By Gaetane Borders
Granted it does not often happen, sometimes I am at a loss for words. I was rendered speechless a few days ago when meeting with a student. He was a handsome 10-year-old youngster who appeared shy and slightly awkward. I met with him to complete an evaluation in order to determine if he has a learning disability. In his file I read that he has a history of behaving aggressively in school, and has been frequently suspended.
One task that I asked him to complete as part of my assessment was to finish a series of incomplete sentences. One of the sentences was “I wish my parents…” He completed the sentence with “were nicer.” This is what sparked our conversation. I asked him why he thought his parents were not nice, and he replied that his step-father calls him a “loser.” He rocked back and forth in his chair as he told me that his mother was aware of this, and frequently told him to “shut the f*#@k up.” He also whispered that both of them tell him that he will not pass the 5th grade because he is “stupid.” He avoided my eye contact and instead stared at the ground as he shared his story. Luckily for me because there was a pool of tears welling up in my eyes and I was clearly unable to keep my composure. The thing that saddened me the most was that he recounted the instances of abuse nonchalantly…as if he felt that he deserved to be treated in that way. Since his abuse was not physical, it could have easily gone undetected. Fortunately, he felt comfortable enough with me to share what was happening to him. However, this is not the case for millions of children around the world because they suffer in silence.
Bruises and broken bones are easy to spot, but you may never know that a child is told on a daily basis that they were a mistake or that they are ugly and fat. While physical abuse might be the most visible, other types of abuse, such as emotional abuse also leave devastating scars. It severely damages a child’s emotional health and social development, and has profound psychological consequences. The following are examples of emotional child abuse:
- Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating a child
- Calling names and making negative comparisons to others
- Telling a child he or she is “no good," "worthless," "bad," or "a mistake."
- Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying.
- Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving him/ her the “silent treatment.”
- Limited physical contact with the child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection.
- Exposing the child to violence or the abuse of others, whether it is the abuse of a parent, a sibling, or even a pet.
Since abuse typically happens behind close doors, you may not ever witness any of these acts. However, there are some warning signs that a child might be experiencing abuse. Knowing the possible signs will enable an early intervention. Here is a short list which demonstrates how some emotionally abused children may act:
Warning signs of emotional abuse in children
- Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
- Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).
- Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
- Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, tantruming).
Keep in mind that emotional abuse happens in all types of families, regardless of race or economic background. Experts say that some parents may emotionally and psychologically harm their children because of stress, poor parenting skills, social isolation, or lack of available resources. In addition, reports indicate that parents may be abusive because they, too, were abused as a child.
After nearly 20 years of working as a School Psychologist, I continue to get emotional when I become aware of acts of abuse. How anyone could harm a child in any way baffles me because there is simply no justification. PLEASE, please…please learn the warning signs of emotional abuse. Moreover, intervene by reporting the abuse to the officials. Sometimes people are reluctant to do so because they are worried that the abusive parent will find out. However, most states allow you to make an anonymous report. Lastly, if a child tells you that they are being mistreated, reassure them that they did nothing to deserve the abuse…and believe them.
Gaétane F. Borders, MA, ABD
To get help or report abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).