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Child Maltreatment - Psychological Abuse

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 2, 2022.

What is psychological abuse of a child?

Psychological abuse occurs when someone knowingly causes mental or emotional pain, distress, or suffering to a child. 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 the child from family, friends, or 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
  • Age 6 years or younger
  • Learning or memory problems, a long-term medical condition, or special needs
  • Not having relatives or friends who can take care of the child
  • Care from a single or teenaged parent, or someone who lacks knowledge about the normal development of a child
  • Being around someone who drinks alcohol or uses illegal drugs, or is under stress
  • Being around someone who has a history of physical, sexual, or other abuse
  • Being around someone who has a personality disorder, depression, or another mental illness

What are the signs and symptoms of psychological abuse?

The child may start to behave in a way that is not normal for him or her. The child may also have any of the following:

  • A disturbed or frightened appearance
  • A need to avoid eye contact or talk openly to others
  • Anxiety, shyness, depression, or being withdrawn
  • Hopelessness or low self-esteem
  • Sleep problems
  • Sudden changes of mood or eating patterns
  • Desire to hurt himself or herself or other people

How is psychological abuse diagnosed?

Healthcare providers who specialize in child abuse may ask questions to get information on the abuse. They may talk to the child, family members, or others who care for the child. They may ask if the child has been eating properly, taking medicines, given clothing, or cared for. Healthcare providers 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 healthcare providers know more about the abuse. The child may also need medical tests.

How is psychological abuse treated?

The child may be placed in a daycare center or foster care. Services may be offered to help the child feel safe and cared for.

  • Counseling may help the child feel less scared, depressed, or anxious. A counselor can help the child talk about how he or she feels.
  • Medicine may be given to calm or relax the child, or to improve sleep.

What are the risks of psychological abuse?

If the child is placed in a foster home or care, it may be hard to be away from family or friends. Counseling may be emotionally difficult and painful. The child's behavior and performance in school may change. The child may develop other serious problems. These include alcohol or drug use, depression, and problems with self-esteem, moods, and relationships. The child may have thoughts of harming himself or herself or others.

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

  • Let the child rest as needed. Tell the child's healthcare provider if the child has trouble sleeping.
  • Report suspected or known psychological abuse. It may be hard to report psychological abuse of children, but it is very important. Healthcare providers can help the child if he or she is at risk for or is a victim of psychological abuse. Healthcare providers are required by law to report suspected child abuse. The child may need to leave the current living situation and be placed in foster care to protect him or her from abuse.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • The child feels like harming himself or herself or someone else.
  • The child has trouble breathing, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat.

When should I seek immediate care?

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

When should I call the child's doctor?

  • The child has new signs and symptoms since the last visit.
  • You have questions or concerns about the child's condition or care.

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 healthcare providers 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.

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