THE CONCEPT OF EMOTIONAL ABUSE

“The existence of emotional cruelty and ill-treatment has been known for centuries and was demonstrated by writers, painters, philosophers, and poets. Children, however, were seen, in every sense of the word, as the property and responsibility of parents, and interference in the way parents treated their children was discouraged. The State stepped in only when there was proof that the child was killed, starved to death, or seriously injured. In the 1960s and 1970s, after wide publicity of the battered-child syndrome by Henry Kemper and his colleagues, child abuse was taken seriously and appeared on the statute book as a criminal offence. However, emotional abuse was not recognised until the 1980s and, although it is accepted as a distinct child-abuse category, it is often not seen as serious enough to warrant intervention of the same kind as do physical and sexual abuse. This chapter aims to set up a context for the following chapters, including examples of early research describing emotional abuse and effects on children, illustration of emotional ill-treatment in popular literature, and case studies describing current concerns. “

Parental Alienation

It was not until the 1980s that emotional abuse was fully recognised as a distinct form of child maltreatment with its own causalities, manifestations, and consequences, appearing independently on the child-protection register and being dealt with in its own right. However, decision-making on when, how, and why to intervene in such cases proved to be more problematic.

Lack of confidence among practitioners dealing with child-protection cases, especially with emotional abuse and neglect, was mostly due (and still is) to lack of certainty about at what point emotionally harsh treatment becomes emotional abuse, and how bad emotional abuse has to become to warrant classification of significant harm requiring child-protection action. These difficulties are not easy to overcome or to be simplified, as signs of emotional abuse are not universal to all emotionally abused children. Some are straightforward and speak for themselves once identified (e.g. severe failure to thrive): others, however, are far…

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