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Emotional abuse

7-minute read

If you are worried that you or someone you know might be in danger, call triple zero (000) immediately.

Key facts

  • Emotional abuse is when someone repeatedly tries to make another person feel bad or doubt themselves.
  • It can happen in any relationship, especially between partners or family members.
  • It includes verbal abuse, threats, restricting your freedom, embarrassing you in public and bullying.
  • Emotional abuse of a child includes withholding love, insulting, blaming, using the child for a parent’s needs or interfering with their development.
  • It can lead to physical and mental health problems including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, sleep problems and relationship problems.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is when someone repeatedly tries to make another person doubt themselves, feel bad or inadequate. People who abuse emotionally aim to exercise power or control over another person. It is also known as psychological abuse.

Emotional abuse is a common form of abuse that can occur in any relationship, especially between partners or family members. It can also happen in situations such as schools or workplaces. If you are being emotionally abused, it doesn’t matter who is carrying out the abuse, it is always wrong and not your fault.

Emotional abuse is the most common type of child abuse in Australia, although it can occur at any age.

Sometimes, emotional abuse happens together with another type of abuse, such as physical abuse or sexual abuse.

What are the types of emotional abuse?

There are many different types of emotional abuse, including:

  • verbal abuse — such as screaming or swearing at you or insulting you
  • isolation — restricting where you go, what you do and who you meet
  • financial abuse — controlling or taking your money or belongings
  • social abuse — trying to make people think badly of you, embarrassing you or blaming you in public, making you feel scared or threatened
  • bullying — deliberately doing or saying things to hurt you
  • gaslighting — lying in order to make you doubt your own thoughts

Emotional abuse of a child may include:

  • not showing them love or responding to their needs
  • insulting, criticising or blaming the child
  • expecting the child to do things they are not capable of doing
  • exposing them to domestic violence
  • using the child to satisfy a parent’s needs or wishes
  • preventing the child from learning or socialising with others
  • involving them in harmful activities, such as drug abuse or crime

Who is at risk of emotional abuse?

Anyone can experience emotional abuse, but it is more commonly experienced by females. In Australia, around 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males experience emotional abuse by their partner at some time in their lives. However, emotional abuse happens equally to male and female children.

If you have a disability, you are also more likely to experience emotional abuse from your partner.

What are the effects of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse can have devastating effects on your mental health and wellbeing. It can lead to:

Emotional abuse can also lead to physical health problems, such as chronic pain, high blood pressure and heart problems.

Emotional abuse of children can have serious effects on their development. These effects can continue into adult life. Children who suffer emotional abuse have a higher risk of:

What are the signs of emotional abuse?

If you are worried that you or someone you know might be in danger, call triple zero (000) immediately.

It can be hard to tell if someone you know is being emotionally abused. You might suspect it if their partner or another family member often criticises them, insults them or always wants to know where they are.

You might notice a change in their behaviour. They may seem less sure of themselves and unwilling to talk about things. They might apologise frequently, even though they haven’t done anything wrong.

If you are experiencing any sort of abuse, you can speak with your doctor, or ask them to refer you to a counsellor in your area for help.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

  • If you are experiencing emotional abuse, it is important to have support. You can talk to a trusted friend or relative, your doctor or a counsellor.
  • You can call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) from anywhere in Australia, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Go to Services Australia for a list of other support services and helplines that may be helpful.
  • You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2023

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