Child Maltreatment - Psychological Abuse

What is psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse of a child occurs when someone knowingly causes mental or emotional pain, distress, or suffering to a child. A child is anyone younger than 18 years old. Psychological abuse includes rejecting, insulting, threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or harassing through words or actions. This may also include ignoring, not speaking to the child, or isolating him from family, friends, or his regular activities. It is also when someone encourages, uses, or shows a child how to do something illegal.

What increases a child's risk for psychological abuse?

Poor, violent, or crowded living conditions may be one of the reasons why psychological abuse occurs. The following are other possible causes and conditions that may increase a child's risk of psychological abuse:

  • Risks related to the child:

    • The child is 6 years old or younger.

    • The child has learning or memory problems.

    • The child has a long-term condition or special needs.

    • The child has no relatives or friends who can take care of him.

  • Risks related to the people the child is around:

    • The child has a single or teenaged parent.

    • The child is around someone who drinks alcohol or uses drugs.

    • The child is around someone who has a history of family violence, such as physical, sexual, or other abuse.

    • The child is around someone who has a personality disorder, depression, or another mental illness.

    • The child is around someone who has stress due to work or financial problems.

    • The child is around someone who lacks knowledge about the normal development of a child.

What are the signs and symptoms of psychological abuse?

The child may start to behave in a way that is not normal for him. The following are some possible signs of psychological abuse that the child may show:

  • Appears disturbed or frightened

  • Avoids eye contact or does not talk openly to others

  • Feels anxious, shy, depressed, or withdrawn

  • Hopelessness or low self-esteem

  • Sleep problems

  • Sudden changes of mood or eating patterns

  • Desire to hurt himself or other people

How is psychological abuse diagnosed?

The child's caregiver may ask questions to get information on the kind of psychological or emotional abuse that is happening. He may talk to the child, family members, or others who care for the child. He may ask if the child has been eating properly, taking medicines, given clothing, or cared for. Caregivers may also want to know who the abuser is, and how long the abuse has been happening. The child may need to answer questions on a test. This can help caregivers know more about his situation. He may also need medical tests.

How is psychological abuse treated?

The child may be placed in special daycare center or foster care. Special services may be offered to ensure the child's safety and health.

  • Counseling may help the child feel less scared, depressed, or anxious. The child's caregiver may suggest that the child see a counselor to help him with how he feels.

  • Medicine may be given to calm, relax, or help the child sleep.

What are the risks of psychological abuse?

If the child is placed in a foster home or care, it may be hard for him to be away from his family or friends. Counseling may be emotionally difficult and painful. If psychological abuse is not stopped or treated, the child's behavior and performance in school may change, and he may develop other serious problems. These include alcohol or drug use, depression, and problems with his self-esteem, moods, and relationships.

How can I care for a child victim of psychological abuse?

  • Let the child rest if he needs to. Tell the child's caregiver if the child has trouble sleeping.

  • Report psychological abuse. It may be hard to report psychological abuse of children, but it is very important. Caregivers can help the child if he is at risk for or is a victim of psychological abuse. Caregivers are required by law to report suspected child abuse. The child may need to leave his current living situation and be placed in foster care to protect him from the abuse.

When should I contact the child's caregiver?

  • The child has new signs and symptoms since his last visit.

  • You have questions or concerns about the child's condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • The child feels like hurting himself or someone else.

  • The child feels that he cannot cope with the abuse, or his recovery from it.

  • The child has trouble breathing, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

Learn more about Child Maltreatment - Psychological Abuse