Page header image

Emotional Abuse: Effects on Children



  • Abuse is one person trying to control another with fear, threats of violence, or bullying. Emotional abuse hurts children just as much as physical abuse.
  • Whether you mean to or not, when you get very angry, you can make your children feel worthless, flawed, or unloved. When you feel angry or frustrated, take a break until you feel more in control of your emotions.


What is emotional abuse?

Abuse is one person trying to control another with fear, threats of violence, or bullying. Some examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Name calling, or by telling someone that he or she is stupid or lazy
  • Labeling someone as bad instead of labeling the behavior
  • Telling children they are a burden, by saying things that you wish they were never born
  • Blaming children for causing problems the family may be having
  • Discounting children's feelings such as by making fun of a child when they cry or are hurt or sad
  • Being cold and unloving or ignoring your child
  • Making unrealistic demands of your child so that they always feel like they’re not good enough
  • Using your child as an object or pawn for marital conflicts
  • Exposing a child to pornography or criminal behaviors, or allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol
  • Not letting children have friends or join activities outside of school
  • Controlling too much, not controlling enough, or being unpredictable

What is the cause?

All parents get frustrated at times and say hurtful things to their children out of anger. Whether they mean to or not, when parents are angry, they can make their children feel worthless, flawed, or unloved. When repeated often enough, this behavior is considered emotional abuse. If you were abused as a child, you are more likely to abuse your own children. Alcohol and drug use disorders also make emotional abuse more likely.

How does it affect children?

Emotional abuse hurts children just as much as physical abuse. It just shows in different ways. Results of emotional abuse can include:

  • Poor self-esteem
  • Destructive or angry acts such as setting fires or being cruel to animals
  • Self-harming behaviors such cutting oneself
  • Withdrawal such as hiding in their room or staying away from others
  • Alcohol or drug use disorders
  • Anxiety, depression, and suicide
  • Trouble sleeping and frequent nightmares
  • Problems with speech, learning, growth, and behavior
  • Trouble in school or keeping jobs
  • Trouble forming relationships

How can I help prevent it?

Raising children is not easy. Here are some examples of things you can try when you feel angry or frustrated:

  • Count to 10, take some deep breaths, and take a break until you feel more in control of your emotions.
  • Make it clear to your child that you do not like their behavior, but you do love them.
  • Set clear, consistent limits on behavior by using time-outs and sending your child to his or her room.
  • Phone a family member or friend to help you calm down.
  • Get someone to stay with your child and do something to help you relax. Take a walk, listen to music, or take a bath.
  • Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider.

Children need love, praise, attention, and respect to develop a healthy self-esteem. Some things you can do include:

  • When children behave in ways that you like or approve, praise them, and tell them that they did a good job.
  • Tell your child about qualities your child has that you appreciate.
  • Listen to your child. Let your child talk about feelings.
  • Ask your child about his or her day.
  • Spend time with your child playing, reading, walking, or taking part in a favorite activity.

When you get frustrated with your child, remember:

  • Don't take your child's behavior personally. Children get frustrated too.
  • Children are not little adults. They express feelings differently than adults. Adults can talk about their feelings. Children express feelings through behaviors such crying or tantrums and through play.
  • Never be afraid to apologize to your child. For example, if you lose your temper and say something you wish you hadn’t, say that you’re sorry. It’s important for children to understand that adults make mistakes too and can say that they were wrong.

For more information, contact:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-07-27
Last reviewed: 2019-08-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
Page footer image