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What is Emotional Abuse?

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Updated July 15, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What is Emotional Abuse?
You may have heard the term "emotional abuse," which is often distinguished from physical and sexual abuse. But aren't all types of abuse emotionally abusive?
Answer:

Emotional abuse typically refers to abuse that attacks or undermines the emotional well-being of the victim directly. Emotional abuse is a term that can be applied to a broad range of behaviors, and it typically overlaps with physical and sexual abuse, as well as with neglect. All of these types of abuse have negative emotional consequences for the victim.

Emotional abuse involves a pattern of behavior or incidents that undermine the self-worth or happiness of the victim. It can include behaviors such as:

  • Rejecting, ridiculing, or belittling
  • Verbal abuse: name-calling, cursing or yelling
  • Threatening harm or putting the victim in harm's way
  • Isolating the victim or preventing them from making contact with others
  • Corrupting the victim, for example, by encouraging immoral or illegal activities
  • Ignoring the victim; failing to respond to emotional or other needs, especially if the victim is in a dependent position.

Being a victim of abuse and an abuser are both more commonly reported in people with addictions to alcohol, drugs, food and sex. People who have a history of abuse (both as victims and abusers) are also at risk for other problems, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Emotional abuse is difficult to prove, making it hard for professionals to intervene unless other types of abuse are evident. Nonetheless, emotional abuse is often considered the most hurtful type of abuse by victims, so the effects should not be underestimated. Both children and adults can be victims and perpetrators of emotional abuse, but it is typically considered more abusive when the perpetrator has more power in the relationship than the victim -- for example, when a parent abuses a child, or a man abuses a woman. Children and women can be abusive too, however. The lack of recognition of this fact can cause humiliation for the victim.

Sources:

Dunkley, Ph.D., D, Masheb, PhD, R, & Grilo, PhD, C. "Childhood maltreatment, depressive symptoms, and body dissatisfaction in patients with Binge Eating Disorder: The mediating role of self-criticism." International Journal of Eating Disorders 43:274–28. 2010.

McCord, Ph.D., J. "A forty year perspecitive on effects of child abuse and neglect." Child Abuse and Neglect 7:265-270. 1983.

Rice, PhD, C. et al. "Self-reports of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in an alcoholism treatment sample." Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 114-123. 2001.

US Government. "Emotional Abuse." Adapted from J. Goldman, M. K. Salus, D. Wolcott, and K. Y. Kennedy. (2003). A coordinated response to child abuse and neglect: The foundation for practice. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved 20 April 2010.

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