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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 20, No. 3
July 2015

The Impact of Emotional Maltreatment

How does emotional maltreatment affect children? While research on this topic is ongoing, we know for sure that emotional maltreatment can impact children in the following areas.

Brain Development
Recent research has shed light on the relationship between emotional maltreatment and neurobiological development. One study looked at stress responses of children who experienced childhood maltreatment, specifically "hostile, indifferent and degrading emotional exchanges" (Yates, 2007). It found that, like other forms of abuse, emotional maltreatment impairs children's stress response systems.

Another study found that emotional abuse negatively affected children's limbic systems as much or more than sexual or physical abuse (Teicher, et al., 2006). The limbic system is the physical center of a person's emotional life and has much to do with the formation of memories.

Based on these and other studies, there is ample evidence to suggest that emotional maltreatment undermines healthy brain development.

Attachment and Self-Concept
Overwhelmingly, the research points to emotional maltreatment as having a significant negative impact on self-concept, self-esteem, and secure attachment (Miller-Perrin, et al., 2009; Teicher, et al., 2006; Groleau, et al., 2012; Wekerle, et al., 2009; Wright, 2009; Egeland, 2009).

Specifically, acts of commission (verbal aggression, belittling, shaming, etc.) result in lower self-esteem and poor self-concept. Low self-esteem has been shown to be correlated with a number of negative outcomes, including helplessness and depression (sources cited in Turner et al., 2010).

Acts of omission (failure to provide nurturing and responsive care) result in insecure or disorganized attachment (Miller-Perrin, et al., 2009; Teicher, et al., 2006). These attachment difficulties can leave children without a solid foundation for their cognitive, social, and emotional development, which can have negative repercussions throughout their lives.

Trauma Symptoms
Children experiencing emotional maltreatment also demonstrate trauma symptoms (Wekerle, et al., 2009). One study compared the prevalence of trauma symptoms in children experiencing different subtypes of emotional maltreatment. Children who experienced "failure to provide psychological safety and security" demonstrated trauma symptoms of anger and anxiety (English, et al., 2015).

Trauma symptoms, in turn, can have a negative impact in many areas of children's lives, including their behavior and social relationships, ability to navigate life changes, and learning and school performance (Tullberg, 2011).

Teen Dating Violence
Several studies have explored the link between childhood emotional maltreatment and teen dating violence. One looked specifically at children in the child welfare system. It found children who experienced emotional maltreatment were at particular risk for dating violence due to the "climate of fear and uncertainty" caused by the maltreatment. Researchers hypothesize the impact on sense of self and lack of models of healthy relationships results in teens "who may not feel free to show protest behaviors or express a range of emotions" (Wekerle, et al., 2009).

These findings suggest that if they are not doing so already, child welfare agencies should take steps to ensure that when emotional abuse has occurred, birth and resource families and youth themselves receive extra education and support around teen dating.

Eating Disorders
There may also be a link between emotional maltreatment and eating disorders. In a study of subjects with bulimia, 76% reported experiencing childhood emotional maltreatment (compared to only 37% in the control group). The researchers cite the relationship between emotional maltreatment and low self-esteem as a possible reason for this difference.

Eating disorders, in turn, have been linked to significant medical problems, depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts and behavior, problems with growth and development, substance use disorders, work and school problems, and death (Mayo Clinic, 2015).

Impact and Co-Occurrence
As stated elsewhere in this issue, emotional abuse often co-occurs with other forms of maltreatment, including physical and sexual abuse and gross neglect. Although it may come as no surprise, research suggests that the added presence of emotional maltreatment can worsen the impact of other types of abuse (English, et al., 2015; Miller-Perrin, et al., 2009; Wright, et al., 2009).

Child Age and Impact
Experiencing emotional maltreatment can be harmful at any age, but young children may be especially vulnerable. Emotionally neglected infants can experience cognitive and academic delays, withdrawal and difficulty interacting with peers, and internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety disorders. Some adults neglected early in life report more serious physical and psychological symptoms than those who were physically or sexually abused as children (Gauthier, et al., 1996).

References for this and other articles in this issue