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Read about what the experts have to say about mental health.

Emotional Abuse: Effects on Mental Health

The simplest definition of emotionally abusive behavior is anything that hurts the feelings of another person. Emotional abuse is often overlooked, unnoticed or confused with other causes. The effects of emotional abuse are often silent. They can be just as severe as those from physical abuse.

Victims of emotional abuse tend to blame themselves and minimize their abuse, saying that it was “only” emotional and “at least he/she didn’t hit me.” But minimizing adult emotional abuse won’t help and it won’t hide its devastating effects. Emotional abuse is most prominent among adults especially in relationship. A few examples are when people make such statements as, “You shouldn’t spend so much on clothes, you don’t look good anyway”, “One of these days you’ll wake up, and I’ll be gone”,” Your friends and family just want something from you”,” I have to drink to be able to stand you.”

Such statements have devastating effects on the mental health of an individual. The effects can be short term as well as long term. Short-term effects of emotional abuse include: Surprise and confusion, Questioning of one’s own memory, “did that really happen?”, Anxiety or fear; hyper vigilance, Shame or guilt, Aggression (as a defense to the abuse), Becoming overly passive or compliant, Frequent crying, Avoidance of eye contact, Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right (learned helplessness), Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells”, Feeling manipulated, used and controlled, and also Feeling undesirable.

Long terms effects of emotional abuse include: Depression, Withdrawal, Low self-esteem and self-worth, Emotional instability, Sleep disturbances, Physical pain without cause, Suicidal behavior, Extreme dependence on the abuser, Underachievement, Inability to trust, Feeling trapped and alone and also Substance abuse.

Not only adults but children are also affected by emotionally abusive behavior. Babies and pre – school children who are emotionally abused may be overly-affectionate toward strangers, lack confidence or become wary or anxious, not appear to have a close relationship with their parent, and be aggressive or nasty towards other children and animals. Older children may use inappropriate language, struggle to control strong emotions or have extreme outbursts, seem isolated from their parents and also lack social skills or have few, if any, friends.

Emotional abuse can increase the risk of a child developing mental health problems, eating disorders or can lead to them self-harming. The experiences that a child has can affect them throughout their life. Emotional abuse can restrict a child’s emotional development, including their ability to feel and express a full range of emotions. Children who are constantly berated and belittled at home may experience self-confidence and anger problems. And those who don’t get the love and care they need from their parents may find it difficult to develop and maintain healthy relationships with other people in their later life. Also a child who is being emotionally abused may develop risk taking behaviors such as stealing, bullying and running away. Emotional abuse can cause a child to change the way that they behave. They might not care how they act or what happens to them, this is also known as negative impulse behavior. Or they may try to make people dislike them, which is called self-isolating behavior. Teenagers are also affected by emotional abuse. They find it difficult to trust, participate in and achieve happiness in relationships, and resolve the complex feelings left over from their childhoods.

One way which can be useful to eliminate emotional abuse especially in adults is by increasing compassion. That means both parties have to return to caring about how the other feels, even when they disagree about the ideas or interpretations of the facts. Also one can and must negotiate about the behavior he doesn’t like without devaluing the person he loves. Developing self-compassion is the key to increasing compassion for loved ones. Self-compassion is the ability to recognize when you are hurt, with a motivation to heal or improve. Since the real problem is that you feel devalued or unloved, you will move toward a real solution, i.e., doing something that will make you feel more valuable and lovable. As in the case of children and teenagers they must be given adequate love, care, attention and a positive environment to decrease emotionally abusive behaviors.

To conclude, the effects of emotional abuse are devastating, the victimized people whether children, teenagers or adults, commonly develop emotional or psychological problems. Insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, angry acts, withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, suicide and difficulty forming relationships can all be possible results of emotional abuse. But compassion puts one adult in a position where one are more likely to solve the problem and decrease emotional abuse, whereas in the case of children and teens love, care and attention can lead to decrease in emotional abuse behavior.


Stonsey, S. (2008). Effects of Emotional Abuse: It Hurts When I Love Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/200808/effects-emotional-abuse-it-hurts-when-i-love on 17/5/2016.

Petro, L. (2007). Effects of emotional abuse Retrieved from:http://www.teach-through-love.com/effects-of-emotional-abuse.html on 17/5/2016.

Natasha, T. (2015). Effects of emotional abuse on adults Retrieved from: http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/effects-of-emotional-abuse-on-adults/ on 17/5/2016.

Emotional abuse: Signs, symptoms and effects. (2016)  Retrieved from: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/emotional-abuse/emotional-abuse-signs-symptoms-effects/ on 17/5/2016.

[Contributed by Jeffia Dias, post-graduate student of psychology during her internship].