Why We Need to Take Emotional Abuse Seriously

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We’ve all heard the popular rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

That rhyme is popular, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Image credit: Let Grow Therapy and Counseling - Helping Children to Thrive.
CC image courtesy of Let Grow Therapy and Counseling – Helping Children to Thrive.

Words do hurt. And words used to guilt, control, or manipulate are a form of abuse — emotional abuse.

In their article “The Staying Power of Emotional Abuse,” Christianity Today has pointed out that, “A ‘sticks and stones’ mentality to abuse doesn’t hold up: Words can hurt, especially because the damage isn’t visible.” In fact, “manipulation, control, and other forms of abuse [go] on to affect [a person’s] identity in the long-term and their future relationships, just as we see sexual abuse and physical abuse having lasting influence.”

Despite this fact, a lot of people seem to have difficulty admitting the reality of emotional abuse. Perhaps it’s because physical and sexual abuse can leave physical evidence as to their devastations. Or perhaps it’s because we’re unwilling to admit our words have consequences. Regardless, emotional abuse gets consistently minimized.

Minimizing emotional abuse

Many Christian homeschool leaders are guilty of such minimization. Homeschool alumni’s accounts of emotional abuse get mocked, belittled, or reduced to “complaining.” A prime example of such minimization is a recent podcast by Kevin Swanson from the Christian Home Educators of Colorado. Swanson claimed that, “It’s fun for people to use those terms [like emotional abuse] because, you know, you can just bring accusations against anybody and everybody.”

It’s tragic that Swanson finds claims of emotional abuse funny. Because the fact is, emotional abuse is a real, tangible form of abuse that results in real, tangible harm to children and adults. According to the University of Illinois Counseling Center, “Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept… Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones” (emphasis added).

In other words, it’s just as real — and just as unfunny — as beating or molesting a child. Studies have well-documented that emotional abuse causes the same — and sometimes more — trauma to individuals as physical or sexual abuse. The American Academy of Pediatrics identified it as “the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect.” Most recently in 2014, research conducted by Joseph Spinazzola of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute found that “psychologically mistreated youth exhibited equivalent or greater baseline levels of behavioral problems, symptoms, and disorders compared with physically or sexually abused youth on most indicators.”

Emotional abuse can lead to appetite problems, mental illness, self-injury, poor physical health, and even suicide. In other words, this isn’t “abuse” — it is abuse. No scare quotes needed. Emotional abuse needs to be taken seriously. Deadly seriously. It can literally cause death.

Defining emotional abuse

One way the victims and survivors of emotional abuse get marginalized is through people questioning what this form of abuse actually is. For example, in the aforementioned podcast, Kevin Swanson caustically asked, “Emotional abuse! What IS that? What exactly is that?” Well, the answer is honestly not that difficult. Because emotional abuse is one of the four major types of child maltreatment legislatively defined by most of the U.S. states.

Emotional or psychological abuse can be perpetrated against both children and adults. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines this type of abuse in the following way:

“Psychological abuse is the systematic perpetration of malicious and explicit nonphysical acts against an intimate partner, child, or dependent adult.1 This can include threatening the physical health of the victim and the victim’s loved ones, controlling the victim’s freedom, and effectively acting to destabilize or isolate the victim.2 Psychological abuse frequently occurs prior to or concurrently with physical or sexual abuse.3 While psychological abuse increases the trauma of physical and sexual abuse, a number of studies have demonstrated that psychological abuse independently causes long-term damage to it’s victims’ mental health.”

Types of emotional abuse

Examples of child emotional abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child
  • Deliberately ignoring a child
  • Threatening to injure, disfigure, or kill a child
  • Emotionally withdrawing from a child as a form of punishment
  • Damaging a child’s property (clothes, toys, school supplies, etc.)
  • Preventing a child from having social interactions with friends
  • Preventing a child from eating, drinking, or sleeping
  • Threatening or physically harming a child’s pet (or the family’s pet)
  • Treating an adult child like a minor child
  • Making a child feel like the parent is always right and the child is always wrong
  • Mocking a child’s intelligence levels
  • Treating a child not as a separate person but instead as an extension of one’s self

Homeschooling and emotional abuse

Testimonies from homeschool alumni give evidence of just how devastating emotional abuse in Christian homeschool families can be. Here is an excerpt from Kierstyn King’s story:

“I was taught that I was worthless, that I should never think well of myself, that I needed to be humble, I was never allowed to show any emotion that was not a plastic smile. Perfection was constantly demanded, and perfection is what I was incapable of… I internalized their words of my failures and believed that I was a failure, who didn’t deserve any good… It’s no wonder I shut down, became numb, stopped feeling, and felt robotic.”

Everyone responds to abuse differently, of course. Whereas Kierstyn shut down and disassociated, numbing her feelings, Cynthia Jeub describes how she embraced the abuse, finding relief in being hurt:

“The life of abuse isn’t full of anger, getting thrown and smacked and bruised, and being yelled at and torn down. That’s only part of it. You also feel special and needed. You don’t feel like life is hell, even if it is, because you know how to force a smile. It feels good to damage your own health and wellbeing for your abusers, because you’re told that you’re doing what is right. You fight for acceptance and admonition, because you’re always getting small tastes of it, and it’s always just out of reach.”

When alumni try to express how painful some of these “invisible” forms of emotional abuse have been, they are then further pained by additional emotional abuse. Their families or parents “gaslight”, or act as if the abuse — because “invisible” — is not real. Thus alumni feel like they are making things up or are “crazy,” only adding to their feelings of pain, guilt, and betraya. Shiphrah discusses gaslighting in her story:

“If I try to say any of this to my family, to recount my experiences and feelings, I am told I’m overreacting, too sensitive, too emotional, that these things never happened or ‘didn’t happen like that’. I’m told that even if they did happen, I should forgive and move on because family is the most important thing in life and I’ll regret making a fuss over the past. That I was raised in a good home and was loved and am ungrateful. I am denied, belittled, and word has spread that I’m a crazy, unstable person who has a chip on my shoulder and is trying to tear apart our happy family. But I am done accepting their definition of who I am, their portrayal of my identity.”

Whenever or wherever there is abuse, alumni deserve to have their feelings and experiences taken seriously. They deserve such respect regardless of what form that abuse takes and whether there are physical markings of the abuse. Otherwise we are silently giving assent to the idea that a form of abuse that can be just devastating, and potentially more so, as physical and sexual abuse is not worth our time.

There’s been an increase in awareness about child sexual abuse lately in Christian homeschooling circles. This is important and very much needed. However, this increase in awareness has focused solely on child sexual abuse. There’s been little to no conversation about other forms of child abuse. In fact, when those few conversations do occur, they often involve minimizing or joking about emotional abuse, putting the phrase in scare quotes as if it was the non-existent unicorn of abuse. Christianity Today provides a good reminder about why this is not acceptable:

“Sexual abuse is horrific and needs to be taken seriously, but so do other forms of abuse. Both are dehumanizing. Both make you feel like an object. Any form of abuse, be it sexual, psychological, or physical, is abhorrent to us as people and as Christians because it is a crime against the dignity and worth of a human being.”

As homeschooling communities begin to wake up to the absolutely necessity of taking child sexual abuse seriously, we cannot afford to think that focusing on that alone is sufficient. We need to take all forms of abuse seriously, emotional abuse included.


For more information about emotional abuse, see the following resources:

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “Emotional Abuse: At a glance”

American Humane Association, “Emotional Abuse”

Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Identification of Emotional Abuse”

Out of the FOG, “Emotional Abuse”

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.