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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 20, No. 3
July 2015

Identifying Emotional Abuse in the Context of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence: the establishment of control and fear in an intimate adult relationship through the use of violence and other forms of abuse.

* * * *

When we think about domestic violence, we often zero in right away on the physical violence. Although the violence certainly merits attention, it's usually just the tip of the iceberg. Most batterers maintain power primarily through emotionally and psychologically abusive strategies, such as:

  • Intimidating the victim using looks, actions, gestures
  • Abusing or threatening to abuse or kill pets or other things the victim cares about (including children)
  • Putting the victim down, making her feel bad about herself, calling her names, making her think she's crazy, humiliating her, and making her feel guilty (Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, n.d.).

Clearly, based on what's been shared elsewhere in this issue about the behaviors of emotionally abusive parents, there's an overlap between domestic violence and emotional abuse. Another key similarity: neither is a one-time event, but rather something that occurs over a long period.

Because of these similarities, Practice Notes reached out to Crystalle Williams, who teaches the NC Division of Social Services' two-day, skills-building course Child Welfare Practices for Cases Involving Domestic Violence, to get her advice about detecting emotional abuse when domestic violence has occurred or is suspected. The following suggestions are based on our conversation.

Understand the Challenge, But Don't Give Up
According to Holt's (2008) comprehensive review of the literature on the effects of domestic violence on children, it can be difficult to tease out domestic violence from other negative influences in the child's life. Holt describes it as an "adversity package" in which domestic violence can co-occur with any or several of the following: parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, poverty, homelessness, criminal involvement, or physical or sexual abuse. The co-occurrence of other adverse conditions, which may all have outcomes similar to emotional abuse, can make substantiating it harder. Given the likely immediate and long-term harm involved, however, we owe it to children to detect and stop emotional abuse whenever we can.

Look for Warning Signs
According to Williams, in the domestic violence context some warning signs of potential emotional abuse include name-calling of the children by the batterer, coercing or manipulating the children to participate in the abuse of the adult victim (for example, getting the children to call their mother names), and attempts to undermine the non-offending parent's relationship with the children.

Children assuming roles such as the "perfect child," the "caretaker," or the "scapegoat" is another warning sign. The batterer may assign these roles. For example, he may always make an older child care for a younger one, or he may always blame the same child for problems. But children can also slip into these roles unconsciously--they may pursue perfectionism to avoid being belittled, or voluntarily care for younger siblings because their mother is too beat up to get them to school.

Focus on Patterns as Well as Events
There are serious safety concerns when children witness domestic violence events. But a child does not have to be present to be affected. Simply knowing domestic violence is going on can cause children deep emotional distress.

If you think emotional abuse is occurring, look for patterns. Look especially for the kinds of behaviors outlined here. Seek to understand and document the batterer's power and control behaviors and the child's day-to-day experience in the home.

Elicit Children's Narratives
If you suspect emotional abuse and domestic violence are occurring, collect narratives from the children. Asking open-ended questions that get the child to share their experience yields rich detail and is more likely to hold up in court. Examples of narrative questions include: Tell me everything that happened yesterday from beginning to end. You said X happened. Tell me more about that. What did you think/feel about X?

Other Tips

  • Spend adequate time connecting with the children and adult victim. Good initial engagement can lead to a willingness to disclose more (including emotional abuse) or seek assistance when violence occurs.

  • Create a safety plan with the non-offending parent; if appropriate, involve the children. Children should never be required to be part of a safety plan. However, being part of the plan empowers some children.

References for this and other articles in this issue

Child Behaviors that May Indicate Exposure to Domestic Violence

Here are some behaviors that children exposed to domestic violence may exhibit that could also be indicators of emotional abuse (Holt, 2008):

Infants and toddlers: Regressed language and toileting, sleep disturbances, fear of being alone, poor attachment

Pre-Schoolers: Poor self-esteem, temper-tantrums and aggression, crying and resisting comfort, despondency, anxiety, less empathy than peers

School-aged children: Blaming self or mother for the violence, hiding the domestic violence as a "secret" out of shame, being bullied or bullying others, aggressive behavior towards peers, difficulty with rules, sadness, depression, absenteeism, poor academic performance

Adolescents: Unhealthy dating relationships or friendships, avoidant attachment, perpetrating or being a victim of domestic violence in dating relationships, taking drugs or alcohol