Understanding And Escaping Emotional Abuse

by Kahlia Meeuwsen, Lifestyle Columnist

Published in Lifestyle on 18th December, 2018

While physical abuse is one that many are familiar with, and try to avoid, emotional abuse often isn't as obvious. Perpetrators of emotional abuse can often be clever, putting on a friendly face to others while engaging in the abuse while in private spaces.

Furthermore, emotional abuse can often be extremely damaging to the victim's mental and emotional capacities. That's why it's important for emotional abuse to be better understood and easier to spot. To assist in that venture, we're going to take a close look into what emotional abuse is, what it looks like, the signs of abuse in both children and adults, and what you can do to escape or assist.

emotional abuse in childs

Please keep in mind while reading this article that the author is not a medical professional. If you have specific questions about emotional abuse, or believe you or someone close to you are being abused, it's important to talk to a medical professional as well as law enforcement if needed.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is abuse that is directed mentally or emotionally rather than physically. In some cases, people can be emotionally abusive as well as physically abusive, or they may only be emotionally abusive. It can really depend on the situation.

Oftentimes, things like manipulation, shaming, yelling, threats and more can be included in emotional abuse. It is designed to bring down the victim's self-confidence and keep them second-guessing themselves so that the abuser can have complete control. This is a kind of abuse that can leave deep, lasting emotional scars on the victims.

What Does Emotional Abuse Look Like?

Emotional abuse can be more difficult to spot, because it often comes in the form of words rather than hitting, slapping or other forms of physical abuse. It's also common for most of the abuse to go on behind closed doors, while those involved are forced to behave like everything is fine in public places.

Things like yelling, insults, ultimatums, guilt trips, love-bombing and threats can take place in an abusive relationship. The goal is often to tear down the victim so that they no longer have the will to get away, and learn to rely on the abuser to make decisions and control their lives.


Threats are often a method used by abusers to keep control over the victim. It can include threats of exposing something that is extremely embarrassing, or something dangerous. For example, there may be threats to either abandon a child, or to harm the children or other family members of their victim.

If someone is making threats like this, it should be treated with caution. This is a large red flag that shows someone is not above manipulating you in order to get what they want, or avoid embarrassment themselves.

Lack Of Privacy

Abusers can tend to favor control over the privacy of their victims. This can mean that they log into your social media accounts, check your text messages, read emails or even read through a diary in order to gain information they can use to control you.

In some cases, they can also feign care or concern in order to rationalize the behavior. Meanwhile, other cases can involve them actively demanding that you share access to your private information. It's important to watch out for both, as they are strong signs that they may be looking for ways to keep control over you.


Another method abusers can use for the sake of control is isolation. They may drive wedges between the victim and their family and friends, or convince them to move far away from the people they care about. This is often a way to ensure the victim has less support, and therefore has to rely on them more.


On a larger scale, this can also be recognized in cults where the leader opts to move their followers to an entirely new location. The new place means fewer connections and less solid ground for victims to stand on, and therefore can be controlled more easily.

Blaming and Alienation

There can be many cases in which the abuser is unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions. This can also often be more than simply denying it, but may also include blaming the victim or convincing them that their perception of the situation is incorrect.

This can alienate the victim, and they may start believing that they actually are at fault. Children can be particularly prone to this, as they so often absorb the messages that are sent by parents and other adults. As a result, there can be huge effects on the mindset of the victim.


Abusers can often use a technique known as love-bombing in an attempt to show the victim that they have changed. Often, this can alternate with the abusive behavior, to keep the victim from being able to guess whether they can expect kindness or hostility during any interaction.

Sometimes, this can include gifts or lavish attention. You may also hear the abuser claim that others would be envious of how good they are to you, or that they don't get enough appreciation for all they do. When you see this behavior, it's worth remembering that it usually isn't a sign of lasting change.

Guilt Trips and Gaslighting

Guilt trips can often be used to make the victim feel ashamed and guilty, even when they may not have done anything wrong. This can really have a huge effect on the self esteem of the victim, as they begin to feel badly about their decisions, actions, the way they look or anything else the abuser may focus in on.

In addition to that, abusers can use gaslighting to keep the victim confused or uncertain about their thoughts and perceptions. One such example of this is when the abuser says something cruel at one point, but completely denies it at a later point, or convinces the victim that they misinterpreted what was said.

Withholding Communication Or Affection

There are a couple of methods that abusers can use as forms of punishment for the victim. These include giving the cold shoulder, or avoiding affection until the requirements of the abuser are met.

emotional abuse

It's important to keep in perspective, because it's perfectly normal to not feel like giving affection, or to need some space, after an argument. However, in abusive circumstances, this can go on for longer periods of time and often be more about manipulating the victim into doing what they want rather than simply taking a break from those things until their mood has improved.


An ultimatum is essentially a threat, but it often exists under the disguise that the victim has to make a choice, and either make the one that makes the abuser happy, or suffer the consequences. Abusers can often see themselves as generous for offering you the choice at all.

They typically see that whatever consequences you end up with while being forced to make this decision are your fault. In reality, they likely didn't need to make the ultimatum to begin with but decided it was necessary.

Resource Control

Abusers may also decide to control certain resources in order to make it harder for the victim to get away or make their own decisions. For other adults, financial control isn't uncommon, and it can ensure the victim is stuck because they don't have money of their own to either get away or live alone.

With children, resource control can also choose to control the ability to get food. Because of that, children are forced to rely on the abuser for food. Other resources that may be controlled include the use of cell phones, cars and even insurance.

Item Damage

While not all emotional abusers may harm their victims, it is a possibility that they can break or purposefully "lose" things that are important to the victim. In some cases, this may be done at the whim of the abuser for seemingly no reason, or for a small perceived slight.

This is often done to show the victim who is in control. In some cases, it can even involve a family pet being harmed or lost. If you notice any of these signs, it's important to get away as soon as possible, as it's a strong sign that the person is trying to keep control of you.

Signs Someone May Be Experiencing Emotional Abuse

One of the best ways to catch emotional abuse is to watch out for the signs. These can really vary from person to person, but there are some that tend to be more common than others. Things like large behavioral changes can be a strong sign of emotional abuse. If you're concerned that someone around you may be experiencing emotional abuse, make sure to watch out for the following signals.

The Victim May Withdraw

One of the clearer signs we can see in victims of emotional abuse comes with personality changes. For example, someone who might normally be extroverted and outgoing may withdraw, becoming sullen, quiet and perhaps even depressed or angry.


In a given person, even if this isn't a sign of emotional abuse specifically, it's often a sign that something is wrong. Because of that, it can be a good idea to check in with them just to make sure. Otherwise, you can also keep an eye out for other signs of emotional abuse.

Obvious Signs

Sometimes, there can be some more obvious signs that emotional abuse is taken place. For example, you might notice verbal abuse of someone either know or don't while you're out and about, at an event or just about anywhere you may go.

If you notice verbal abuse taking place, it's important to remember that abusers often save the worst of their behavior for private spaces. Think about what you're seeing or hearing and ask yourself how much worse it may get outside of a public place. If you can step in, or contact the police or a help line about the situation, you may stop things from becoming worse.

Appearing Frightened Of Abuser

You may notice that the victim of emotional abuse is afraid of their abuser. They may refuse to do or say something that might anger them, or seem anxious when they can't get home by a certain time or otherwise conform to the "rules" that the abuser may have for them.

Those in healthy relationships understand that being afraid of a significant other or parent isn't natural. If you notice that someone around you does seem to have this fear, it's a good idea to consider the possibility of emotional abuse.


Shame can be something that many victims of emotional abuse experience, and it can come in a number of ways. Some can become ashamed of their body, wearing thick clothing even during the hotter seasons, while others may become ashamed of their intelligence, believing it to be lacking.

Emotional abuse really tears down the confidence levels of those who are subjected to it. They can be left feeling that they are worthless, stupid, ugly and many other terrible things. Watching out for this kind of shame can clue you into abuse, as most of the time people don't gain these opinions of themselves without the "help" of others.


Victims of emotional abuse can begin to blame themselves for the ways they are treated. Emotional abusers can be very adept at manipulating their victims to think they have brought consequences upon themselves, rather than realizing that they are being abused.

self blaming

As a result, victims can begin to rationalize the situation in their own minds. In some cases, they may even begin to feel shame or self-loathing because they can't seem to fit into whatever box their abuser may want them to be in. What they often can't yet see is that the goal posts are constantly moving.

More Subtle Signs

There can also be signs that are much more subtle. It's not always easy to see them, but knowing a little more about them may be able to help. An example can include someone who seems uncomfortable speaking up about problems or complaints, and therefore being much more obliging than most.

This is a tricky one because it can just be that the person is very kind. However, in other cases, people can become afraid of making others unhappy, and therefore seek to fulfill their wants to the best of their extent, regardless of the expense to themselves.

Emotional Abuse In Children

Emotional abuse can be especially damaging to children, because they are still developing their identities and personalities. The effects of emotional abuse can be deep and lasting, changing a happy, friendly child into an adult filled with turmoil and struggling with things they may not have, had the abuse not occurred.

It's important to look out for the signs of emotional abuse in anyone, but the sooner you can get a child out of an abusive situation, the more likely it will be that they can live a happy, healthy life. It's not easy to spot, but it is possible.

Signs In Children

The signs we find in children can be a little different from those in adults. In some cases, this might mean that some signs are more obvious, which can be helpful. However, not all signs are ones that people may automatically attribute to some kind of abuse. Consequently, it's worth considering when the following signs are noticed.

Negative Self-Talk

Children are still learning about the world, and the lessons they can learn from the adults in their life can become embedded. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when learning to be empathetic and compassionate.

However, children with emotionally abusive parents can instead be taught that they are worthless, stupid, ugly or just plain bad. This can start to show up when children express these thoughts to others. This is one time when the lack of filter children have can help greatly. It gives those around them an easier time in discovering abuse that may be occurring.


Another obvious sign that can occur in some children is self punishment. This might not be something that all children do, but it's something worth looking out for. Essentially, it appears when a child is told no, or otherwise gets the sense that they might be in trouble.

Children may attempt to punish themselves in an effort to show how badly they feel about what they've done, even if they've done no more than ask for food or to do an activity. For example, a child may destroy a toy or something else they like to punish themselves for upsetting their parents.

Emotional Immaturity

Children who are suffering emotional abuse can have a decreased emotional maturity when compared to others in healthy living situations. This can often become more noticeable as they age into their opre-teen and teen years. Keeping an eye out for this can be very helpful, as it can be an obvious sign that something is wrong, whether it's due to abuse or something else.

Sudden Behavioral Changes

One of the largest signals you can get that a child is experiencing some kind of abuse is a sudden behavioral change. This might include becoming angrier, quieter, more withdrawn, or any other move toward seeming less happy overall.

angry child

Sometimes this is an obvious signal, with a large shift in personality, while in other cases it might be harder to notice. Because of this, it's a good idea to remain as alert as possible, and stay aware of the personalities of children in your life.

How To Help Someone Experiencing Emotional Abuse

It's not easy to help someone who is stuck in an abusive situation, and it can be even harder when that abuse is purely emotional. Without obvious physical signs, a lot more effort is required to prove the presence of abuse. That said, it's still important to try, and to recognize just how damaging emotional abuse can be.

Remember that while it's important to try to help whenever possible, you cannot save someone who doesn't wish to be saved. This can be a very difficult thing to deal with, but it can take some victims a long time to understand what is going on.


It's best to be subtle, especially if you don't know the victim well. If you come on too strongly, or begin disparaging their abuser, then they may become afraid or uncomfortable and withdraw from you. Instead, try to gain their trust in gentle ways, perhaps talking about some issues in your own life.

If they do open up to you about it, then helping them to get away from the abuser is key. Providing them with as many resources as possible, and convincing them to seek help can all be highly useful. If you are worried about the safety of the person, then don't be afraid to reach out for outside help.

Make sure to let them know that there are also hotlines and chats available to help them, at the National Domestic Violence website, or their hotline at 1-800-799-7233.


Abuse can be a little bit messier when it comes to children, but it's always worth trying to get them out of a bad situation. If you believe that a child is in immediate physical danger, then make sure to contact the local authorities right away to have them investigate the situation.

Otherwise, you can also contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD to get some help. Getting ahold of an agency for family services can also be a great idea. Seeking whatever help you can is likely to really mean a lot in the life of an abused child.

Escaping Emotional Abuse

Just as with any abuse, it's highly important to get out of an emotionally abusive situation as quickly as possible. Whether it involves a child or adult, abuse is a terrible thing that can create lasting effects. However, it is something that can be escaped. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for those in an abusive situation.

Seeking Help

It's important to have a support system when you're trying to get away from an abuser. Whether that means family, friends, calling a hotline or going to a shelter, rallying people around you who want to keep you safe can help to avoid repercussions from the abuser.

Secondly, getting away from the abuser as quickly and quietly as possible is extremely important. If you're worried for your safety, please do not hesitate to keep people with you or to call the police to help you with moving our and getting somewhere safe.

Finding Self-Worth

This can be one of the most difficult parts of recognizing and escaping abuse. Remember that the treatment you are receiving is not your fault, no matter what the abuser may tell you. Set boundaries, keep yourself away from that person, do whatever you need to do to live a happy life.

Seeking the help of a mental health professional can also be key to healing after experiencing abuse, whether it was as a child or adult. While it may be a scary prospect, it's something that can help so much in being able to live a healthy life after the experience.

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