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.


Planning a Child Abuse Awareness Day for Your Homeschool Group

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An essential step in fighting child abuse is raising awareness about it. HARO believes that every single homeschool co-op and organization around the country should hold regularly scheduled events where leaders, teachers, parents, families, and children learn the facts about child abuse, how to prevent it, and how to report it. We also understand that not every homeschool co-op and organization is used to holding such events. So here is a step-by-step guide to planning a Child Abuse Awareness Day for your homeschool group:

Before the event:

1. Send out an announcement about the event to your homeschool group at least a month prior. Make sure to specify whether the event is mandatory or optional (but regardless, highly encourage everyone to attend!). Ask everyone to RSVP. List what readings you want people to do prior to the event.

2. Find a guest speaker to present at your event. Choose someone who has expertise with child abuse prevention. This could be a child advocate, a social worker, or someone who works with a child abuse prevention non-profit organization. You can find such professionals through groups like RAINNPrevent Child Abuse, and G.R.A.C.E. We at HARO are also willing to speak to any homeschool group.

2. Obtain the following for the event:

  • A white board or chalk board to write on
  • Pens or chalk
  • A copy of HARO’s “Child Abuse Awareness Day for Homeschoolers” handout for every one of your attendees
  • Facility to host the event at
  • An adequate number of chairs to seat everyone who RSVP’d (along with a few extra in case people show up who didn’t RSVP)
  • (Optional:) Snacks and/or beverages for attendees

3. Figure out 2-3 articles you want people to read as homework before the event. We all know homeschool parents can be extraordinarily busy, so make sure the readings are not too long or complicated. We would suggest the following 3 pieces (though you are welcome to pick others):

During the event:

You are welcome to create your own schedule for the event. The following suggestions are assuming your event is 2 hours long and the times mentioned are simply to help you manage the time. Feel free to modify as you see fit.

1. Introduce yourself. (1o minutes)

Talk a little about why you are interested in the topic of child abuse and why you think it’s important that your homeschool group addresses it.

2. Define child abuse. (20 minutes)

Explain that most U.S. states recognize 4 major types of child abuse. You can refer to HARO’s “What is Child Abuse?” page to help with this. On your board, draw the following diagram:

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Ask attendees to give examples of each type of abuse. Write everyone’s examples under the right category. Note: Make sure this exercise remains a debate-free time. Since you are likely under a time limit, make clear up front that this is not the place to debate with each other about different understandings of abuse. For example, some people might consider actions like yelling or spanking to be abuse, whereas others might disagree. So be firm about accepting everyone’s answers for the purpose of this exercise.

3. Discuss the statistics about child abuse. (10 minutes)

After everyone’s brainstormed different actions that fall under the 4 major types of child abuse, have the group go over the statistics about child abuse. Talk about the frequency of each type as well as statistics about perpetrators and the consequences of child abuse. You can find these statistics at places like ChildHelp and the American Humane Association. Be sure to address the following key statistics:

  • More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse.
  • More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.
  • Perpetrators of child abuse or neglect are most often the child’s own parents.
  • The incidence of abuse and neglect among children with a disability or chronic illness is twice as high as it is among average children.

4. Review the warning signs of child abuse. (15 minutes)

To be able to adequately fight child abuse, everyone in your homeschool group needs to be aware of what the signs are. So as a group, read HARO’s “10 Warnings Signs of Child Abuse.” Have participants take turns reading each sign. As they are read, write them on your board.

5. Take a short break so attendees can use the bathroom. (5 minutes)

6. Introduce your event’s guest speaker; listen to speaker. (30 minutes)

Ideally, your guest speaker should discuss a topic such as: the importance of addressing child abuse, prevention strategies, how to report child abuse, a personal experience with recovering from child abuse, etc.

7. Hold a question and answer time with your guest speaker. (15 minutes)

Allow attendees to ask questions and interact with what the speaker said. In the event that this period becomes heated, be sure to moderate. Be sure to thank your speaker for taking the time to present.

8. Brainstorm ideas to make your homeschool group safer. (15 minutes)

For the last 15 minutes of your event, have everyone brainstorm ways you can make your homeschool group safer. Keep track of the ideas on your board. If your group needs prompting, explore ideas like: creating a child protection policy, doing background checks, getting your leaders and teachers mandatory reporter training, holding a book club that focuses on child abuse prevention and recovery books, etc.


Hopefully this helps you as you encourage your homeschool group to address the pressing issue of child abuse. There is much more you can do, but sometimes the hardest step is just getting motivated to take the first step. The sooner you start speaking out about the importance of preventative actions, the better!


Author: The HARO Team


10 Child Abuse Prevention Steps Your Homeschool Group Can Take Today

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Child abuse is a serious issue that can occur in any group or culture. Whether it’s a public school, private school, or homeschool, or whether it’s a Christian, atheist, or Buddhist group — child abuse can be found everywhere. This tragedy is no respecter of demographic differences. It is important, therefore, that homeschool groups equip and empower themselves with the right information and tools to be able to fight abuse. Homeschool groups also need to equip and empower their members.

To this end, here are 10 steps your homeschool group can take today to make children and families safer:

1. Ask your homeschool group if it has a child protection policy.

Whether it’s your national organization, state support group, or local co-op, any and every organization that works with, for, and around children should have a child protection policy. So ask your homeschool group(s) if it does.

If it does: Ask to review it. You have a responsibility to make sure that the groups to which you entrust your kids have such a policy in place. Don’t just assume they do. Ask. Children deserve a safe, nurturing environment for their education. Make sure your group’s policy is appropriate, sufficient, and up-to-date. If you’re not sure if it is, do some research.

If it does not: Ask that one is made. Be firm about this. Child protection policies are essential to keeping children safe as well as protecting the integrity of your organization.

2. Plan an awareness event.

Organize an all-parent, mandatory meeting for your homeschool group or organization. (If you need help doing so, here is a step-by-step planning guide.) It doesn’t have to be long — even an hour or two will suffice in the beginning. During this event, explain to your group’s members the seriousness of child abuse, why homeschoolers cannot tolerate child abuse, what child abuse is, and the responsibility of every member and family to report abuse to the proper authorities. At this event, introduce to your members any new action steps your group is taking, such as a child protection policy, special speaking events, a resource library, etc. Make this awareness event a regular occurrence every 6-12 months. Consider planning a longer event (such as an entire day) where multiple professionals can present important information on the topic.

3. Invite a child abuse prevention expert to speak to your homeschool group.

There are many organizations dedicated to preventing child abuse. These organizations have significant knowledge and expertise. They also have dedicated individuals who are eager to speak to community groups about child abuse prevention. Contact one of these organizations and ask to have a speaker present to your homeschool group. Examples of organizations whose local chapters you could contact are RAINN, Prevent Child Abuse, and G.R.A.C.E. We at HARO are also willing to speak to any homeschool group.

4. Invite a child welfare or social work professional to speak to your homeschool group.

Myths and paranoia about the child welfare system often discourage or prevent many homeschool parents from reporting known child abuse. So while educating yourself and your community about child abuse is important, you also need to overcome stigma about the system in place to help those who are being abused. To this end, consider inviting a child welfare or social work professional to speak to your homeschool co-op or organization. Ask them to explain what they do, what happens when someone makes an anonymous tip, and how they work to protect children and families. Getting to know such a professional on a personal level — and letting them get to know you — can go a long way in overcoming myths and paranoia that keep children from receiving the help they need.

5. Do some research.

Go to the library or get on your computer and start researching! Learn about what child abuse is, what the warning signs are, how to report child abuse, common characteristics of child sexual offendershow sexual offenders attempt to discredit child witnesses, — and that’s just the beginning! Knowledge is power. Equip yourself with that power so you can keep the children in your communities safe.

6. Ask that background checks be done on anyone working professionally with children in your homeschool group.

Many homeschool co-ops and organizations hire outside help to teach certain classes that parents feel inadequate teaching. Many also offer childcare for younger children while parents teach older children. For anyone in your group that volunteers or is being paid to work with children, require that they go through a vigorous screening process. This process should involve a professional background check.

7. Ask that anyone who is a leader or works professionally with children in your homeschool group takes a mandatory reporting class.

There are an abundance of free classes online (here is an example) that you can take to learn what a mandatory reporter is required to report. While “mandatory reporter” is a term defined by law, it behooves anyone working professionally with children to understand the dynamics of child abuse and what should be reported when (and to whom). Encourage your group’s leaders, teachers, and volunteers to take one of these classes so their knowledge about child abuse prevention goes above and beyond.

8. Establish best practices in your homeschool group for reporting abuse.

The best practice for reporting abuse is, of course, to report abuse as soon as you become aware of it.

But it is important that your homeschool co-op or organization, as part of Step #1 (Create a child protection policy), establishes “best practices” for who reports abuse, how to report it, and who the abuse gets reported to. You do not want a situation where multiple people are told about a case of child abuse but no one reports it because they think someone else did. Your group should have a clearly written policy about the exact steps to take, who takes them, and how to follow-up to make sure those steps were taken. There are numerous places where you can get information about child abuse prevention best practices; the National Children’s Advocacy Center is a good place to start.

9. Proactively encourage your group’s members to teach children accurate sex education and information about child abuse.

Encourage your homeschool group’s members to educate their children about sexual abuse. Parents need to teach their children what abuse is and empower them to say, “No!” This means, of course, that they need to teach them about sex — which they might not be comfortable hearing. But this is a great example of exactly why sex education is vitally important. Children need to know the proper names for their body parts, they need to know what is good touch versus bad touch, they need to know their bodies belong to them and no adult should make them do anything that makes them uncomfortable, and they need to have the words to use to express themselves to you if they experience abuse.

10. Put together a library of resources about child abuse, prevention, and recovery that is publicly accessible to your homeschool group’s members.

Ask your homeschool group or organization to start assembling a library of resources about child abuse, prevention, and recovery. There are many helpful books available on all of these topics. Allow your group’s members and families to access these resources for free.


The above 10 steps are of course not the only things your homeschool group can do to help prevent child abuse. But they are all important and are easy, simple steps you can take today. Child abuse is a serious issue in homeschooling and we need to start treating it as such.

For more information, see HARO’s Child Abuse Resources.


Author: The HARO Team

Child Abuse 101: Action Steps for Homeschooling Communities

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Homeschooling families and communities need to equip students and parents with adequate information about child abuse. What are ways you can encourage yourself, your family, and your community to talk openly about child abuse?

We have a few suggestions to get you started. And we want to make clear that these suggestions are by no means exhaustive. They are, rather, some starting guidelines for personal and communal action:

1) Report abuse.

Report, report, report. If you learn only one thing from reading this, please let it be this: If you suspect or know a child is being abused, report it immediately to the authorities. Call a hotline, call 911, or better yet, call both. Do not delay, do not make excuses, and do not turn a blind eye. Get on the phone and make a report. Child abuse is a criminal action. It is not covered under Matthew 18; it is not something to be handled “in house” by you and your friend, by your pastor, or by your homeschool leader. Child abuse is to be handled by the authorities. If you suspect or know a child is being abused, report it.

2) Educate yourself and your community about abuse.

If you’re going to take child abuse seriously, and if you’re going to commit to reporting it when you suspect or know it’s happening, then you have to know what abuse is. Organize an annual or bi-annual evening for your homeschool group where you learn how your city, state, and country define child abuse. Educate yourself on the differences between abuse and neglect. Find out what hotlines are available to you, have community awareness days where you discuss the warning signs of abuse and neglect, and empower yourself with information.

Similarly, educate your kids, too. Teach them what abuse is. Empower them to say, “No!” This means, of course, that you need to teach them about sex — which you might not be comfortable hearing. But this is a great example of exactly why sex education is vitally important. Children need to know the proper names for their body parts, they need to know what is good touch versus bad touch, they need to know their bodies belong to them and no adult should make them do anything that makes them uncomfortable, and they need to have the words to use to express themselves to you if they experience abuse. It’s not enough to just say, “Speak up if you’re abused.” You need to also teach your kids what abuse is in the first place. They need to feel a sense of ownership and empowerment over their own bodies, not shame or secrecy or guilt. If kids already feel their bodies are shameful, guilty, or secretive, how will they feel free or strong enough to tell you about the abuse that only exacerbates those feelings? There needs to be openness and freedom to talk about these things in families and communities if we’re ever going to bring abuse to light.

3) Stop the propaganda against social workers and child protective services.

Many homeschooled children grew up with an absolute terror about social workers and CPS. Parents have used this terror to silence their children. This terror is even used from one parent to another to keep parents from reporting each other when they knew abuse was happening. Yes, social workers and child protective services have made mistakes. They’ve made a lot, honestly. But amazing foster parents exist; homeschool parents work for CPS; homeschool alumni who are social workers. These people and organizations work tirelessly to protect our children, and are increasingly knowledgeable about homeschooling — even with firsthand experiences as homeschool parents or students. So if we’re going to fight child abuse successfully, we need to stop with the myth that they are a cabal of demonic child-snatchers.

4) Develop relationships with your local school board and CPS.

Ultimately, if there’s anything that homeschoolers, school boards, and CPS should be united on, it’s helping kids. So we want to encourage you, as parents and communities and leaders, to develop positive relationships with these entities, rather than antagonistic ones. Reach out and build relationships, even on a personal level. Let them get to know you as individuals, as families; build trust; show them you have nothing to hide; show them you have so much to offer. By building better relationships, you not only aid homeschooling as a movement, you also build partnerships that can help identify kids in need, as well.

5) Listen to children.

None of these suggestions are worth anything if you don’t do the first step of listening to children. A child risks so much when speaking up about abuse; you need to take their side. When a child tells you they were abused, or tries to tell you but just can’t find the words or courage, believe them. Believe them and report it immediately. Then stand with that child, support them, and be their ally and advocate. Do not tell them it is their fault, do not get angry at them; show them nothing but unconditional love. It doesn’t matter who the child says abused them; it might be someone you know, someone you care deeply about — your husband, or another one of your children, or your pastor. But you have to set aside your disbelief and other loyalties.

The above article is reprinted from HARO’s presentation Facing Our Fears: How the Voices of Homeschool Alumni Can Help Homeschooling. You can download a PDF of the full document here.


Author: The HARO Team

Announcing the Release of “Facing Our Fears: How the Voices of Homeschool Alumni Can Help Homeschooling”

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facing-our-fears-coverFacing Our Fears: How the Voices of Homeschool Alumni Can Help Homeschooling was originally prepared by R.L. Stollar, Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out for the 2014 Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California. HARO’s mission is to advocate for the well-being of homeschool students and improve homeschooling communities through awareness, peer support, and resource development.

You are free to share or distribute this presentation with proper citation of its source.

To view and/or download a PDF of Facing Our Fears, click here.


Author: The HARO Team