top of page
  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

The Invisible Wound – The Emotional Abuse of Children


The emotional abuse of children is recognized as a significant cause for mental disturbances. However, opinions vary on what can be considered as emotional abuse. On the one hand, emotional abuse is seen to be embedded within Western culture child-rearing practice, thus turning every parent into a potential abuser. On the other hand, emotional abuse is seen as a symptom of dysfunctional families, only affecting a limited number. I suggest that the detection of emotional abuse of children needs to take into account cultural practices of child-rearing as it runs along a continuum of severity. The ecological model attempts to describe the conditions for the occurrence of emotional abuse which can assist social workers who work directly with children at risk and offer them assistance which can sometimes prevent later pathology.

Keywords: Emotional Abuse, Social Work, Ecological Model, Children, Good-enough-parent

On Another’s Sorrow

“Can a father see his child

Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d?

Can a mother sit and hear

An infant groan, an infant fear?

No, no! never can it be!

Never, never can it be!”

William Blake


A child with a hand grip mark on her arm will most likely be recognized as having been physically abused. A child with inappropriate sexual behavior will merit suspicion that she has been sexually interfered with. But what do we think about the quiet and withdrawn child, whom we feel in our hearts is not quite right but can't really decide in our minds why?

Since children cannot be conceived of without their parents, as Winnicott (1971) so aptly remarked, writing about the emotional abuse of children involves writing about styles of parenting. But, the emotional abuse of children is not just less then optimal or good-enough child-rearing. It is the pattern of parental behavior which significantly ignores both social and scientific standards regarding child care (Rutter, 1981; Polansky, 1985; Stern, 1985).

The term "abuse" conjures up images of violence and cruelty. It infers a deliberate action, an intention to harm and to damage. It is a signifier of the violations of one person's rights by another. But in order to be able to write about emotional abuse, we need to recognize that the term also describes what is not being done, what is being omitted, neglected and denied, and most importantly, how it is done unintentionally, out of ignorance, indifference or distress. Once applied, it becomes a judgment and a stigma, for all involved, and one which may be difficult to rub off, practically and emotionally. (Bourton and Burnham, 1992; Hart et el, 1987; McGee and Wolfe, 1991; Wolfe, 1991; Garbarino et el, 1986; Polansky, 1981; Cassidy, 1999).

Emotional abuse is as difficult to detect as it is damaging. It is often ignored, as its recognition may leave us feeling enraged, impotent and devastated. We may try to protect ourselves from it as adults by denying its emotional impact, projecting our feelings and down-playing its significance. But in later years, we become morally indignant when confronted with the extreme examples of its consequences such as juvenile delinquency. This denial, this 'ignorance without bliss' (Polansky, 1981, p. 2) is putting democratic society in a great danger, as we, as a society and individuals, move towards choosing to employ greater punitive and restrictive methods to deal with the hostile actions of the damaged adults, rather than attend to the hurt of the young children who later develop to become those damaged adults.

Although children are emotionally abused by other adults such as teachers, by other children as in the case of bullying or by inadequate care in institutions, this essay will concentrate on the emotional abuse of children as synonymous with damaging parenting occurring within the private context of a family, regardless of its actual composition, and within the larger context of society (Wolfe, 1991; Polansky, 1981; Green, 1976). Therefore, the search for a clear definition of emotional abuse begins with the search for a definition of good-enough-parenting (Bettelheim, 1987). [1]

Good Enough Parenting

Defining good-enough-parenting is obviously riddled with problems.

Rutter (1981) names three main characteristics, which are necessary for good-enough-parenting, which he derives from psychoanalytical theory. The first element Rutter describes is acceptance. It is the warmth which the parent is able to experience and exhibit towards the child which forms an accepting another. Furthermore, this love must be more than "just cuddling

and the much discussed parental approval... (but as) a less dramatic willingness to go to some trouble in answering the child's spoken or unspoken needs." (Bettelheim, 1950, p. 3)

The second element is attachment. While still defining attachment as the strong bond formed between the parent and the child that is essential for the child's survival, he differs from the traditional view of attachment to say that "there is great individual variation in the strength and distribution of

attachments: the main bond is not always with the mother and bonds are often multiple". (Rutter, 1981, pp. 19)

He points out that the forming and the strength of the attachment are not simply correlated with the length of time spent with the child. What is more significant are the quality of the attention given (more so than the actual content of the activity), and the reciprocity of the relationship. Thus, a child

will form a stronger attachment with a lively and attentive uncle, rather then with a depressed and perfunctory mother.[2]

The third element he considers vital to good-enough-parenting is the continuity of the relationship. Again, contrary to traditional attachment theory, Rutter claims that separations from the main care-giver are not necessarily intolerable and damaging for the pre-school child. This is also supported by Fonagy & Target who make a conceptual distinction between 'separation' and 'discontinuity', claiming that while long and frequent absences of the parent are damaging, most children up to the age of four, experience brief periods of being away from their parent, which are helpful in the development of their sense of healthy independence within the general stability and continuity of the relationship (Fonagy & Target, 1997).

The issue of continuity and separation is crucial in emotional abuse. Simmonds et el (1988) point out that often a change in family constitution has significant effect on the chance children have on actualizing themselves. Children who have been removed from one family situation to another are likely to suffer damage to their self-esteem and their internalization of positive role models and adaptive interactional patterns. Early separation from the child's natural family might be necessary as a result of deprivation in that family, but it also brings about an arrest in the child's development, which makes it difficult for the child to adjust to the transition, requiring therapeutic intervention to facilitate the adjustment. It is for this reason that Goldstein et el (1979) advocate against any state intervention other than in the most extreme cases of emotional abuse so as to prevent the irrevocable damage caused to children by separating them from the adults with whom they have formed psychological bonds, even if those parents have also abused them.

Wolfe (1991) further explores the link between parental behavior and emotional abuse by taking into account the controversial issue of discipline. He defines abuse as the parental behavior which "signify the extremes to which a given parent may go in attempting to 'discipline' his or her child, and the parents' lack of sensitivity to the child's limitations and needs." (Wolfe, 1991, p. 8). He identifies two significant strands in parental attitude towards parenting: parental demandingness and parental sensitivity. Abuse occurs when these two approaches are mismatched. For instance, a very demanding, disciplinary but insensitive parent is more likely to be abusing their child then a parent who is both demanding and sensitive in a more balanced way. Therefore, the mere presence of discipline is not necessarily a pre-requisite for abuse. In fact, its total absence might be as worrying. It is the precise nature of the discipline and its context which are important. The need for a parent to apply firm boundaries, protection and security in their relationship with the child will only develop into abuse once the parent has to rely on harsher and harsher methods of discipline, emotional and physical, in order to deal with their child's demands and needs. It is the difficulty of striking the right balance in this apparent polarity, which leads Wolfe to describe a continuum of "parental emotional sensitivity and expression" (Wolfe, 1991, pp. 13) which stretches across three general types of parenting styles, where the balance between the different elements of the parenting attitude is the significant factor.

The child-centered parent will “provide a variety of sensory stimulation and positive emotional expression... will engage in highly competent, child-centered interactions...(but also will) occasionally scold, criticize, interrupt child activity… using a harsh tone sometimes..." (Wolfe, 1991, pp. 13)

The borderline parent will “show rigid emotional expression and inflexibility in responding to (the) child... will use verbal and nonverbal pressure to achieve unrealistic goals...will be insensitive to the child's needs, make unfair comparisons and take advantage of (the) child's dependency." (Wolfe, 1991, pp. 13)

The inappropriate and abusive parent will “denigrate and insult (the) child), express conditional love and ambivalent feelings towards (the) child... will emotionally or physically reject (the) child's attention...will use cruel and harsh control methods... will show no sensitivity to (the) child's needs... will intentionally seek out ways to frighten, threaten or provoke (the) child... will respond unpredictably with emotional discharge." (Wolfe, 1991, pp. 13)

The Problem of Defining Emotional Abuse

When coming to define emotional abuse, two main characteristics can be outlined, the legal one and the clinical one (Sassower & Grodin, 1990). Whereas legal definitions are narrow and rely on hard evidence to justify statutory intervention, the clinical definition is wider albeit more controversial and ambiguous (Ronnau & Poertner, 1989, Rutter et el, 2008). Agreement between the different agencies dealing with child welfare is far from reached, and legal definitions are seen as lagging behind clinical observations and implications (Jones et el, 1987). Preston (1985) points out the confusion between the legal, rehabilitative and preventative aims of the discussion around emotional abuse. As these aims are often not compatible, any attempt to reach a simultaneous operational definition ends up in further frustration and confusion for social workers (Bannister, 1992). Similarly, Melzak (1992) points out that the discussion over what constitutes emotional abuse should focus on standards of care, i.e. what is good-enough-parenting rather than on observable consequence, i.e. the consequences of emotional abuse.

Though emotional abuse has been the subject of research, there is still a controversy surrounding its definition, a controversy which is both academic, clinical and cultural (Hickox & Furnell, 1989;). The difficulty in finding a clear definition of emotional abuse stretches to the actual term used. Psychological maltreatment, psychological abuse, mental injury, emotional maltreatment, emotional deprivation and emotional abuse are terms which at times used to describe what could be the same phenomenon, although several authors use different terms advisedly, to describe a particular aspect and theoretical perception of the problem.

Sassower and Grodin (1990) maintain that it is the lack of a clear conceptual framework regarding what happens in the work of professional dealing with emotional abuse cases that hinders the clear operational definition and realistic practical solutions. They identify very astutely the three core issues which have to be dealt with before any clear answers are reached: the need and the difficulty to have a certain amount of certainty that what we observe is indeed what we think it is, the difficulty of determining conclusively that what we observe is indeed caused by what we assume it is and the ethical dilemmas we engage with when faced with a possible need for intervention in somebody else's life.

McGee and Wolfe (1991) distinguish between “the predictor” of psychological maltreatment, i.e. parental behavior, and "the criterion" of psychological maltreatment, i.e. the harm suffered by the child. Thus, psychological maltreatment can only be understood within an interactional context. Furthermore, they claim that the causative and signifying connection between the two is fluid, elusive and difficult to categorize. For instance, an abusive act such might be more detrimental if it took place during an earlier developmental stage. Also, the same act might have a different impact depending on its frequency, its perception by the child and the interactional context in which it occurs.[3]

Giovannoni (1991) views the controversy surrounding the definition of emotional abuse as an issue of civil rights. While parents are fairly well-protected within social institutions, children have few, although growing, rights. Whereas the movement towards the protection of children is resultant of the civil rights movements of the Sixties, Giovannoni see the current attempt to re-establish traditional family values in the West as a backlash against those libertarian tendencies, thus now forsaking the rights of children in favor of the rights of parents by polarizing the two groups, rather than focusing on the ideology which incorporates parental attitudes which have been proven clinically to be damaging into acceptable child-rearing practices.

Another difficulty in defining emotional abuse is whether we view it as existing on its own or as a process present with other forms of abuse. Most writers claim that all forms of abuse are indicative of a psychologically deprived environment and that emotional abuse is a pre-requisite condition for any other violation of the child. Thus, emotional abuse is not seen in a hierarchical order to other abuses but as a permanent component within them. Even if we assume that emotional abuse as a distinct process does not occur before physical or sexual abuse took place, or in other words that the abused child lives in a non-abusing family situation prior to the abuse taking place, once that child has been sexually or physically abused, psychological damage is inevitably there too (Graham, 1986; Hart et el, 1987; Garbarino, 1986; Wolfe, 1991).

And yet, other writers claim that emotional abuse is such a vague and culturally-biased term that once we began applying it seriously, we find that most families are guilty of emotionally abusing their children. Thus proving that emotional abuse is the cause for what is perceived to be the problem becomes legally and clinically impossible. Any action on this basis would therefore cause more damage to the child and parent relationship without promoting further the welfare of the child. Accordingly, the term is meaningless and actually deflects from the real issues confronting the minority of troubled families who are in real need as a result of severe physical and sexual abuse, poverty and societal oppression such as racism and sexism (Goldstein et el, 1980, Parton, 1981, Gibson, 1988). [4]

The Clinical Definition – Towards An Ecological Resolution

Emotional abuse as a clinical concept was first defined by the Child Psychiatrist Karen Horney in 1937 (Horney, 1959). She identified it as ‘a parental evil’ and in later years provided several dual categories such as domination and indifference, inconsistency and hostility, overpowering love and no love. These very broad terms were the basis for future research such as Kemp (1962) whose seminal work on child battering provided the starting point for further research. Kemp (1976) later pointed out that although emotional abuse does not always provoke the same feelings of public indignation as physical or sexual abuse, it is at least as damaging, and probably intrinsic within most families, thus providing the basis for understanding most of childhood emotional disturbances.

Child Psychiatrist Graham (1986), also postulated that emotional abuse is an extreme manifestation of parental behavior which exists in most families. He claims that while most parents treat their children in an unnecessarily hurtful critical way, a small minority 'are persistently hostile and rejecting to a degree that impairs the child's emotional development. Such children are said to be subject to emotional abuse." (Graham, 1986, pp. 35) He points out that although most of the children which he considers as emotionally abused do not gain legal recognition; they are nevertheless damaged to some degree. He recognizes emotional abuse in children by a variety of factors, from presenting symptoms such as a non-organic failure to thrive, psychiatric disorders and poor school attendance, to children whose parents constantly belittle and humiliate them or, at the other extreme, overprotect the child and thus prevent normal development.

Ranney and Cottone (1991) identify three key factors in the definition of emotional abuse: unequal distribution of power within a relationship resulting in persistent parental behavior causing chronic damage.

“Emotional abuse… seems to call attention to a persistent, chronic pattern of maladaptive parental behavior resulting in pervasive long-term damage to the psychological and emotional well-being of the child (Ranney and Cottone, 1991, p. 436)."

They point out the difficulty of recognizing the third element, chronic damage, as this involves the survivor coming out and acknowledging that their life difficulties might be a consequence of their childhood experience. One of the consequences of emotional abuse is the playing-down of its significance (McCarthy, 1990). This denial, or reluctance to face up to the traumatic event does mean that it remains unrecognized, not unlike the way sexual and physical abuse were perceived until public recognition of its prevalence and seriousness opened the flood-gates and enabled millions of adults to come forward and explore the roots of their trauma (Bass and Davis, 1988).

Gabarino (1978) begins to provide the structural understanding which breaks this silence by identifying two principles for each period of childhood which would constitute emotional abuse.

“Infancy: 1. Punishment of positive, operant behaviors such as smiling, mobility, exploration, vocalization and manipulation of objects is emotional abuse. 2. Discouraging caregiver-infant bonding is emotional abuse.

“Childhood and adolescence: 1. Punishment of self esteem is emotional abuse. 2. Punishing interpersonal skills necessary for adequate performance in non-familial context such as schools, peer groups etc is emotional abuse." (Gabarino, 1978, pp. 95-96)

Gabarino (1986) further develops this theme into five types of behavior which include rejecting, isolating, terrorizing, ignoring and corrupting. These five forms of psychological maltreatment constitute a concerted attack by the parent on the child's development of self and social competence.

Hart's Seven Subtypes of Psychological Maltreatment

Hart (1987) elaborated on Garbarino’s model (1986) and described seven subtypes of psychological maltreatment after providing a general statement.

“Psychological maltreatment of children and youth consists of acts of commission and omission which are judged on the basis of a combination of community standards and professional expertise to be psychologically damaging. Such acts are committed by individuals, singly or collectively, who by their characteristics (e.g., age, status, knowledge, organizational form) are in a position of differential power that renders a child vulnerable. Such acts damage immediately or ultimately the behavioral, cognitive, affective or physical functioning of the child. Examples of psychological maltreatment include acts of rejecting, degrading, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting, exploiting and denying emotional responsiveness." (Hart, Germain and Brassard, 1987, p. 6)

1. Rejecting – which is seen as the refusal by the parent to acknowledge, believe and accept the child's needs, or to regard as useless and unsatisfactory their feelings and behaviors. For example, treating one child in a different way then their siblings because of a dislike of that child, and a consistent refusal to help that child in their need or to acknowledge their needs.

2. Degrading – which is seen as undermining the child’s status, depriving them of their dignity, and devaluing their being. For example, calling children by derogatory names, labelling them negatively and humiliating them in public.

3. Terrorizing – which is seen as frightening the child with actions or words, intimidating and coercing a child and inserting fear in them. For example, threatening the child with physical violence, leaving a young child unattended and forcing them to observe violent behavior.

4. Isolating - which is seen as placing the child on their own inappropriately to their age and wishes, and separating them from other people. For example, locking a child in a cupboard or in a room for long periods and disallowing interactions and relationships with other children or adults.

5. Corrupting - which is seen as forcing a child to behave in an antisocial or maladaptive way. For example, teaching a child and rewarding behaviours which are degrading racially, passing on criminal behaviours and providing unrealistic and antisocial models for emulation.

6. Exploiting - which is seen as using the child for the benefit of another. For example, using a child in a serving capacity towards the parent, keeping them away from school to keep the parent company.

7. Denying emotional responsiveness - which is seen as not providing sensitive and responsive care necessary for the child's healthy development, or as acting in a cold and indifferent manner, only interacting with the child when it is absolutely necessary. For example, ignoring the child's cues for interactions and handling the child in a way which is empty of feeling and positive physical contact.

This model is the most comprehensive and the one which forms the basis for a detailed account of a child's life which could be used in court in order to prove that emotional abuse did take place. However, once we accept these definitions, it can also be said that most children are at some point of their lives victims of emotional abuse. However, this does not necessarily mean that they all require professional or legal intervention or that indeed they carry lasting scars as a result. It is only the persistence and severity of such maltreatment, along with the absence of any mitigating factors, which will render children vulnerable enough to suffer psychological consequences.

Therefore, as Covitz (1986) emphasizes, the abused child is not one who suffered a few painful experiences. He ties emotional abuse ('The family Curse') closely with a style of parenting which inhibits the normal development of the child. Only the child whose basic needs for attention, affection and respect are frustrated on a regular basis, is an emotionally

abused child.

Rohner and Rhoner (1980) equate emotional abuse with the central component of parenting they describe as the continuum between rejecting to accepting. Like McGee and Wolfe (1991), they locate emotional abuse within the parent-child relationship, mainly within the mother-child relationship but at the same time paying attention to the abusive impact that father-absence, whether physical or emotional, has on the development of the child. Unlike McGee and Wolfe, they do not make a direct link between parental behaviour and impact on child as a necessary indication that abuse is occurring. In their eyes, it is enough that parents are exhibiting rejecting behaviour. to assume that emotional abuse is occurring.

Shengold (1979) provides the most dramatic expression of this view:

“Soul murder is my dramatic designation for a certain category of traumatic experiences - those instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation alternating with emotional deprivation that are deliberately brought about by another individual (Shengold, 1979, pp. 533)"

Shengold derived his term from the study of one of Freud’s patients, who was the son of Dr. Schrebber, the author of very authoritarian books on child-rearing. His judgment is indeed in line with the orthodox view of childhood damage as occurring as a direct result, and the fault of the inadequate parent, usually the mother.

Clearly, such an indictment is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Emotional abuse cannot be viewed solely as the result of an abusive interaction between a parent, usually the mother, and a child. Women are still the primary care-givers, despite the emergence of the 'New Man' and his growing ability and willingness to participate in child care (Segal, 1990). It is therefore still true that it is the woman as the parent who comes under most scrutiny, and mostly blamed once something goes wrong. Women as mothers do their job in a particular cultural environment. They are expected to do it well, not because they are better trained or rewarded for it, but because they are still perceived to be biologically destined to do so. The assumption that all women should be good mothers is based upon a historical gender-based division of labor where women seldom faced other choices. But whereas more traditional societies provide more solid support networks for women as mothers as well as some cultural and social rewards, women as mothers in industrialized societies have been gradually deprived of both over the last decades while being increasingly held solely responsible for their task if its goes wrong. Only through examining emotional abuse within such contexts, is it possible to gain a clear understanding of it.

Some Psychological Consequences of Emotional Abuse

Although there is a great deal of disagreement concerning what is exactly emotional abuse, there is more consensus about its impact. I will concentrate my efforts on discussing the psychological implications of child emotional abuse. Some psychiatric disorders, such as Dwarfism (which can also be caused by organic factors), non-organic failure to thrive and small stature, are linked to emotional abuse (Betts, 1988), as well as occasionally with physical neglect through inadequate feeding (Kavanagh, 1982). While the connections between emotional deprivation, caloric deprivation and the above disorders are still not entirely clear, statistical evidence strongly suggests a link with inadequate parenting (Kavanagh, 1982; O'reagan, 1990). However, psychosomatic symptoms such as asthma and the various eating disorders, all of which are now well-established to have clear psychological, as well as physiological, roots, present us with a challenge (Graham, 1986; Minuchin, 1978). As the scope of this essay is limited, I shall have to acknowledge the significance of these issues but not deal with them much further.

As the emotional abuse of children does not occur simply as a dysfunctional parent-child interaction but rather as a result of an emotionally depriving environment, it is not always possible to point to a linear link between abusive behavior and psychological damage to the child. The same abusive parental behavior can damage different children differently. As Garbarino (1985) pointed out, emotional abuse is 'an elusive crime', one which we sense is taking place without being able to put our finger on but simply know that something is wrong.

As emotional abuse is an interactional phenomenon, its impact has two directions: on the child and on the parent. Therefore, it is important not to lose sight of the damage which emotional abuse inflict on the abuser, especially in terms of prevention, as well as out of an understanding of the cyclical and generational nature of abuse, ie the abuser who was abused (Rohner and Rohner, 1980; Wolfe, 1991). But as the scope of this essay is limited, I shall confine myself mainly to describing the effect upon the child, emphasizing the interactional aspect of emotional abuse.

If emotional abuse is seen as a spectrum, ranging in severity so should be its impact viewed. Some abusive parental behaviors have more impact then others, depending on a multitude of factors, such as the personal characteristics of the parent and the child, the age of the child in terms of child development stages (regardless of the actual child development model used), the interactional context, its frequency and its severity (Navarre, 1987; Rutter, 1981, Wolfe, 1991).

Hart, Germain and Brassard (1987) indicate five categories which distinguish children who have been psychologically maltreated from children who haven't: emotional and mental injury, abnormal performance and behavior, erosion of the child's capacity to think and a disability. By reviewing a body of psychological, psychiatric and behavioral studies, they

produce a series of presenting problems which might indicate emotional abuse.

“1. An inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors.

2. An inability to build and maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

3. Inappropriate types of behaviour or feelings under normal circumstances.

4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

5. A tendency to develop phsical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems. “ (Hart, Germain and Brassard, 1987, pp. 12-13)

These are fairly general criteria which can be applied to all group ages from birth to late adolescence. These symptoms could also be identified in people who have not suffered emotional abuse but other traumatic experiences. Nevertheless they are still valid as they at least give us an indication as to what we are looking for. Each criterion presents slightly different symptoms in different age groups. For instance if we look at the third category, children of the age group up to two years of age will present symptoms such as anger, frustration, noncompliance and aggression, while older children in the age group up to five years of age will present symptoms such as hyperactivity, distractibility, noncompliance and greater expression of negative feelings.

While the previous model takes its queue from others’ perceptions of the child to indicate that something is wrong, Navarre (1987) uses a child-centered approach when creating an eight point model which presents the areas which are likely to be damaged in cases of psychological maltreatment:

“1. The individual’s perception of the self as valuable.

2. The individual’s perception of the self as being valued or potentially valued by others.

3. The individual’s perception of the self as competent or potentially competent to perform necessary life tasks.

4. The individual’s perception that other people and the general environment are responsive to self.

5. The individual’s perception that the world is beneficent or neutral rather then innately hostile.

6. The ability to identify emotions of the self and others accurately, and the development of appropriate and differentiated responses to those emotions.

7. The ability to perceive and respond positively to the desires and needs of others.

8. The ability to form and maintain relationships through which learning may take place." (Navarre, 1987, pp. 49)

Operating from a theoretical framework which does not differentiate between physical, sexual or emotional abuse as all three are seen to be having similar impact, Navarre (1987) uses extensive empirical evidence to describe the psychological effects of fear and pain, sensory maltreatment, negative and distorted perceptions of the self and the world, inadequate and destructive relationships, and inadequate transmission of social knowledge, skills and perception.

Sinason (1988) operating from a psychoanalytical perspective, shows that not only are the effects of emotional abuse immense and pertain to every aspect of the child's life, they are also immediate. She uses the example of feeding to show how the baby's reactions to the experience are denied and

ignored. For instance, a baby may show subtle signs of dissatisfaction which are ignored, not least as a cultural signs. She claims that babies learn to deny and ignore their feelings of distress as they perceive them to be unwelcomed by the parent and immediately adopt a more acceptable reaction such as smiling and swallowing without really wanting to.

Psychoanalytical theory states that this denial of distress will find it expression through different symptoms. For example, the baby who learns to smile as a response to hurt will learn also to express their distress in other ways, such as becoming sick or playing at being stupid, i.e. refusing to rationally accept the reality of their experience and staying in a regressive state.

Does this matter? Or in other words, how much damage does emotional abuse cause? Although the origins of mental illness are still a subject for speculation, there is some evidence that emotional abuse in childhood can be cited as one of them (Rohner and Rohner, 1980; Kavanagh, 1982; Kinard, 1982; McCarthy, 1990).

Laing and Esterson (1967), in their famous study of several women who have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, describe the warped journey these women have had to take in order to protect themselves from the abusive acts of their parents. The arrival at 'madness', as the final escape from the abusive environment which had been their home, was prolonged. In a paradoxical way, travelling through the hazards of mystification, double-binding and image-fixing (Lensik-Oberstein, 1983), these girls have finally managed 'to survive' by becoming 'mad', or by becoming 'stupid', as Sinason (1988) would have put it.

Inglis (1978) demonstrates the significance of the processes of mystification, double-binding and image-fixing to the understanding of what emotional abuse does to children. Clearly not all children who are emotionally abused 'go mad'. The different variables in a child's life and their interaction with one another would determine the actual impact on the child. Nevertheless, Inglis demonstrates that the same interactional process which exists in families of schizophrenics is also evident in families of children who manage to survive the abuse in less self-damaging ways. As Brown (1962) pointed out elsewhere, it is probably safe to say now that the difference between people who exhibit symptoms and people who don't is not in kind but in degree. [5]

While identifying emotional abuse as a cause of mental illness in adults is clearly controversial, not least due to the difficult in proving it, Rohner and Rohner (1980) describe several immediate features in children's behavior which would suggest the possibility of emotional abuse.

“Rejected children everywhere tend more than accepted children to be hostile, aggressive, passive aggressive, or to have problems with the management of hostility and aggression, to be dependent or ‘defensively independent’… to have an impaired sense of self-esteem and self-adequacy, to be emotionally unstable, emotionally unresponsive, and to have a negative world view." (Rohner and Rohner, 1980, pp. 192)

One of the particular features of emotional abuse is the child who exhibits no symptoms and who in fact seems to be adapting to a situation which is perceived to be damaging (Ranney and Cottone, 1991). The child's identification with the aggressor and his or her attempt to be liked at all cost, can bring a child to perform almost unbelievable emotional feats in order to fit in with what is expected of him or her. In fact, Jacoby (1986) believes that this is the most immediate outcome of emotional abuse, especially in middle-class families where there is great emphasis on 'being well-behaved' and where the child learns very quickly to live with the double-bind of being abused and yet being expected to accommodate it in order not to be rejected even further. She warns us of the dangers of professionals colluding with this form of denial where the child doesn't seem to be presenting any symptoms but is rather anxiously trying to protect his or her already extremely vulnerable position within the family. At the same time, there is a need to draw the line somewhere. The lack of symptoms does not necessarily imply an identification with the aggressor and a denial of the abuse. It could also be indicating that no abuse is taking place.

Similarly, the child’s ability to ‘swallow’ emotional abuse and to carry on, seemingly undamaged, can be seen by some as a strength. A child who has learnt to survive and protect him or herself from abusive parents has acquired a very important surviving strategy which needs to be respected, but also transformed eventually so as not to become debilitating under different circumstances. At the same time, the lack of symptoms is also likely to be used as a justification by abusing parents in their attempt to minimize the impact of their behavior (Carver L.J. & Cornew, L. 2009).

The child who is coerced to accept that the abusive attitude he or she experiences from a parent is what is good for him or her, will also integrate that parental attitude into their own parenting practice once they become parents (Miller, 1987; 1990). The cycle of abuse is thus established and becomes generational and socially acceptable. Not unless the child, as an adult, learns to recognize that what they have learnt to label as a happy childhood is in fact their parents' distorted version of that time, will they be able to face their own experience of it. Not until the adult is able to break the silence, will they be able to make an attempt to stop the cycle of the abuse from perpetuating itself.

While the child still views the parent as an ideal character, to be admired and obeyed unquestionably, argues Miller (1987), he or she will continue their identification with them. The process of identifying with one's parents is of course vital for the development of the child (Mitchell, 1992). If the figure for this identification process is the one who has abused the child, but whom the child unconsciously emulates, then it is most likely that the child will turn into an abusing adult.

“If the very parent who abuses and is experienced as bad must be turned to for relief of the distress that parent has caused, then the child must break with what he has experienced and must, out of desperate need, register the parent - delusionally - as good. Only the mental image of a good parent can help the child deal with the terrifying intensity of fear and rage which is the effect of the tormenting experiences. The alternative - the maintenance of the overwhelming stimulation and the bad parental image - means annihilation of identity, of the feeling of the self. So the bad has to register as good (Shengold, 1979, pp. 539)."

Miller claims that most of us are unconscious of the real experiences of our childhood but comply with our parents' version. She cites Freud's famous change of mind in 1897, when he abandoned his theory of childhood trauma as the cause for mental illness for his drive theory which placed the emphasis on the child's sexual phantasies as at the root of psychic disturbance. This change of mind, Miller claims, is a vivid proof to the difficulty we all have in facing the grim reality of our childhood experience. Whatever the truth about Miller's theory is, its significance is in conveying both the difficulty in accepting a traumatic experience and the importance of the identification-with-the-aggressor process that abused children are subjected to.

Belsky (1984) reaches similar conclusions by looking at what constitute damaging parenting within abusive families. She postulates 'a continuum of influence', or in other words, she suggests that the same processes which occur within abusive families, also occur within families which are not identified as abusive, but to a varying degree and with other mitigating elements woven in.

Most of the literature which deals with the issue of child abuse, deals with children who have already been identified by a state agency as being deprived in some ways (Melzak, 1992). Very little is written, or researched, about 'normal' children, or children who are not already under the microscopic of one agency or the other. The 'other' children, those who are clinically identified as abused, seem to inherit the paradox that while they are perceived to be fundamentally different from other children, it is their experience which forms the basis for clinical observations which are then used to form general theories about human behavior.

In the same way that the abused child learns to “register good for bad" Shengold, 1979, pp. 539), by splitting off and projecting away the part which cannot be integrated in order to maintain a healthy sense of identity, so does society at large split off and project the 'bad' part of child care, child abuse, onto families who already have been identified as abusive because of their social-economic or even ethnic status. That some families are more abusive then others and therefore merit more intervention then others is beyond debate. What remains controversial is whether emotional abuse is the tip of the iceberg and endemic, or the unfortunate fate of a few children, the outcome of the equation made up from parental psychopathology and social deprivation.

The Witness

Another significant contribution Miller (1987) made to the understanding of the process of abuse is by attributing the relative mental health of most abuse survivors to the presence of 'the witness'. This figure is an adult who accepts the child, who understands the child's point of view while the abuse is taking place, if not actually stopping it, and by that supporting the child in maintaining some sense of proportion of what is happening to him or her. The presence of the witness meant that the child did not have to swallow totally the double bind of 'the loving parents' who was also the abusing parent. [6]

McCarthy (1990) argues that one of the most damaging consequences of emotional abuse is the fact that the child cannot turn for support and protection to those who are nearest and dearest to him or her, as it is them who are causing him or her the very trauma from which he or she needs protecting. In any other traumatic situation, such as mourning, loss or war, the child could rely on the parent to protect and support him or her through the traumatic event and thus survive it successfully and integrating the experience into his or her personality. A child who is being emotionally abused by his or her parent is deprived of that support. He suggests that the child defends themselves against intolerable 'disillusionment...mourning... or possible fragmentation' (McCarthy, 1990, pp. 181), by the use of denial and internalizing the abusive family interactions and atmosphere, thus both reinforcing abusive interactional patterns and perpetuating damaged inter-psychic images and responses to reality.

Thus, he claims, many adults develop depression from adolescence onwards as a defense and a response to the feelings of mourning and rage which they have had to repress in order 'to survive' within their emotionally abusive families. He views the damage done to emotionally abused children as occupying two main categories: a healthy development of self (regardless of the theoretical understanding of the concept of the self), and the ability to relate to others in a meaningful, aware and constructive way.

Children, whose self-esteem is damaged by denigrating parental attitudes, would often develop an inability to tolerate any anxiety and therefore would be more likely to exhibit impulsive and provocative behavior (McCarthy, 1990). As children's need for a positive parental figure is confused and confounded by the attitude of the abusive parent, the abused child develop a difficulty in maintaining a positive self image which would encourage them to become independent and self-actualizing adults. Instead, they feel tied to their families, or to those interactional patterns that existed in their families, and are unable, or reluctant and fearful, to form meaningful, intimate and non-abusive relationships outside the family circle (Satir, 1988).

As well as identifying ‘distress’ and ‘retardation’ as the two main consequences of emotional abuse, Rutter (1981) also identifies 'delinquency' as a later outcome of the psychological disruption caused by deprivation, while acknowledging that it could also be caused by a multitude of factors, some which have nothing to do with emotional deprivation. However, McCord (1983) in a forty-year follow-up study of the effects of child abuse found some direct links between childhood abuse and later offending. He found that boys who have been abused, neglected or emotionally rejected by their parents were three times more likely to have been involved in serious crime in their adult life.

The Ecological Model of Understanding Emotional Abuse

Harris (1982) reviews two models which have dominated the discourse about the etiology of child abuse. The medical model, which is credited for the raising of the awareness concerning child abuse, concentrates on individual pathology as the cause of abusive behavior. Thus, the abuser is seen as pathological and qualitatively different from other people. Treatment lies with somehow de-pathologising the abusing parent and protecting the inherent innocence of the child.

The sociological model is based on the assumption that while pathological factors may play a role in child abuse, social forces are the dominant ones. Thus abuse is related to issues such as poverty, unemployment, discrimination, inadequate housing, lack of recreational facilities and poor health care. Furthermore, this model also places some responsibility for the

abuse with the child, without blaming the child. Children are seen to be provocative and demanding and as their parents may be under life stress as a result of the above mentioned social pressures, the parents inevitably 'blow their top' and abuse the child. Treatment could only be affected by changes on a social and structural levels.

The growing consensus is now shifting towards an ecological, integrated theoretical framework which would encompass issues such as "psychological disturbances in parents, abuse-eliciting characteristics of children, dysfunctional patterns of family interaction, stress-inducing social forces and abuse-promoting cultural values" (Belsky, 1980, pp. 638). It is only through the consideration of all those factors that it is possible to form an operational picture of how abuse takes place, and how it might be possible to tackle it (Garbarino, 1985). The ecological model also offers us a way of dealing with the eternal puzzlement over why child abuse affects different children in different ways.

Bronfenbrehher (1970), whose work has been seminal to most writers about child abuse, puts forward an ecological model, based on the assumption that for a study of any human phenomenon it is necessary to consider two major factors. Firstly, "the mutual accommodation... between a growing human organism and the changing immediate environment in which it lives"

(Bornfenbrenner, 1970, pp. 514), and secondly the relationship between people, their immediate environment and the larger social and cultural context in which they exist. [7]

In order to facilitate this conceptual framework, he proposes four tiers, or successive levels, through which human development can be understood.

1. The microsystem which is the relationship between the developing person and the immediate daily context in which they exist (home, school, workplace etc).

2. The mesosystem contains the interactions between different microsystems, e.g. between different people within groups.

3. The exosystem which is an extension of the mesosystem, containing the interactions between the individual and social agencies.

4. The macrosystem which is fundamentally different from the three above as it doesn't relate to specific relationships between individuals, microsystems or social agencies, but rather to "the overarching institutional patterns of the culture or subculture, such as the economic, social, educational, legal and political systems of which micro-, meso- and exo- systems are the concrete manifestations" (Bronfenbrenner, 1970, pp. 515).

For the purpose of this essay I adapted Bronfenbrehher’s model in the following way: The microsystem is represented by the personal characteristics of the parents and the child, the mesosystem is represented by the relationship between the parents, the exosystem is represented by social factors such as poverty and employment, while the macrosystem is represented by the cultural values of child-rearing. [8]

Personal Characteristics of the Parents

The good-enough-parenting model is culturally biased. Thus, deviation from it does not necessarily mean that emotional abuse is occurring. For instance, the model is heavily reliant on a Western view of the family as consisting of two parents, a man and a woman. There are at least two factors to be considered in viewing this model critically. The first one is the existence of extended family structures where parenting is shared by more adults than the two parents. Although even in extended families, the emphasis is placed on the relationship between the child (especially the very young child) and his or her mother, in later years more emphasis is based on strong attachment between the growing child and other relatives (Ahmed, 1992, Rogers, 1989). [9]

The other point to consider is that although two parent families are still considered to be the norm, 2 million children in 1.3 million single parent households are now being raised in a single-parent households in Britain, including a third of all households in London (Mihill, 1992). Although the larger part of single-parent families are a result of marital breakdown or unplanned pregnancies, a growing number of single-parent households are the result of the considered choice of the single parent.

Having said that, for good-enough-parenting to take place in any of its diverse forms, the parents' psychological well-being is a crucial. As one of the important elements in good-enough-parenting is the ability to focus one’s attention on the child’s needs (Breton and Welbourn, 1981), adults who lack that ability are more likely to emotionally abuse their child. Adults who are suffering from mental illness are an extreme example of this. It is not enough to say that adults who suffer from a mental health problem are always bad parents. Mental illness is not a permanent, immutable state. Any adult whose mental energy is focused upon themselves is unlikely to be able to attend to the needs of their child sufficiently without having enough support themselves.

Several studies in this area have been conducted (Kavanagh, 1982) demonstrating that while in the extreme case of schizophrenia it was well established that the parent's inability to care consistently and appropriately for the child resulted in clear physical (failure to thrive, self-biting etc) and psychological symptoms, parents' with personality disorders tended to have a varied impact upon their children (Wolff, 1970). While it was shown that children to parents who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition tend to receive more professional attention, it is not so clear whether such attention was necessary for the well-being of the child (Erlenmeyer-Kimling, 1978).

Kinard (1982) reviews numerous studies where clinical depression has been cited as a parental characteristic in abusive parents. Even in occasions where clinical depression was not diagnosed as a psychiatric condition, some of its symptoms such as low self-esteem, sadness, and helplessness are cited as contributing towards the parent inability to care sufficiently for their child.[10]

“The depressed mothers were significantly more impaired than the control mothers in their relationships with their children, exhibiting less emotional involvement, difficulties in communication, lack of affection... resentment... and hostility" (Kinard, 1982, pp. 404)

Parental ability to cope with the demands of the child can be therefore impaired by depression (Goodyer 1990). Ongoing depression in the parent would mean that the normative childhood stresses would be met with decreasing competence, leading to increase in the child's stress and thus creating a vicious circle wherein the child's demands increase in proportion to the parent's decreasing ability to cope with it.

Green (1976) highlights several parental characteristics which are found in abusing parents such as 'impaired impulse control' (p. 420), low self-esteem and a disturbed sense of personal identity. He tries to understand why such parents behave in the way they do, by relying on a psychodynamic model which links the parents’ own abusive childhood experience to their later impaired functioning as parents.

Covitz (1986) who traces emotional abuse to narcissistic disturbance in the parents, also attributes abusive parental behavior to unresolved negative childhood experiences. In a Jungian analysis of the problem, Covitz identifies three archetypes of parental: the inadequate, the devouring and the tyrannical parent.

The inadequate parent is an immature individual who is not able to provide their children with adequate care and protection nor a strong role model. This parent expects the child to provide for them, protect them from life's realities and satisfy their narcissistic needs. This parent, according to Kovitz, is an individual who is not able to function well in life, personally, professionally or socially. The inadequate parent is often involved in unstable relationships or with similarly inadequate adults. Kovitz considers people with substance abuse and drinking problems to be such inadequate parents. This is contradicted by some research which shows that while drug-taking or alcoholic parents might have a decreased capacity for care (Pelton 1985), there is certainly a lack of evidence to support conclusive claims of emotional abuse on that basis alone (Kavanagh, 1982).

The devouring parent is an individual who is not able to respect the child's autonomy. This parent makes excessive demands upon the child. They will bind the child to themselves with an overprotective bond, not allowing the child to develop their own personal identity and skills of coping with life's challenges. This style of parenting is incestuous in the sense that the parent finds it difficult to conceive of the child as separate from them and would not respect any sense of age-appropriate privacy. They would tend to make decisions for the child, and manage their lives to the excessive extent that the child will be deprive of their own ability to form their own decisions. They would also expect the child to be grateful for the level of 'love' they bestow upon them.

The tyrannical parent is a moody individual who expects their children to fit in with their moods. They will employ a rigid and over-disciplined attitude to cope with the child' demands and needs. This parent will have a domineering attitude and will expect their children to behave in a particular way to merit their love and care. While often this parent tends to physically abuse their children, they will also use other forms of verbal cruelty to erect and maintain a rigid hierarchical relationship between them and the child.

While Kovitz’s archetypal observations are rather general, they do provide a useful sketch of what might be an abusive parental environment, in particular in regard to the issue of the parent's maturity. Other writers have dealt with the aspects of maturity, usually referring more specifically to the age of the parent (Shearman et el, 1983). There is an assumption that the younger the parent is, especially the mother, the higher the risk of abuse is (Belsky, 1984). This is clearly inaccurate, as will be evidenced by observations into many cultures around the world where the average age of the mother is much lower then is in the West, but where also familial support for the young mother is much greater then it is in the West (Korbin, 1981). What is probably more accurate is that young mothers who raise their children in relative isolation and in difficult economic conditions, will be less able to deal successfully with the pressures of child care.

Gabinet (1983a) cites early sexual activity as a sign of immaturity and for an unsatisfactory paternal relationship. Teenage girls who search for psychological maturity, which their parents failed to provide, become sexually active early on and put themselves at the risk of unplanned pregnancies. Being young and emotionally immature further complicates their situation as they themselves, in their persisting immaturity, now have to care for another child, thus putting themselves and their child in higher risk of perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Having said that, age alone is no indication of emotional maturity! [11]

McCord (1983) contradicts the stereotype of the abusing parent as an alcoholic and physically aggressive individual in his follow-up study of abused boys which shows that boys with alcoholic or aggressive parents were not more likely to be abused than other boys. Gabinet (1983a) shows that although there are marked differences between abusing and non-abusing families, the differences cannot be pinned down to personal characteristics of either the parents or the children.

It would be mistaken to try and determine a prototype of food-enough-parenting regardless of the context in which it occurs for other reasons too. As Laybourn (1986) found, in her study of working class traditional parenting practices in Nottingham, applying middle-class child-centered parenting values was totally inappropriate in social environment where a combination of high expectations and close supervision was more effective in terms of keeping children safe in deprived areas. While Laybourn accepts that child-centered practices are more desirable, they can only be beneficial if the social environment doesn't contradict its effect.

Similarly, as Stopes-Roe and Cochrane (1990) show in their study of child-rearing practices amongst second generation Asian parents in England, seemingly restrictive child-rearing values which are based upon conformity, obedience and discipline cannot be seen as abusive if practiced within a traditional environment.

However, the study also shows that second generation Asian children face great difficulties in integrating the conflicting value systems. This inevitably leads to a crisis point, either with the dominant culture or with the traditional family values.

Abuse-Inducing Characteristics of the Child

Several researchers have attempted to include the characteristics of the child, usually the very young baby, in the equation which would explain why some children are abused and some aren't. These authors pointed out the links between lower birth weight, prematurity and lower Apgar scores and later abuse. The evidence is mixed. While some researchers found some links between low weight at birth, prematurity and abuse (Friedrich and Boriskin, 1976; Lynch et el, 1977; Belsky, 1980), others have found no significant difference between groups of babies with below average birth-weight and average weight at birth (Shearman et el, 1983). While these differences in findings might be attributed to methodological difficulties, the very fact that they are conducted highlights an intuitive truism in relation to child care.

It is true that some children appear to be, and subjectively are, more demanding then others, for a variety of reasons (Harris, 1986). Whether their demandingness is due to intrinsic genetic factors, or whether it is an expression of the difficulty their parents have in looking after them, has to remain an open question. It is important however to emphasis that although the child's characteristics, such as having persistent colick, being hyperactive or being particularly passive and lethargic, might trigger a parent towards abuse or neglect, these characteristics can only be viewed and evaluated within the interactional context of the family. In other words, children cannot cause abuse to themselves by the mere presence of their 'difficult' characteristics. Elmer (1967) showed that children with chronic illness presented greater challenge to their parents, and when coupled with other factors such as poverty, these children were more likely to suffer from abuse.

Clearly one has to be careful here not to ‘blame the victim’. Nevertheless, the issue of responsibility and participation in abuse is quite complex. Since the power relationship between the abuser and the abused is tilted against the child, he or she cannot be made to take responsibility for what is being done to them. However, as Lamb (1986) found out through her work with abused children, it can be unhelpful to use the line 'it wasn't your fault' in therapeutic work with survivors of abuse. While placing the responsibility for the abuse with the adult is necessary, it might also perpetuate the survivor's feelings of helplessness. Saying 'it wasn't your fault' doesn't help to address the sense of power and control which has been taken away from the abused child. It also fails to address any positive side-effects which the child might have experienced around the abuse which now they would have to distance themselves from if they were allowed to feel totally not responsible for what happened to them.

The child’s contribution to being a target for abuse is clearer when we consider children with physical or mental disabilities, whose care is more demanding. Yet again, having a disabled child does not mean that the child is more likely to be abused. But looking after a disabled child puts extra pressure upon the parents and makes them more vulnerable to becoming

abusive (Green, 1976). Children who don't respond well to care as a result of their personal qualities, are more likely to be perceived by parents as 'being difficult'. Such children, who don't fit in with their parents' expectations, are likely to be blamed for the abuse inflicted upon them. [12]

Parental Relationships

Based on the assumption that children will be affected by the behavior of adults close to them, the vast amount of research on the subject shows that the quality of the relationship between the parents, or parent figures, will be crucial to the quality of child care (Goodyer, 1990; Jenkins and Smith, 1991).

Whether child care is done by the father and mother of the child, by a natural parent and a step parent or by the biological parents and their relatives, the quality of the adults' relationship will influence how the child is brought up and what model of relationship and interaction they will internalize. Even in the case of the single parent, the child will be influenced by the single parent relationship with the ex-partner, or by the total absence of a second parent.

One of the more controversial areas in assessing the impact of parental relationship on the well-being of the child is in the role of the father in child care (Pirani, 1988; Belsky, 1984). While the traditional view holds that families without fathers are damaging to the development of children, particulary boys (Bly, 1992), it is also equally argued that families with violent or unsupportive fathers are even more damaging (Segal, 1990).

Social-construction theorists (Mitchell, 1992) hold that fathers have a significant role to play in helping children to develop socially acceptable and 'normal' gender identities. The sociological feminist view holds that the development of gender identities is based on cultural images as much as on actual father role models (Segal, 1992). Without getting into the often discussed discourse as to whether families needs fathers, or the debate as to whether the construction of gender identity is a result of nature or nurture, the important factor is in the quality of the care provided for the child, be it by a man and a woman, a single woman or a single man. Furthermore, whether the father exerts important influence on the socio-emotional development of the child or not, the father's emotional support to the mother as the primary care-giver is also crucial (Goodyer, 1990).

Goodyer (1990) observes that the strength of the parental ability to provide good-enough-parenting is dependent upon their ability to cope with the inevitably stressful life events that occur in every family. As the period during which adults have to provide care for children is long, different stresses would appear throughout this period, depending on the age of the child, his or her developmental needs and the appearance of various life events in the history of the family. He reviews a vast body of research which shows that an early ability to deal successfully with the child’s developmental needs and the inevitable stress arising from life events, predicts later competence, thus ensuring a relatively constant good-enough-parenting. This competence will be dependent upon both structural factors such as the background of the parent and functional factors such as the continual social and emotional support that the parent enjoys in coping with stressful life events. Impairment of either would adversely affect the prospects of good-enough-parenting.

Nevertheless, as several authors point out, it is not necessarily the actual life event which might impact adversely on the child. For instance, marital discord, marital separation and divorce are often cited as factors which endanger good-enough-parenting (Goodyer, 1990; Jenkins and Smith, 1991). However, it is the overall context in which marital separation, for instance, occurs, which is the significant factor. If the marriage has already been stressful and violent in nature, then the actual separation might be a relief for the child who will no longer be subjected to threatening daily scenes of parental conflict.

Preston (1985) studied children who underwent the experience of their parents separating and divorcing. He shows that although there is a direct link between a family breakdown and a decrease in the quality of child care, this decrease is dependent upon several factors. He shows that for children to suffer emotional abuse as a result of a family breakdown, such abuse often existed in the family prior to the divorce and was related to the quality of the marital relationship. A couple who is engaged in marital conflict for a prolonged time without any clear resolution is more likely to emotionally abuse their child. The abuse may cease upon separation only if the new family formation is substantially different, i.e. if the remaining parent is then able to resolve their own experience of the conflict sufficiently to dedicate more attention to appropriate child care, without transforming the arena of the conflict onto the parent-child relationship.

Jenkins and Smith (1991) show that parental conflict, whether overt or through unexpressed tension between the parents bears on children in more then one way. Children will show signs of emotional deprivation as a result of observing their parents in conflict, and will also suffer as a result of discrepancies in child care practices which the conflicting parents will use. They also show that the conflicting parents will tend to be less attentive to the children's needs, as perceived by themselves and will tend to displace their conflict onto their relationship with the children.

Social Factors

Emotional abuse always occurs within a social, economic and cultural context. This context both gives a certain parental behavior its abusive label, as well as contributing to that same parental behavior by the force of the interaction between the parent's activity and the environment in which it takes place. Accepting the importance of the social context of child abuse does not diminish the psychodynamic aspect of the problem. The two are inseparable. Thus, for instance, racism is an important factor in understanding some of the pressures which black families are subjected to living within a white society (Jones and Jones, 1987), while still leaving room for analyzing the actual interaction between the abusive parent and the child.

Pelton (1985) claims that the persistent attempts to define child abuse as occurring within all social classes to the same degree is a denial of the significance of social and economic forces upon the family and its members. He cites a massive body of research in the UK and USA that shows that the vast majority of all referred child abuse cases, especially the severe ones, come from the lower socioeconomic classes of society.

It has been argued that the reason for that is that wealthier classes tend to deal with their problems, including child abuse, in different ways, ie they don't turn to state agencies and therefore are not ever considered in any of the statistics, thus reinforcing the view that poverty is the cause for child abuse. While admitting that families in the lower socioeconomic classes are more open to public scrutiny, Pelton argues that that in itself does not allows the assumption that child abuse occurs with the same frequency in higher socioeconomic classes.

Citing from national studies which are now considered seminal in the field, Pelton argues that the smokescreen that professionals and politicians have erected around "the myth of classlessness" is a result of the medical authorities' method of intervention in child abuse cases (focusing on a disease model of abuse) and the political authorities attempt to deny the necessary actions required to combat the social problems which lead families to become abusive.

Horowitz and Wolock (1985) conducted a series of studies in the USA which confirmed that although the vast majority of poorer families (poverty determined by the level of income and receipt of state welfare) did not abuse their children according to legal definitions, the vast majority of abusive families were poor and very poor. They identified several factors which were common to all abusive families such as large number of children, young age of children, children with disabilities, physical illnesses or difficult behavior pattern, parents with personal problems such as drinking, living in crowded conditions (several children in one bedroom), low income, unemployment, inadequate washing facilities, deprived inner city neighbourhoods, lack of heating, poor repair state of housing and lack of community family support services.

Garbarino (1985) advances the understanding of the social context of abuse by talking about social impoverishment rather then economic impoverishment. Although the former is a derivative of the latter, the distinction is significant as it elaborates on the simplistic notion that poverty alone leads to child abuse, and states that it is the social climate created by poverty, which increases the incidence of child abuse. In his studies of several neighborhoods in the USA, he identifies child abuse as a manifestation of an emotional climate which evolves in communities where social and economic conditions hamper, rather then facilitate, parental functioning. The residential segregation which socioeconomic factors bring about means that some communities end up being a cluster of high-need and low-resources families. The high level of need tends to inhibit sharing of burdens and a lack of positive models of adequate parental behavior. Families who live in such conditions and who are already prone to violence, apathy, depression and child maltreatment, are placed under increasing levels of stress that do not create the conditions for adequate child-rearing.

Belsky (1984) picks up one of Garbarino’s themes, social networks, and points out that although social isolation is often cited as being a contributing factors in the matrix that can lead to emotional abuse, the fact that a family has a lot of contacts with other families, relatives and friends is not necessarily advantageous. As Garbarino showed in his study, it is the quality of the social network which is important rather its presence. Similarly, a single-parent household, which might suffer from a relative social isolation, might be less susceptible to the conditions which lead to maltreatment if the 'emotional environment' is more conducive to child-rearing, as with women who decide to have a child at a later age without the support of a male partner, but who are emotionally more mature.

Studies of the links between employment and child rearing practices have yielded several conclusions (Belsky ,1984). The stress that is placed upon a family in cases of unemployment, of one or both parents, is indisputable, although the consequences of that stress would depend on factors such as length of unemployment and the material conditions surrounding it. Parents who are employed tend to bring home with them the pressures, or the benefits, of the type of work they do. For example, Belsky points out the parents who are engaged in more self-directed and personally fulfilling jobs are more likely to be able to dedicate more appropriate attention to their children, although such parents are also likely to be more consumed by their jobs and therefore perhaps more irritable and impatient.

Cultural Values

David Gil (1987) takes the exploration of emotional abuse a step further. He claims that in order to understand abuse, we have to explore the structural and institutional context in which it takes place. For emotional abuse to exist, there need to be a wider acceptance of other forms of violence and human rights violations within society. Therefore, emotional abuse does not happen as an extraordinary phenomenon in an otherwise non-violent society, but rather as another expression of its violent nature.

He describes a matrix of five inter-related conditions which are essential to healthy human development and existence: regular access to life-sustaining resources, meaningful social relations and belonging to a community, meaningful ability to participate according to one's abilities, a sense of security and the opportunity to self-actualize.

He considers that all of those essential needs are not being met within most industrialized societies for the majority of the population, thus creating the suitable environment for abuse to take place. As he sees abuse in terms of the powerful exploiting the less-powerful, in economic, political or emotional terms, it naturally follows that the least powerful groups in every society, eg black people, the low-waged, women and children, are likely to suffer abuse as a result of the inegalitarian nature of that society.

A similar idea is put forward by the social anthropologist Jean Liedloff (1989) who spent prolonged periods studying the life and child-rearing practices of the native Venezuelans. She observed that society to be free of the many structural conditions which lead to the creation of abusive societies as the ones in the West. She describes a society which lives in greater harmony with its natural environment. This greater harmony, ie the ability to exist in a non-exploitative way with natural resources, leads to the creation of social structures and institutions which come closer to fulfill the five conditions Gil alludes to.

Liedeloff (1989) looks at the way in which babies and young children are left to cry in Western cultures as an example of the contrast between child-centred cultures such as the Venezuelan and the disciplinary one in the U.K. While the Venezuelans combine permissiveness with a very high degree of responsiveness, which enables children to develop a strong sense of self esteem and responsibility, both social and personal, she claims that the Western view that a little bit of suffering doesn't harm a child, obviously tied up with Christian ideology, produces deprived children who grow up into depriving adults.

Having said that, child-rearing practices which are appropriate in less-industrialized societies may be 'better' but less appropriate when applied to the conditions of industrialized societies. This becomes clear in studies of immigrant communities. Korbin (1981) already highlighted the relativity of child-rearing and of the danger of importing and exporting values. However, it is also clear that parents across cultures have to perform similar basic tasks in order to care for their children and prepare them for life (Swick, 1985). It is the performance and interpretation of these tasks which would vary.

Korbin (1981) showed that while each culture has its own notions of what is good-enough-parenting, it is possible but very complicated, to formulate a universal definition of what is abusive which, unfortunately, has to be based on the lowest common denominator. [13]

Notions of how children should be treated are closely linked to notions of who are children. While this essay cannot cover the full historical and cultural development of the concept of childhood and the rights of children, it is important to consider Aries' (1962) point that the notion of childhood is a fairly new one. Up to the seventeen century, children were seen at best as an inferior and underdeveloped versions of adults, or at worst, as their parents' property, to be disposed off as required by their parents. They were also seen as creatures which had to be tamed, like precious but wild animals. The cruelty and indifference with which children were treated was a reflection of the harshness of life itself, and of the strict Christian moral codes which bound Europe until the French Revolution, attributing to children qualities of sinfulness and evil which had to be educated out of them by whatever means necessary. The notion that children were being in their own right, rather then property of their parents evolved slowly ever since the French Revolution, with the general increasing social and moral inhibitions concerning the right way to treat them, followed by legislations to protect their rights. The evolvement of the concept of children as rightful participants in society has taken place along side with the evolvement of the concept of civil liberties as well as the disintegration of the traditional family and society structure, both being attributes of the economic and the political changes that have taken place as the result of the industrialization of Western society (Freeman, 1983).

The gradual shift in social organization from communities made up of extended families to a more sporadic gathering of nuclear families is still ongoing throughout the world, largely as a result of changes in employment patterns brought about by industrialisation. In terms of child-rearing it means that the role of the parent has become more focused upon single individuals who live in greater isolation from extended family and community support networks, with the accompanying decrease in reliance on such informal resources and knowledge. [14]

Since the turn of the century, there has been a proliferation of professional advice available to parents on how to perform the skills of parenthood which up to then have been passed down through the generations. This reliance on professional advice is an indication of the desperate attempt ' to get it right', as well as of the growing insecurity modern parents feel in relation to parenting skills (Bettelheim, 1989).

Bettelheim (1989) regards this parental insecurity, coupled with the inadequacy of the Capitalist state child care service, as fundamental towards an understanding of the cultural environment within which not-good-enough-parenting takes place. While claiming that Freud has been largely misunderstood, he admits that the Freudian emphasis on the significance of early childhood experiences has created phenomenal anxiety, amongst parents and professionals, in relation to what is a good-enough-parenting. Once seized with this anxiety, parents have been at a loss as to how to respond appropriately to the real challenge child-rearing is, and always has been.

Parenting is a skill adults, especially women, have been supposed to acquire inexplicably. The harshness and the indifference which parents were characterised with in previous centuries are been gradually replaced with the growing awareness that although parenting could be perhaps viewed as a biological feature of human life, it is also a socially constructed and learnt skill which is influenced by the parent's own experience as a child and the current cultural notions of what is adequate parenting. And yet, parents only receive support once they have been proved not-good-enough. Despite the political rhetoric of the importance of the family, societal support services are inadequate, starting from very short maternity leaves (and no paternity leaves) through a drastic shortage of state-supported day care facilities to increasingly reduced financial support for poor families.

Cultural notions of what is the correct way to rear children have evolved fast during this century. Whereas the beginning of the century saw the popularity of the like of Dr Schrebber who advised parents to suppress children and 'their evil tendencies' (Inglis 1978), pre-Second World War childrearing manual writer Truby King showed more lenient attitudes, but still emphasized the importance of rigorous disciplining, especially when it came to issues such as toilet training and feeding. The real breakthrough came in 1946 with the appearance of Dr Spock, who was the first authority who 'discovered' that childrearing can, and should, be based on love and enjoyment of the parent-child relationship. Since then, childrearing has become a public issue, Meriting greater social welfare agencies’ interventions (Parton, 1981).

The family as a social institution is now a subject of great concern in the West. It has reached such levels of public anxiety as to merit public calls for a Royal Commission to examine its moral state after a spate of incidents involving increased awareness of juvenile crime and the dramatic death of James Bulgar in Liverpool, allegedly abducted and murdered by two ten year old boys. Various public and religious leaders have recently made alarming statements, calling for the return to 'traditional family values' and mounting a campaign which reaches moral panic levels. The seemingly libertarian values of the Sixties' in Britain are now being replaced by statements such as the one by PM John Major who called for 'more condemnation and less understanding' in relation to what is seen as moral deviance. Children are seen both as vulnerable beings who need to be protected, from their parents but also from social welfare agencies, and as dangerous beings who need to be locked up once their distress reaches such extremes as manifested by seemingly senseless criminal offending (Belsky, 1980). While this dangerous ambivalence towards children has not yet reached the proportions of the public condemnation of abandoned children in Latin America, for instance, where an estimated 40 million children live on the streets without any parental protection (Aptekar, 1990), it is getting close to viewing the disturbed child as the cause rather then the consequence of deprivation.

The change in the cultural climate regarding the appropriate response to the inherent difficulties child-rearing presents in modern society is perhaps best illustrated when we compare John Major's remark with one made by Bruno Bettelheim just before his death in 1990. When asked if he ever saw room for disapproving of some children's behavior he replied; "I can try to understand or disapprove... my task is to understand and if I understand there is no need for me to disapprove" (Philpot, 1990). Bettelheim believed that in order for children to be able to fulfill their potential, a generous, accepting, child-centered environment needs to exist. Such an environment requires many resources, which only a certain ideological view sees as a priority. That ideology is no longer dominant. The ideology of the New Right, with its principles of market forces and individual freedom, place the emphasis on issues of law and order, introducing controlling agencies and legislation, rather then support and expecting families to fall back on their own resources (Parton, 1981). As David Blunkett, the Shadow Health Secretary pointed out recently, central government priorities are focused on 'profit' and 'market forces', creating an atmosphere wherein service managers no longer think of clients' needs in service planning but rather on ways of saving resources (Neate, 1992). When resources are being dedicated to child care, they are often dedicated to creating regimes of control and punishment, such as the latest initiative by Kenneth Clarke, who has committed œ75 million pounds for the establishment of secure units for offending boys, against the advice of agencies such as Barnardos, the NSPCC and The Children's Society.

Unlike the Venezuelan community where folklore celebrates childhood with positive myths, the Judeo-Christian tradition is based upon myth after myth which emphasis the inferiority of the child. Take for example, one story from the most popular book in the world, the Bible. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac tells us of the time when Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his beloved son in order to prove to God his unfailing loyalty. It is true that God intervenes at the last minute and the boy is saved from being slaughtered by his own father, but we are nevertheless left with the image of the young Isaac who grows up with the fear of his father, and God the Father, and who learns that his life is less important to his father then some abstract and irrational belief. Similarly, if we examine the Ten Commandments, that ancient code of ethics, we discover that while it includes a directive to honour thy father and mother, it says nothing about respecting the child. On the contrary, the underlying belief is that only through subjugating the child to the wishes of his or her parents, usually the father, will the child grow up properly. It is this patriarchal tradition which favours fear of parental authority rather then respect for the child which informs most current child-rearing practices. Within this legacy of fear, emotional abuse, as performed by unsuspecting parents who believe they are acting for the good of the child, is an inevitable consequence.


Is the emotional abuse of children a phenomenon only found in exceptional cases of severely dysfunctional families, or does it permeate every stratum of society, bound up with the cultural values which that society hold? As the study of emotional abuse is in its early stages and no irrefutable conclusions can be drawn from it, my comments remain speculative and tinted with a personal bias.

What is clear is that the definition of the emotional abuse of children is tightly linked with the culturally-biased perception of what is good-enough-parenting. Emotional abuse is denoted by more than any one single parental act, however objectionable we may find it. It is a persistent pattern of interaction within a particular context which we may consider to be abusive. The ecological model I have outlined can serve as a basis for future empirical research which might show that although emotional abuse is more pervasive than anticipated, using the current model (Hart et el, 1987), it is also at least partially condoned by current cultural attitudes towards child-rearing.

The two polarities offer very different practical conclusions. If the former is correct, then the way forward should be focused on further development of statutory and voluntary prevention and treatment programs which incorporate personal and social elements. If the latter is correct then we are dealing with a problem which can only be tackled through education and cultural reform of the practice of parenting, which are clearly beyond the current role of social workers. Such educational efforts will have to come from a variety of state agencies and begin early on. I believe that the ability to parent well is bound up with the ability to deal successfully with the challenges of human relationships and with the pressures that life exerts upon everybody. These are skills that do not come to us easily. They require some thought. experimentation and experience. I do not mean by this that children should be taught how to be little adults, but rather that we cannot assume anymore that children will learn to be good-enough-parents simply by growing up. The focus in education should be placed upon creating the right conditions wherein children can learn to relate to one another, and be related to by adults, with a sense of self-responsibility as well as social responsibility for their community (Rogers, 1989).

In the meanwhile, I believe that a third way has to be found in order to move forward. I have shown that the emotional abuse of children is bound up with social conditions and cultural practices of parenting. I believe that children are still oppressed in this society, as a group of people and as individuals, while there are growing efforts to recognize their rights and empower them through legislation and otherwise. Nevertheless, child abuse will continue to be a serious problem for as long as parents are expected to be able to provide adequate care without being given the appropriate support, economically, socially and emotionally. I believe that people only oppress other people because they have been oppressed themselves and while the cultural and political climate allows them to do so without taking responsibility for their actions.

I also believe that the emotional abuse of children vary greatly in its severance and impact, depending on a variety of factors. But this should not lead us to accept milder expressions of emotional abuse as insignificant just because we are not sure what to do about them. Nor should it lead us to embracing 'traditional' family structures just because they offer a proven way of establishing authority and control, usually by empowering the father and undermining the mother and the children. At the same time, any attempts to interfere with existing family patterns are highly problematic and require careful thinking and suitable alternatives.

I have shown some of the personal and social conditions which worsen the general disposition of families, rendering it more vulnerable to becoming dysfunctional and abusive. I believe that emotional abuse only occurs in such situations where there is a concurrence of several factors. Therefore, the emotional abuse of children is a reflection of the changing patterns of child rearing and family structure rather than an outcome of the behavior of pathological parents. The recognition that it exists is an indication that society is more concerned with the way children are treated, while the reluctance to acknowledge its prevalence is also an indication of the confusion and impotence that society feels in front of the new social orders which generated it. The growing awareness of the significance of the emotional abuse of children is also a result of the dominance of psychology as the main discourse in the West at present time (Rieff, 1966). Whether or not the 'psychologizing' of all phenomena has distracted us from other perspectives of understanding the human condition as some claim (Masson, 1988), I believe that the way we treat children is indicative of all of our other actions.

Social workers may often feel paralysed when faced with children whom they suspect are emotionally abused. And indeed there may not be much they can do in the present political climate. However, the recognition that emotional abuse is real and is happening may promote a growing awareness to the integrative models of intervention which can be developed, alongside the recognition that much more needs to be done educationally and economically in order to facilitate adults in this society towards a better chances of becoming good-enough-parents.


Ahmad, B. 1990. Black Perspectives in Social Work, Birmingham: Ventura Press.

Aldgate, J. &Simmonds, J. 1988. "Aspects of Work with Emotionally Damaged Children" in J. Aldgate and J. Simmonds (Eds.) Direct Work with Children, London: Basford Books, pp. 49-61.

Argles, P. 1980. Attachment and Child Abuse, in British Journal of Social Work, 10, pp. 33-42

Aries, P. 1962. Centuries of Childhood. London: Jonathan Cape.

Aptekar, L. 1990. "How Ethnic Differences Within a Culture Influence Child Rearing: The Case of the Colombian Street Children", Journal of Comparative Family Studies21 (1), pp. 67-79.

Bannister, A. 1992. "Set Up For Abuse", Community Care, 24th December 1992, pp. 22-23.

Bass, E. & Davis, L. 1988. The Courage to Heal. London: Cedar.

Belsky, J. 1980. "Child Maltreatment: An Ecological Integration". The American Psychologist, Vol. 35 (4), pp. 320-335.

- 1984. "The Determinants of Parenting: A Process Model" Child 

Development55, pp. 83-96.

- 1991. "Psychological Maltreatment: Definitional Limitations 

and Unstated Assumptions". Development and Psychopathology, 3, 

pp. 31-36.

Bettelheim, B. 1987. A Good Enough Parent, London: Thames and Hudson.

- 1950. Love Is Not Enough. New York: The Free Press

Betts, P. 1988. "Small Stature and Physical Signs". Journal of Social Welfare law, 2, pp. 79-81.

Bly, R. 1992. Iron John. Shafesbury: Element Books.

Bourton, A. and Burnham, L. 1992. "Looking For Clues." Social Work Today, 18th June 1991, pp. 16-17.

Bourton, A. and Burnham, L. 1992. "Looking For Clues." Social Work Today, 18th June, 1992, pp. 16-17.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1977. "Towards an Experimental Ecology of Human Development. American PsychologistJuly 1977, pp. 513-531.

Brown, J. 1962. Freud and the Post-Freudians, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Carver, L.J. & Cornew, L. 2009. The Development of Social Information gathering in Infancy. In M. de Haan & M.R. Gunnar (Eds.) Handbook of Developmental Social Neurosciences

Cassidy, J. 1999. The Nature of the Child’s ties. In J. Cassidy & P.R. Shaver, Handbook of Attachment. New York: Basic Books

Covitz, J. 1986. Child Emotional Abuse. Boston: Sigo.

Department of Health. 1989. Children and Abuse, London: HMSO.

Department of Health and Social Security and The Weslh Office. 1988. Working With Children, London: HMSO.

Elmer, E. 1967. Children In Jeopardy, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.

Erlenmeyer-Kinling, L. 1978. "A Program of Studies of Children at High Risk of Schizophrenia." In J. Anthony and C. Koupernick (Eds.) The Child and His Family Vol. 1, New York: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 263-272.

Fonagy, P. & Target, M. 1997. Attachment and Reflective Function: Their role in Self-Regulation. In Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 9, pp. 679-700.

Freeman, M. 1983. The Rights and Wrongs of Children, London: Frances Pinter.

Friedrich, W. & Boriskin, J. 1976. "The Role of the Child in Abuse: A Review of the Literature." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry46 (580), pp. 1231-1237.

Gabinet, L. 1983a. "Shared Parenting: A New Paradigm for the Treatment of Child Abuse", Child Abuse and Neglect7, pp. 403-411.

- 1983b. "Child Abuse Treatment Failures Reveal Need for Redefinition of the Problem." Child Abuse and Neglect, pp. 395-402.

Garbarino J. & Vondra J. 1987. "Psychological Maltreatment." in M. Brassard, G. Germain and S. Hart (Eds.) Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 25-44.

Garbarino J., Guttmann E. & Seeley J. 1986. The Psychologically Battered Child. California: Jossey-Bass.

Garbarino J. 1985. "An Ecological Approach to Child Maltreatment." In L. Pelton (Ed.) The Social Context of Child Abuse and Neglect, New York: Human Sciences Press, pp. 228-265.

- 1980. Emotional Maltreatment of Children. Chicago: National 

Committee for Preventation of Child Abuse.

- 1986. The Psychologically Battered Child. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

- 1991. "Not All Bad Developmental Outcomes are the result of 

Child Abuse.", Development and psychopathology, 3, pp. 47-50.

Gath, H. 1986. "Recognition and Treatment of Emotional Abuse." Update, 15th September, 1986: pp. 445-452.

Gibson, B. 1988. "The Courts' Dilemmas." The Journal of Social Welfare law, 2, pp. 104-106.

Gill, D. 1987. "Maltreatment as a Function of the Structure of Social Systems." In M. Brassard, G. Germain and S. Hart (Eds.) Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth. Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 159-170.

Giovannoni, J. 1991. "Social Policy Considerations in Defining Psychological maltreatment." Development and Psychopathology, 3, pp. 51-59.

Giovannoni, J. & Becerra R. 1979. Defining Child Abuse, New York: The Free Press.

Goodyer, I. 1990. "Family Relationships, Life Events and Childhood Psychopathology." Child Psychology and Psychiatry 31 (1), pp. 161-192.

Goldstein, J., Freud A. & Solnit A. 1980. Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. London: Burnett Books.

Graham, P. 1986. Child Psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Green, A. 1976. "A Psychodynamic Approach to the Study and 

Treatment of Child-Abusing Parents.” Child Psychology 15 (3), pp. 414-429.

Harris, O. 1982. "Towards an Integrative Approach to Child Abuse." Urban and Social Change Review, 15 (1), pp. 3-7.

Harris-Cohn A. 1982. "Stopping Abuse Before it Occurs." Child Abuse and Neglect, pp. 473-483.

Hart S., Germain R. & Brassard M. 1987. "The Challenge: To better understand and Combat Psychological maltreatment of Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth. Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 3-24.

Hart, S. and Brassard M. 1991. "Psychological Maltreatment: Progress Achieved", Development and Psychopathology, 3, pp. 61-70.

Haugaard, J. 1991. "Defining Psychological Maltreatment: A prelude to research or an outcome of research?", Development and Psychopathology, 3, pp. 71-77.

Hickox A. and Furnel J. (1989) "Psychosocial and Background Factors in Emotional Abuse of Children", Child Care, Health and Development15, pp. 227-240.

Horney, K. (1959) New Ways in Psychoanalysis, New York: W.W. Norton.

Hugman R. (1991), "Organization and Professionalism: The Social Work Agenda in the 1990s", British Journal of Social Work 21, pp. 199-216.

Hunter M. (1991) "Psychotherapy with Two Children in Local Authority Care." in R. Szur and S. Miller (Eds.) Extending Horizons, London: Karnac Books, pp. 291-316.

Inglis, R. (1978) Sins of the Fathers, New York: St Martin's Press.

Ima, K. and Hohm, C. (1991) "Child Maltreatment among Asian and Pacific Islander Refugees and Immigrants - The San Diego Case", Journal of Interpersonal Violence6 (3), pp. 267-285.

Iwaneic D., Herbert M. and Mcneish A. (1985) "Social Work with Failure to Thrive Children and Their Families", British Journal of Social Work15, pp. 375-389.

Jacoby, S. (1986) "Emotional Child Abuse: The Invisible Plague", Emphatic Parenting, Summer 1986, pp. 3-10.

Jenkins, J. and Smith M. (1991) "Marital Disharmony and Children's Behavior Problems: Aspects of a Poor Marriage that Affects Children Adversely", Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32 (5), pp. 793-810.

Jones D., Pickett J., Oates M. and Barbor P. (1987) Understanding Child Abuse, London: Macmillan.

Jones R. and Jones J. (1987) "Racism as Psychological Maltreatment" in M. Brassard, G. Germain and S. Hart (Eds.) Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 146-158.

Kempe, C., Silverman, F., Steele, B., Droeymelles, W. and Silver H. (1962), "The Battered Child Syndrome", Journal of American Medical Association181, pp. 7-24.

Kempe, C. and Kempe, R. (1976) "Assessing Family Pathology" in R. Helfer and H. Kempe (Eds.) Child Abuse and Neglect, Cambridge: Harper and Row, pp. 115-126.

Kinard, E. (1982) "Child Abuse and Depression: Cause or Consequence", Child WelfareLX1 (7), pp. 401-413.

Korbin, J. (1981), "Introduction", in J. Korbin (Ed.) Child Abuse and Neglect, California: University of California Press, pp. 1-12.

Laing, R.D. (1971), The Politics of The Family, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Laing, R.D. and Easterson, A. (1968), Sanity, Madness and The Family, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lamb S. (1986) "Treating Sexually Abused Children: Issues of Blame and Responsibility", American Journal of Orthopschiatry, 56 (2): pp. 303-307.

Laybourn A. (1986) "Traditional Strict Working Class Parenting-An undervalued System", British Journal of Social Work16, pp. 625-644.

Lensik-Oberstein, M. (1983) "Denial of Reality: A Form of Emotional Child Abuse", Child Abuse and Neglect7, pp. 471-472.

Liedloff, J. (1986), The Continuum Concept, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Loney, M. (1989) "Child Abuse in a Social Context", in W. Rogers, D. Hevey and E. Ash (Eds.) Child Abuse and Neglect, London: Batsford books, pp. 88-96.

Lynch, R. (1977), "Predicting Child Abuse: Signs of Bonding Failure in the Maternity Hospital", British Medical Journal. (624), pp. 234-241.

Lyon, C. (1988) "From Diagnosis to Evidence- An Example of Two Cases Illustrating the Problems of such a transition in Situations Involving Potential Emotional Abuse of Children", Journal of Social Welfare law2, pp. 88-93.

McCarthy J. (1990) "Abusive Families and Character Formation", The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. (2), pp. 181-186.

McGee R. and Wolfe D. (1991) "Psychological Maltreatment: Towards an operational Definition", Development and Psychopathology, 3, pp. 3-18.

Masson, J. (1988) Against Therapy, London: Fontana.

Melzak, S. (1992) "The Secret Life of Children who have Experienced Emotional Abuse", in V.Varma (Ed.) The Secret Life of Vulnerable Children, London: Routledge, pp. 75-100.

Mihill C. (1992) "Cot Death Risk is Lower Among Babies who Do Not Sleep Alone", The Guardian, 12.12.1992, p. 3.

Miller, A. (1987) The drama Of Being A Child, London: Virago.

- (1990), Though Shalt Not Be aware, London: Pluto Press.

Minuchin S. (1978) Psychosomatic Families, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mitchell, P. (1992) The Psychology of Childhood, London: The Falmer Press.

Montgomery, J. (1988) "The Emotional Abuse of Children", The Journal of Family Law, 19, pp. 25-29.

Navarre E. (1987) "Psychological maltreatment" in M. Brassard, G. Germain and S. Hart (Eds.) Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 45-68.

Neate, P. (1992) "The Grassroots Idealist Shadowing Bottomley", Community Care, 19th November 1992, pp. 8-9.

O'Reagan T. (1990) "Emotional Abuse Within a Changing Legal Framework", The Journal of Child law, July/September 1990, pp. 119-124.

Parton N. (1981) "Child Abuse, Social Anxiety and Welfare", British Journal of Social Work. pp. 391-414.

Pelton, L. (1985) "Child Abuse and Neglect: The Myth of Classlessness", in L. Pelton (Ed.) The Social Context of Child Abuse and Neglect, New York: Human Science Press, pp. 23-38.

Philipot, T. (1990) "The Children's Crusader", Community Care, 29th March, 1990, pp. 23-24.

Pirani, A. (1989), The Absent Father, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Polansky, N. (1981), Damaged Parents, Chicago: The University of Chicago.

Ranney E. and Cottone R. (1991) "Emotional Abuse in the Family: The Need for Awareness and Treatment", Journal of Mental Health Counselling, 13 (4), pp. 435-448.

Rieff, P. (1966), The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Harmondsworth; Penguin.

Riggs, R. and Evans D. (1979) "Child Abuse Prevention- Implementation Within the Curriculum", The Journal of School Health, May 1979, pp. 255-259.

Rogers, C. (1989), "The Politic of Education" in H. Kirschenbaum and V. Henderson (Eds.) The Carl Rogers Reader, London: 

Constable, pp. 323-338.

Rogers, W. (1989) "Childrearing in a Multicultural Society" in W. Rogers, D. Hevey and E. Ash (Eds.) Child Abuse and Neglect, London: Batsford Books, pp. 97-105.

Rohner R. and Rohner E. (1980) "Antecedents and Consequences of Parental Rejection: A Theory of Emotional Abuse", Child Abuse and Neglect. pp. 189-198.

Ronnau J. and Poertner J. (1989) "Building Consensus among Child Protection Professionals", Social Casework; The Journal of Contemporary Social Work, 70 (7), pp. 428-435.

Rowe, D. (1990) "As the Twig is Bent? The Myth of Child-Rearing Influences on Personality Development", Journal of Counselling and Development68, pp. 606-611.

Rutter M. (1981) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Rutter, M., Bishop, D., Pine, D., Scott, S. Stevenson, J. Taylor, E. Thapar (Eds.). 2008. Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Pshychiatry.

Sassower R. and Grodin M. (1990) "A Conceptual Approach to Child

Maltreatment", Pediatrician, 17, pp. 74-78.

Satir, V. (1988), The New Peoplemaking, California: Science and Behavior Books.

Segal, L. (1990), Slow Motion, London: Virago.

Shearman J., Evans C., Boyle M., Cuddy L. and Norman G. (1983) "maternal and Infant Characteristics in Abuse", The Journal of Family Practice. (2), pp. 289-293.

Shengold L. (1979) "Child Abuse and Deprivation: Soul Murder", Journal of American Psychoanalytical Association 27 (3), pp. 533-559.

Sinason, V. (1988), "Smiling, Swallowing, Sickening and Stupefying: The Effect of Sexual Abuse on the Child", Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy3 (2), pp. 97-111.

Spring, J. (1987), Cry Hard and Swim, London: Virago.

Stern, D. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books

Srivastava, R. (1990) "Culture-Contact and Child-Rearing Attitudes of Indian (tharu) Tribals", The Indian Journal of Social Work. (3), pp. 425-436.

Stopes-Roe M. and Cochrane R. (1990) "The Child-Rearing Values of Asian and British Parents and Young People", British Journal of Social Psychology, pp. 149-160.

Swick, K. (1985) "Cultural Influences on Parenting: Implications for Parent Educators", Journal of Instructional Psychology, 12 (2), pp. 80-85.

Thompson H. (1992) "The Context of Abuse and Deprivation", Counselling, November 1992, pp. 225-228.

Waterhouse R. (1993) "Steep Rise in Lone Parents", The Independent, 14.1.1993, p. 5.

Winnicott. D.W. 1971. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In Playing & Reality. London: Routledge

Wolfe, D. (1991) Preventing Physical and Emotional Abuse of Children, New York: The Guildford Press.

Wolff, S. (1970), "Behavior and Pathology of Parents of Disturbed Children" in J. Anthony and C. Koupernick (Eds.) The Child and His Family Vol 1, New York: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 267-284.

Wolkind, S. (1988) "Emotional Signs", Journal of Social Welfare Law, 2, pp. 82-87.

Yates, A. (1982) "Legal Issues in Psychological Abuse of Children", Clinical Paediatrics, October 1982, pp. 587-590.

Zimrim, H. (1984) "Do Nothing but Do Something: The Effect of Human Contact with the Parent on Abusive Behavior", British Journal of Social Work, pp. 475-485

[1] I have limited, on the main, my study to cultural definitions of good-enough-parenting within a Judeo-Christian tradition. Parenting practices do vary from one culture to another and it is obviously wrong to make generalizing comments. A cross-cultural study of good-enough-parenting is a subject for another dissertation. At the same time, Korbin (1981) shows that while instances of abuse do vary from one culture to another, what is universal is the concept that some actions, or inactions, are abusive within each society. [2] This would suggest that the negative effect of an inadequate parenting can be at least compensated for, if not overwhelmed, by the consistent and benign presence of other significant adults. This is particularly true in extended families where the influence of the parents' relatives is great. It is this concept of 'the witness' (Miller, 1987) which is alluded to as one of the significant mechanism by which children survive emotional abuse. [3] McGee and Wolfe (1991) use the term psychological maltreatment to include both acts of commission and omission. Removing the element of intention from the argument, they create a broad definition which allows us to understand emotional abuse as occurring within an emotionally deprived environment, rather than as isolated incidents of parental inadequacies. Such a definition helps us to move away from the Freudian attitude of blaming the parent and calling for individualistic solutions, to one which places parenting within a broader social context and therefore also requiring an integrating of social and cultural perspectives (Ranney and Cottone 1991). [4] Following on from McGee and Wolfe (1991), Yates (1982) claims that since emotional abuse does not always involve the parent intending to cause harm, they cannot be proven guilty of emotionally abusing even if their actions are shown to be abusive. This, of course, would not preclude civil action. [5] As an example, Inglis (1978) recounts her own childhood where her father's denial of his apparent wealth mystified her, her mother's soft arms and harsh voice put her into a double bind and both of her parents' attempts to enforce upon her a personality which they thought she should have (image-fixing), resulted in a miserable and confusing childhood, leading to a troubled adulthood which was only resolved sufficiently after a long psychotherapeutic treatment. [6] Rutter (1981) and Wolfe (1991) name several other factors which modify the severity to which effects of emotional abuse will show in the abused child: the age of the child, his or her gender, his or her personal characteristics, the previous parent-child relationship, previous separation experiences, duration of the deprivation experience, presence of other people other then the main care-giver, and the circumstances surrounding the deprivation experience. [7] Bronfenbrehher (1970) argues that when trying to employ rigor in their research methods, researchers have studied human behavior as "the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults" (Bronfenbrenner, 1970, pp. 513), while other researchers have often neglected scientific methodology in order to argue a culturally-biased, experiential and humanistic point of view. [8] Belsky (1980) suggests that the mesosystem is superfluous for the purpose of studying child abuse and substitutes it with the personal qualities which parents bring into abusive families (ontogenic development). While slightly different from Bronenbrenner's model, Belsky's model represents the same ecological approach, stating that in order for emotional abuse to occur, and for its understanding, there needs to a concurrence of several events from each of the four tiers. [9] A recent example of the importance of cultural sensitivity in regard to parental styles emerged in a new research which has found that Bangladeshi and New Zealand Maori babies are at a much reduced risk of dying from 'cot death' than their Western counterparts as these communities' parenting practices allow the babies to spend all of their sleeping and waking time in the company of active adults who keep an eye on them, rather then 'abandon' them in other rooms as Western parents tend to do (Mihill, 1993). Without knowing these research findings, a visit to a Bangaledashi household might have alarm a Western social worker as they will witness a baby in what might have been judged to be an inappropriately noisy and active environment. [10] Parents who have been abused as children cannot envisage any other form of relating to a child then the one which they had experienced. As adults they identify with the aggressor figure of their childhood and repeat the abuse upon their own children. This process works through the mechanism of role-reversal, where the parent unconsciously identifies with their own childhood experience, but since that experience has not been dealt with and resolved, the parent then denies it to themselves and by rapidly shifting their identification, they displace their aggression onto the child. [11] The danger in trying to assemble an image of ‘the abusing parent' is best shown in the example of Polansky (1981) who conducted several studies in the USA with the very good intentions of tackling child maltreatment from a broad perspective which would incorporate personal and social elements. As well as being rather gender- and race-blind, he assembled 'a prototype' of the abusing mother which seems more of a reflection of the interview process then a genuine description of that person. [12] Children in step families or in care, foster, adoptive or institutionalized, are treated or abused. Similarly, children in mixed-race marriages might suffer emotional abuse because they don't fit in with one of their parents' cultural expectations. [13] The impact that the move into a new social, cultural, political and economic environment shouldn't be underestimated (Ima and Hohm, 1991). Immigrants may be arriving to a new country after suffering traumatic experiences in their own countries. Once they become settled, they have to begin grappling with the dialectic between the two cultures. A process of cross-fertilization would be ideal, but realistically what tends to happen is that the immigrant communities have to adopt some of the dominant cultures practices in order to survive (Srivastava, 1990). [14] Another instance of the cultural influence on child-rearing practices is the way in which boys and girls are brought up with different expectations and care. Much has been written about this and I will not be able to do justice to the subject in a few lines. As an example, it is interesting to observe how boys are given permission to spend more time outdoors in circumstances which girls of the same age would be barred from, based on the cultural assumption that boys are stronger and therefore can cope better with a potential danger. This assumption amounts to emotional abuse as it teaches boys to ignore their fears. Thus boys learn to deny part of themselves and not allow any expression of weakness which become socially unacceptable.

357 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Text Copied to Clipboard

bottom of page