Emotional abuse is a common form of abuse that occurs in close relationships. It is also known as psychological abuse, and includes verbal abuse.
Emotional abuse is about one person maintaining power or control over another person. It usually takes place between intimate partners, or comes from a parent to a child. It can also happen in situations such as schools or workplaces (for example, in the case of bullying).
There are many different types of emotional abuse, including:
- verbal attacks or threats
- restricting a person's freedom
- controlling or taking your money, food or transport
- putting you down, insulting or humiliating you, or blaming you
- making you feel scared or threatened
- making you isolated
- deliberately doing things to hurt you (bullying)
- being very jealous
For children, emotional abuse may include:
- emotional neglect (not expressing love, not showing affection or not playing with the child)
- rejection or hostility towards the child
- insulting or humiliating comments made towards the child
- inappropriate parenting (such as having excessive expectations of the child, or exposing them to domestic violence)
- not recognising the child as a separate individual (using the child to satisfy a parent’s needs or wishes)
- isolating or confining the child, or failing to create opportunities for the child to learn, explore or socialise with others
Emotional abuse can have serious negative effects on the physical and mental health of adults and children.
If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional abuse, help is available. Refer to the 'Where to get help' section below.
Not all emotionally abusive relationships are physically violent, but most physically violent relationships also include some form of emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse is experienced both by men and women, but is more likely to be experienced by women. An Australian study found that around 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience emotional abuse by a partner in their lifetime.
Emotional abuse and neglect of children also occurs, but can be hard for authorities to detect and it may go unrecognised.
What are the effects of emotional abuse?
Although emotional abuse may be less obvious than physical abuse, it can still have devastating effects on the mental health and wellbeing of adults and children.
Research has shown that psychological or emotional abuse in adults can be linked to:
- poor relationship satisfaction
- symptoms of anxiety and depression
- low self-esteem
- suicidal thoughts
- increased physical health problems (such as migraine, indigestion, stomach ulcers, chronic pain and chronic disease)
Emotional abuse of children can have serious effects on their development, and these effects can continue into adult life.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional abuse in a relationship, it is important to have support. Some people feel embarrassed to admit they have a problem, but help is essential.
Seek help from your local doctor, or from a relationship or family counselling service.
Alternatively, you can call the following helplines (24 hours per day, 7 days per week):
- Kids Helpline — 1800 55 1800
- 1800 RESPECT LINE — 1800 737 732
Go to Services Australia for information on domestic violence in languages other than English (including audio resources).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: January 2021