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The damaging effects of emotional abuse

Child abuse has reached epidemic proportions in America. In 2006, there were over 3.5 million reports of child abuse investigated by state and local agencies.

Violent teens, toddlers on anti-depressants, the labeling and medicating of elementary-aged school children: these are not the signs of a nation of children enjoying the peace of well-being and the security of emotional attachment.

While only 3% of all abuse is classified as psychological, emotional abuse has the unique distinction of being the only form of abuse that occurs is all situations, whether it is physical, sexual or mental abuse.

According to the National Child Maltreatment Statistics, there was a national average of four children per day who died as a result of child neglect or maltreatment in 2006. In Los Angeles County, there were over 150,000 cases of child abuse referred to the Department of Children and Family Services. Child deaths due to abuse and neglect, as reported by the Coroner’s Office, totaled 305 (Children's Bureau of Southern CA, 2009).

Emotional abuse is commonly defined as systematic attacks on a child's emotional security or sense of self-worth. Prevent Child Abuse America (formerly known as the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 1987) has defined emotional abuse as "the failure to provide the emotional nurturing necessary for a child's psychological growth and development."

Failing to provide love, support or guidance is destructive to the healthy development of the brain and the bonding and attachment needed to form strong parent-child relationships. Emotional abuse can also occur when aggressive, excessive or unreasonable demands, which are beyond the developmental capacity of the child, are expected.

Three-year-olds, for example, can not be expected to sit quietly for an extended length of time. They do not have the physical control of their bodies yet. And still, you will find parent after parent placing this unrealistic demand on a young child, only to end up frustrated at the lack of compliance.

Even an overly cooperative child is at risk for being dominated and controlled through a system of praise and rewards which can produce an inability to self-motivate and thrive without the accolades of external motivators. Expectations that do not consider a child's need and feelings do more harm than good. The end result: a damaged child.

Verbal attacks are also psychologically destructive and can manifest in a variety of ways including: comparing, criticizing, teasing, name-calling, insulting, rejecting and evaluating a child's behavior. Any time a child is the recipient of verbal abuse, it chips away at his emotional foundation and creates a deceptive and inaccurate filter through which he will learn to see himself. Sometimes it’s just a scratch and other times it’s a whole chunk of self-worth that falls off.

It is the intention, severity and follow-up reactions of a parent that determine whether or not the child feels emotionally supported or whether the reactions have caused the child’s self-esteem and value be whittled away. How many times is too many?

It is important to remember that not all child abuse is physical. Emotional abuse is a silent epidemic. The signs are more easily overlooked and the effects can be hidden in all sorts of behavioral labels but it is possibly one of the most damaging forms of abuse.

Repeated disrespect or unreasonable criticism towards a child can have serious emotional consequences and long-term repercussions. Parental stress is the single largest contributing factor to dismissive parenting which tends to be emotionally abusive. This form of maltreatment can impair your child's self-image, self-esteem and interfere with his ability to function adequately in society, succeed academically and form healthy, intimate relationships.

Sadly, most parents so not want to intentionally hurt their children. Often, they unconsciously inflict emotional abuse without even realizing it with belittling comments and harsh handling.

"You're acting like a baby."
"What are you stupid?"
"Are you deaf? I just told you not to do that!"
"You constantly disappoint me."

These are some of the most destructive phrases you can speak to a child. It is not the need to set limits with children that causes problems; it is the repeated disregard for a child's feelings and needs in favor of demanding obedience and compliance with parental requests which stunts emotional intelligence.

When you allow your own stress to influence how you react to or treat your children, you risk teaching them the same negative behaviors that you had hoped to avoid. You cannot teach your child to manage their strong emotions, which sometimes overtake his whole body, if you cannot successfully manage your own. You cannot teach your child that his feelings and needs matter if you do not practice self-empathy and acknowledge your own needs and frustrations as a parent.

In order to move forward and create a world based on love and compassion, one which will promote the healthy self-esteem of future generations we must undergo an intense healing and releasing of past trauma which will remove the negative, limiting beliefs that have come to undermine the success of family interactions.

For more info about emotional abuse and healing in Los Angeles:
Emotional Abuse Effects
Health Within
Healing Hands Wellness Center

Lori Petro is a Mom, Children's Advocate and Speaker. She is passionate about transforming our world through conscious parenting compassionate communication, and peaceful conflict resolution.

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Twitter: @TEACHthruLove