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Emotional Abuse: A Deeper Look

Emotional Abuse cover image, black and white and featuring a person sitting alone on a bench looking down

Human relationships are complex and varied. They can be enormously rewarding yet also very painful. The darker sides of relationships are generally abusive and unhealthy, when just getting through each day becomes a struggle. These relationships don’t have to be just romantic - familial, friendly, or even simply peer relationships can experience these ups and downs too.

There are more situations in which emotional abuse can occur, but the important thing is to recognize the signs that are present in almost all the forms. Emotional abuse is defined as something that causes psychological stress or trauma to a person, often scarring them for a lifetime. It generally involves emotional manipulation, purposeful stress-causing behavior, and demeaning verbal insults. When facing emotional abuse, it is important to know that the abuse is through no fault of your own, but rather the inability or unwillingness of the abuser to express themselves healthily. Abuse is abuse, whether it is physical or mental, and there needs to be a conversation where emotional abuse is regarded as a very real issue - one that shouldn’t be normalized as a part of “growing up”. It leaves enormous mental scars and is damaging, no matter the race, age, or any other demographic.

There are generally three main forms of abuse that we focus on as a society: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and verbal/emotional abuse. There are ongoing conversations about the first two - physical and sexual abuse - but in many cases, society doesn’t recognize emotional abuse. Oftentimes, it is downplayed and underestimated. For example, people - and sometimes even the legal system! - may use traditions to justify emotional trauma. As an example, some parents may use verbal threats and emotional manipulation to force their children into obeying them. This type of “parenting” is upheld by some courts as being the traditional method of child-rearing. According to Kids Helpline, verbal intimidation and emotional threats are very damaging to a child’s emotional state. However, society still hasn’t caught up with it, with many incidences where emotional abuse has not been recognized.

Indeed, although society has recognized the need for intervention and support in situations of physical or sexual child abuse, emotional abuse has not been nearly as prevalent in the discussion. Child emotional abuse is not as well known or recognized - particularly when done by people within the child’s own family. The truth is that children have a fundamental right to love and nourishment. When this right is denied, it becomes child abuse. However, this sort of abuse is condoned more often than we’d like to think. According to Do Something, 2.9 million cases of child abuse are reported in the US alone. However, everything is subject to change as we learn more about the world we live in. Child-raising techniques that were considered the best could turn out to be enormously harmful to the development of the psyche, inhibiting emotional maturity. For now, though,, we don’t often recognize the emotional downsides of these techniques and instead continue the practice of these techniques simply because they have been the norm for years. Tradition, as an example, may dictate that slapping a kid in public to get them to behave is the right thing to do. In terms of emotional abuse though, it is very harmful in the long-run. According to Psychology Today, hitting your kids in this way teaches them that might make right, ensuring the spread of unhealthy parenting styles to the next generation and increasing the emotional rift between the parent and the child. However, the problem doesn’t end there.

Say an adult constantly berates their child for not living up to their standards. When the child tries to find help, they find they don’t have many options. One of the main reasons is adult privilege and resistance to change. For example, heavy emotional abuse at home could be justified by people who use adult privilege to justify how the parents treat the kids. Adult privilege means that society regards adults as of a higher status than minors while also enforcing ageist views where minors are simultaneously viewed as children and adults, a distinction only brought up to serve the benefit of the adult. This would mean involve an adult saying that their child is old enough, so they should work and start earning money for the family, but then simultaneously claiming that they shouldn’t be able to handle their money on their own because they are too young. This form of privilege is present nearly everywhere in society, where an adult’s word is often held in much higher esteem than a child’s. In some situations, this is understandable and useful, but it can also serve to downplay accusations of abuse and neglect, especially in cases of emotional abuse where children are written off as being overly sensitive. No child deserves to be bullied into changing core aspects of themselves, and yet some parents are enabled to harangue and emotionally manipulate kids into doing what they want. For example, if a child comes out as bisexual, the parent may say that they are just faking it, that they are greedy or confused, or ignoring their views on their own body isn’t the right thing to do. Though this may feel obviously not okay, some parents nonetheless view emotional abuse as the right way to get their kids to live up to their ideals. This means that some children will then carry the emotional scars of abuse, such as not being able to trust others very easily or - the opposite - getting immensely desperate for love for the rest of their life.

Another major type of emotional abuse is something that we have all heard of: bullying. It exists in schools, dorms, homes, work, and society in general. The effects of bullying can haunt people throughout their lives. Based on stereotypes, prejudice, narcissism, but also pain, bullying can take on forms such as cyber-bullying, teasing, rumors, gossip, name-calling, and social ostracization. Teachers, parents, bosses, and co-workers can all contribute to bullying by simply being bystanders. When you are a bystander to a conflict, you have in a way abandoned the victim, which can be emotionally crippling. Martin Luther King once said that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” a quote that resonates with the essence of the harm involved in being a bystander. When you are a bystander, you alienate the victim and make them feel as if they are so hopeless that not even their friends are willing to stand up for them, which contributes to the bullying behavior much more than one might believe.

The notion “hurt people hurt people” plays a part in this struggle, too. Many times, bullies have their own issues and little to no way to resolve their feelings, which they may then take out on other people. This does not in any way excuse their behavior, but it provides us a valuable perspective that bullies are not just all horrible people inside. Many face serious issues and possibly the same situation they inflict on others. Indeed, bullying is a complex problem, with the possibility to drive a victim to self-harm, depression, and/or other damaging behaviors. Also, there is the concept of self-bullying, a relatively newer problem in which youth bully themselves for not matching up to unrealistic and damaging standards. Self-bullying is essentially a form of self-harm, but more emotional. Victims often find themselves posting things that show themselves in a negative light or repeatedly calling themselves ugly, stupid, etc. Self-bullying is common in people with other mental health challenges, such as depression or anorexia. It is tremendously harmful to people, especially young people. According to the Economist, reported cases of self-bullying have risen from 6% in 2016 to 9% in 2019. It is important to realize that bullying can, and does, cause intense emotional harm and that there needs to be a serious intervention to prevent it, regardless of who may be involved.

Another big issue within the realm of emotional abuse is dating/domestic abuse. This is often difficult to recognize, especially when you’re in such a relationship yourself. Many abuse survivors have remarked that they were not aware that their relationship was abnormal or that their partner was abusive until they observed other relationships (healthy ones). Many survivor stories from RAINN, an organization that helps people heal from violent abuse of any kind, mention that when living with an abuser, they felt as if the abuse was just another way that the abuser was showing them love. They didn’t understand that what they were going through was abuse, writing it off as a form of “tough love” from their abuser. As an example, domestic abuse may involve screaming, fighting, and displays of power and manipulation. This type of abuse is sometimes culturally condoned. Indeed, any couple has healthy disagreements, which do serve a purpose: healthy disagreements can help a couple learn more about each other and their relationship. The problem is that domestic abuse can be a factor in unhealthy conflict and escalate disagreements to more extreme levels.

Domestic abuse can affect anyone, though data from the National Institute of Health shows that women are twice as likely to be injured than men. Also, couples with LGBTQIA+ affiliations are more likely to be abused compared to their straight counterparts. Clearly, there is a lot of nuance in every situation. In general, though, domestic abuse is one of the most prevalent forms of emotional abuse and has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Recognizing this form of abuse helps to encourage conversations about the existence of domestic abuse and what the world can do to stop it from occurring. Tips for dealing with domestic abuse include always having a place you can go if you feel as if you are not safe in the situation. You could try a local hotel, a friend/family member’s house, and/or the local shelter (local shelter numbers here for the U.S.). If you suspect a friend is being abused, make sure to check in regularly and to have private conversations with the suspected victim. Additionally, always document every incidence of abuse, no matter how small. This may be crucial if required to give testimony and proof against the abuser. Lastly, always encourage healthy relationships in society and media, whether it is through activism or simply just using your power as a consumer to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent the glorification of emotional and physical abuse.

Emotional abuse and manipulation can also exist on a large-scale basis. For example, society still rejects people based on their sexuality due to the spread of misinformation and prejudiced viewpoints. The Human Rights Campaign, partnering with the University of California, found that only 5% of LGBTQIA+ youth in America believe that their teachers and school staff are supportive of them, while only 26% feel safe in class. Not only do these views hurt and isolate people, but they also serve to perpetuate a widespread form of social-emotional abuse. Social-emotional abuse is essentially when a person’s identity (or lifestyle) is discriminated against by society. The phrase “tyranny of the majority” refers to this situation, where minority populations don’t feel safe in society because they don’t fit in with the picture of an "ideal citizen" in society. Examples include the Holocaust, where Jewish minorities were targeted by Nazi society as well as Anti-Semitism outside of Germany, and segregation, where individuals of color were targeted by primarily white people. Unfortunately, this is the type of emotional abuse that is hardest to deal with, as trying to change the situation would require a massive shift in thought throughout society. This is not to say that it can’t be done, but rather that doing so is significantly more difficult than altering the perceptions of a single person. Being one of the worst forms of emotional abuse, social ostracization and socially-sanctioned discrimination can be very damaging to mental wellbeing (UCLA).

There are various places to seek help if you, a friend/family member, or someone you know is facing emotional abuse. Examples include online forms of outreach, such as helplines, crisis text lines, or mental health chat rooms (see more on L2S Find Support). One can also try to talk to a friend, neighbor, or any other trusted confidant. Once again, it is important to remember that emotional abuse is not your fault in any way. Emotional abuse is often part of unhealthy relationships and is not a measure of your worth as a person. Taking the steps to remove yourself or a loved one from a harmful situation is not being weak. It is not being overly sensitive. It is not being nosy, pushy, or unable to take a joke. It is not an exaggeration or ungratefulness. It is not something spurred by mental instability, “period pains,” or anything else that people may try to blame you for. It is a brave decision, something that reveals the courage within and the desire to change your life for the better. You are not broken, you are not unlovable, and you are not a mistake. You were simply exposed to a bad situation, but more often than we tend to think, you have a choice to fight back, a choice that should be universally admired.


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