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Emotional abuse

3-minute read

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 or financial deprivation. It 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 1in 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.

Types of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can include verbal abuse such as:

  • insults (being called fat, ugly, crazy, stupid, a loser or a failure)
  • attacking a person’s intelligence, body image or capacity as a parent
  • repeated humiliation, either in private or public
  • threats to harm or kill the person (or themselves), or take away children
  • refusing to communicate (ongoing silence).

Other types of emotional and psychological abuse include:

  • dangerous behaviour (such as destroying property or driving recklessly)
  • tracking or monitoring the person by checking their phone or emails or using a GPS
  • isolating the person from their family or friends
  • depriving the person of money, food or transport
  • excessive jealousy.

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.

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 the following:

Emotional abuse of children can have serious effects on their development, and these effects can persist 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):

Last reviewed: February 2017

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