Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

“Growing up in a household where your emotions are either actively discouraged or punished, or simply ignored takes a toll on you, a developing child. You internalize the message that your feelings, your needs, your views don’t matter. It’s a belief that’s rooted in childhood feelings. That belief/feeling is powerful, and it stays with you throughout your life.” ~ Jonice Webb, PhD, in “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Psych Central

Sad ChildIn this week’s Editor’s pick, Attachment Parenting International is shedding light on a form of maltreatment of children that is often kept in the dark: emotional abuse. Unlike physical abuse, there is little awareness concerning emotional abuse — it’s less visible and is rarely covered by the media.

Emotional abuse is often misunderstood, as it’s complex and more difficult to recognize. Although it’s pervasive, and can be as damaging and painful to children as physical and sexual trauma, it’s not considered as troublesome as physical abuse.

Emotional abuse of a child is commonly defined as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that has negative mental impact on the child. It’s also referred to as psychological maltreatment. Some examples of mental abuse are:

  • name-calling
  • verbally insulting
  • shaming or humiliating
  • threatening violence (with or without carrying out threats)
  • ridiculing or criticizing the child’s appearance, abilities or fears
  • failing to express warmth and tenderness to the child
  • neglecting to show interest in the child’s thoughts, feeling or activities.

Emotional needs are intrinsic to our nature as human beings. Attachment Parenting promotes an approach that applies sensitive parental response and practicing nurturing parenting methods that foster strong emotional bonds — also known as secure attachment — between children and their parents. Secure attachment, trust and mutual respect are the building blocks of a strong, healthy emotional foundation that follows children into adulthood.

With increasing awareness and evolved societal norms, many people move away from spanking and other forms of physical abuse, check this article about how a sex crime lawyer can help if this happens at home. Consequently, however, there is more temptation to shift that punishment attitude toward verbal responses — which may seem innocuous — not realizing that some common responses are actually a form of emotional abuse. Here are a few examples of such comments:

  • “I wish you were more like your brother.”
  • “If you don’t do as I say, I will leave you!”
  • “You’re the reason Mommy is sad.”
  • “Shut up!”
  • “You are a bad boy.”
  • “You think you’re so special, don’t you?”

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional maltreatment and results in long-term harm. As noted in this Health Day article, “Yelling at Children (Verbal Abuse),” research shows that verbally abused children are more likely to:

  • become victims of abuse later in life
  • become abusive themselves
  • become depressed and self-destructive later in life
  • develop anxiety.

We are all familiar with adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But children and adults who have been verbally abused will tell you otherwise: Words are powerful and they do hurt, especially when inflicted upon children by their parents — the leading authority figures in their life and the adults children look to for protection, not only from physical harm but also emotional damage.

There are some who excuse name-calling, shaming or other forms of abuse as effective means to discipline or “toughen up” kids — an outdated idea to make them more resilient and better adapt to the “real world” — when, in fact, the contrary is true: These patterns of behavior by parents produce deep emotional and mental scars that undermine self-esteem and affect the ability to have healthy, trusting relationships.

In this Psych Central article, “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Jonice Webb, PhD, uncovers that the reason assertiveness is so much more difficult for some people to learn and practice than others is because “assertiveness is most difficult for those who grew up in households that either actively or passively discouraged emotional expression,” both examples of childhood emotional neglect.

Emotional abuse is painful. It penetrates into the heart and the soul of a child who needs to be loved, cared for, and responded to with sensitivity and compassion by his caregivers — not ignored, not humiliated, and not insulted.

A 2015 study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that regardless of the type of maltreatment endured — physical, sexual or emotional — children suffered similar consequences. As reported by Reuters, Dr. William Copeland, a psychiatry researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA, stated that: “This study is about righting a longstanding error and prejudice about the differences between these common childhood adversities,” adding: “It suggests that whether we are talking about prevention, screening or treatment, our notions of childhood mistreatment need to be broader and more holistic than they have been. There are no hierarchies when it comes to child maltreatment.”

Unconditional love

Editor’s note: Welcome to APtly Said’s celebration of mothers! This year’s theme for Mother’s Day is “Life Lessons” as Attachment Parenting International celebrates with an inspiring series from May 7-11. We hope you enjoyed your Mother’s Day and were able to reflect on what you’ve learned through your motherhood journey.

lisa fiertag 2My daughters are two of the most amazing teachers I have ever been around. Every day, I feel grateful to have them in my life and for the many ways they shower me with unconditional love.

My children have gifted me with the opportunity to open my heart, as I have learned that love can be felt and expressed without anything attached to it.

Before having children, I disliked change and I craved structure, schedules, and predictability. I never thought that motherhood would challenge all of these needs. Through the gift of unconditional love, I found myself willing to surrender to the present moment and to embrace change. I realized that the more I tried to control my children, the more we struggled, but when I was flexible, all the structure came down and each one of us could rest in the beauty of what we were doing.

Lisa Feiertag_Mothers DayAlong the way, I saw that there is a path that each of my daughters will take, and while I am a part of their journey, it is not mine to own nor is it static in any way, shape, or form. It is a fluid, ever-changing, and evolving road that is based on their individual needs, emotions, and wants. When I am in recognition of this, then there is a flow that allows each moment to unfold exactly as it is meant to, and I don’t have to hold the energy to make it happen, because no matter what I do it is going to happen.

I can relax. I can enjoy. I can breathe, and I can trust that what my children are experiencing is perfect and that they both know that I am available to guide, support, and witness all of it.

Both of my daughters have invited me into one of the most emotionally intimate relationships that exist between two people. What I have learned is that in order to be completely available to both of them, I have to be willing and open to look deeply inside myself — to welcome all of the good and not-so-great qualities that have made me who I am today. When I do this, then I am owning what has arisen for me on my path so that I am not projecting it onto theirs. I am examining all the hard emotions and sticky thoughts that I have held onto for one reason or another.

When I look into the eyes of my children I can see a reflection staring back at me that trusts that I will be available…that I will take care of them…that I will do the work that is needed to surrender into me, into the moment, into who they are so that I am present for each of them to blossom into the great teachers that they are and will continue to become.

Trusting that everything is happening exactly as it is going to and that I will know what to do in each moment is a lesson that I will take with me throughout the rest of my life. From the unconditional love my daughters offer me, I am at peace with who I am, and I offer this love back to both of them so that they may be held and supported in all that they do while they grow into the beautiful humans that they are.

Trust

Whenever I encounter turbulence on my maiden voyage of parenting, I take solace in reminding myself of one really crucial ingredient of Attachment Parenting: trust.

Trust is both an awesome gift and an incredible challenge, one that we receive and take on as part of the mantle of parenthood.

161052_1659We witness it in the eyes of our nursing infant child as he gazes up at us with unquestioning faith, and again in the wild abandon with which our toddler runs and leaps into our arms, never for a moment imagining we won’t be ready to catch him. We feel it in those fleeting precious moments of deep vulnerability, basking in the warm renewing glow of usefulness when our older child comes to us for help and advice, or simply to share with us those priceless ordinary details of her day.

So much of what we do as parents is to inspire and preserve our child’s trust in us. But what of our trust in them?

Trust is something I struggle with, something I don’t give easily or quickly. It takes time for me trust a new person.

I sometimes catch myself tallying up moralistic judgments of others in an attempt to determine if they have “earned” my trusting allegiance. I try to assure myself, “Trust doesn’t come freely, and why should it?” After a lifetime of perceived let-downs, disappointments, betrayals, trauma, abandonment and false hopes, it’s my right to withhold trust and guard its bestowal with fiery jealousy.

Isn’t it…?

Parenthood has, for me, called into question that whole paradigm of earned trust. What does my baby have to do to “prove” to me her cries of hunger or loneliness or tiredness are legit?

That’s a fairly ridiculous proposition. Even assuming her coy-eyed whimpers are less-than-wholehearted appeals for connection, she is trusting me to respond. Perhaps my work of parenting would be much less daunting if I viewed it with more of an eye toward mutual trust.

When I stop analyzing whether things are age-appropriate, gender-neutral, fair, clean or correct…

When I let the honesty and joy in my daughter’s face be my guide…

When I go to her when she cries for me…

When I stand by her even when she pushes me away…

When I let her leave a mostly full plate of food untouched, because she tells me she’s all done…

…I am acting from a place of trust.

I still have much work to do, and it’s up to me to work through trust issues with support so they don’t prove to be a barrier to the relationship with my daughter. But each time I let go and trust, I can feel our relationship grow deeper, stronger, more alive.

shannon oharaSo while my rapidly growing 9-month-old is grappling with the question of whether the world is a trustworthy place, I am learning anew how to give trust and trust myself.

And here’s what I’ve learned so far: Trust works. Trust me.

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