meeting “Dan” at a time in her life when she was most vulnerable:
“By the age of 15, I was miserable… I spent a lot of time on a support forum for survivors of abuse. On that forum, I met some of my closest friends… One of those friends was a well-respected moderator on the forum. I’ll call him Dan (not his real name).
Dan was so supportive and understanding in ways no one had ever been. He didn’t seem phased by my self-harm and was unafraid to talk about the harder topics that were so taboo in my house. Things like masturbation. Or the abuse I’d suffered at age 7. He seemed like the safe person I needed desperately. It was the first time in my life I thought I had a safe person to talk to. The only problem here? I was 15. He was in his late 30s.”
From the get-go, Dan established himself as a supportive figure in her life, so when he sexualized their relationship, she was quick to make excuses and rationalize his behavior. She later commented, “The grooming was so, so deep that I could not see what was happening.”
So how can we prevent childhood sexual abuse? A good way is to look out for signs of other abuse. Though signs of abuse are not always clear cut and obvious, according to RAINN, some common warning signs include: shrinking away from physical contact, age-inappropriate sexual behavior, regressive behavior like thumb-sucking and changing hygiene routines (you can read more here.)
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
5. Use of Shame and Humiliation
According to Karyl McBride, Ph.D., L.M.F.T, a classic sign of childhood emotional abuse is the use of shame and humiliation. A common behavior of this type of childhood psychological abuse is punishing or putting a child down in front of an audience.
“Shaming and humiliation causes fear in children. This fear does not go away when they grow up,” McBride wrote. “It becomes a barrier for a healthy emotional life and is difficult to eradicate.”
A prime example of parental shaming happened in September of last year when “Modern Family” star Ariel Winter opened up about her own experience of childhood abuse growing up with her now-estranged mother Crystal Workman. In the weeks following the report, Workman (perhaps trying to redeem her reputation as a mother), gave an interview with Inside Edition shaming Winter for her Emmy Awards gown.
“I just want to see her have respect for herself and have some class,” Workman said in the interview. “All I could do was cry and feel sorry for her.”
Not only did Workman use her daughter’s fame as a platform to humiliate and slut-shame her publicly, she used her status as Winter’s biological mother to validate her criticisms.
By framing her statement “I just want to see,” Workman made her criticism of her daughter about what she wanted and what she would have liked to see in her daughter. This kind of phrasing is problematic because it shifts the focus of parenting to the parent, instead of the child. Winter has been open about the way abusive behavior like this continues to affect her mental health in adulthood.
Shaming and humiliation doesn’t just happen to adult children. Controversial “DaddyOFive” YouTubers Heather and Michael Martin were sentenced to five years probation for child neglect after their viral video series “pranking” their children sparked near-unanimous outrage online.
Though the “prank” videos were deleted from their YouTube channel, BuzzFeed News reported “some of the videos depicted the Martins yelling at their children until they cried, screaming obscenities at their children and — in one instance — shoving a child who then got a bloody nose.”
The parents were perhaps able to escape public scrutiny for as long as they did because the videos were consistently termed “pranks.” But the problem here is, just because the parent believes something is a “joke” doesn’t mean the child will understand. The Martin parents clearly thought these videos were OK to continue making, because after all, they were “just kidding.” But regardless of intention, the impact of these emotionally abusive actions takes its toll. According to BuzzFeed News, all five children underwent psychological evaluations and two were determined to have suffered “mental injury” because of the videos.
We need to take child shaming and humiliation seriously, because it is a very real and widespread form of emotional abuse. When a parent is at fault and says things like, “You should have known I wasn’t serious,” it unfairly shifts the blame to the child, effectively telling them: “You can’t feel the way you feel because you misinterpreted my intentions.”
It’s a parent’s and guardian’s job to take care of a child — mentally, emotionally and physically. It’s time we start talking about these kinds of emotional abuse because the consequences of not doing so are damaging and long-term.
Originally published on The Mighty.