It’s been a hard day, your son is clutching furiously at your skirt. Only four, he’s aggressively demanding your attention; he wants to be played with. At the same time, your baby daughter is lying in her cot screamingly wildly for your comforting embrace. With a quick snap of temper, you lash out with a fierce tongue at both of them, hurling words against them with cruel hostility. Your son’s a selfish, spoilt brat who can go without dinner and the baby’s a damn nuisance and you berate yourself for having had them. Motherhood promised joy and celebration, not this; a corny cliché perhaps, but part of you believed it.
It isn’t the first time it’s happened either. Lately, you’ve been finding it difficult to cope, often throwing verbal abuse at your children and denigrating their behaviour. Nasty words fly out of your mouth; hurtful, contemptible. The unleashed anger flows at them torridly; the children cower and back away.
While nearly every parent experiences this anguish, persistent negative messages denouncing a child’s behaviour, or cold withdrawal and rejection, can be part of the scenario of emotional abuse. A complex problem, emotional abuse can be subtle in its manifestations and seemingly harmless, but its effect can be devastating. It can undermine a child’s self-esteem and inhibit the development of positive and constructive behaviour. In its most extreme form, it can even kill – a violence that can lead to teenage suicide.
Now recognised as a specific pathology in State legislation around Australia, emotional abuse claims thousands of children as victims. In NSW, 13-16 per cent of all child abuse cases are emotional; nearly 2000 children have been deemed to risk.
But while it is regarded as a dangerous and pervasive form of child abuse, it is also the most difficult area to define as there are no black eyes or bruised limbs.
“The bones don’t always tell a story,” says Robin Clark, director of the Child Protection Services in Victoria. “A child could end up an emotional cripple.”
Ms Clark highlighted the fact there was a danger in the term emotional abuse in that it could be used as a catch-all for legitimate punishment.
“While it is a vague and fraught area to delve into, that’s not to deny it’s a real form of child abuse,” she says.
In Victoria, the reports of emotional abuse have increased by eight per cent to 48 per cent of all child abuse cases in the past 12 months. Nearly 600 children, both male and female, are registered as at risk. It’s the most common form of child maltreatment, and, says Ms Clark, people are now more aware of it and authorities acknowledge that, like domestic violence, emotional abuse cuts across the socio-economic scale. It is also most frequently perpetrated by women, as despite the changes in roles in relationships, women still have the major responsibility for children.
Karen Piper, of Victorian Protection Service for Children and Young People, says “Women are still targeted to fix up the family. They have to carry the emotional responsibility and lashing out – even verbally – is inevitable under that kind of pressure. It is not surprising they are vulnerable and have difficulties in managing effectively, especially women in single-parent families.”
While social and economic factors play a significant role in causing emotional abuse, research suggests it can be a vicious cycle. “Parents often don’t realise the destructive effects their verbal tongue-lashing or cold withdrawal has on their children,” says Robin Clark.
“They tend to think, my parents said or did those things and there’s nothing wrong with me. They don’t confront their own emotional inadequacy and their behaviour is passed from generation to generation.
Women attempting to break out of the limits imposed by sexual stereotyping are often thwarted in their endeavours by their behaviour of their mothers who have unconsciously inhibited them. These women have often been emotionally abused without even realising it, and then act out the same behaviour on their children.
For Ro Bailey, now a social worker with Victoria’s self-help group Parents Anonymous, recognising that she was emotionally abusing her two young children was a frightening personal confrontation. It was in the early 1970s and she was a young married mother living in an affluent Melbourne suburb with a husband who didn’t come drunk or bash her. Yet, there were many times that, emotionally, she spun out of control. Her marriage was not a rewarding one and she received little emotional support from her husband (she is now divorced).
“I was critical and sarcastic to my two children and vented my frustrations on them,” she says. “I called them unpleasant names and was terrified I’d hit them. Later, I’d feel dreadful and try to make it up to them, but my own behaviour was frightening to me. Once my daughter was screaming so much that I picked her up and threw her into her cot. I didn’t realise that what I was saying verbally could be damaging too.”
With other parents, Ms Bailey sought help to alter her behaviour and now counsels other parents. “We try to teach people more positive ways of communicating,” she says. “Saying things like you’re a nuisance or you’re a pest to your children can give them a very bad image of themselves. Verbal abuse doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other; it can scare a child for a lifetime.
“That’s not to deny that you might feel tired or want to be left alone for a while, but there are other effective ways of handling the situation. You can own the problem yourself and tell the child directly how you feel. Don’t make him or her the scapegoat.”
Ms Bailey believes that some parents simply don’t realise the responsibility of having a child. “They view their child as a toy,” she says. “Something to get out of the cupboard when they feel like playing, but they have little concept of the reality involved.”
Parents Anonymous, a self-help group, receives about 400 telephone calls a month and provides both one-to-one counselling and group therapy. It teaches parenting skills and communication techniques, and most of its clients are women. It also recommends self-development and self-awareness courses through other institutions.
Carol is a typical example of a woman under stress who unconsciously repeated the same emotional abuse towards her four-year-old daughter as she had experienced from her own mother. Married for eight years, and now 30, she’s been taking tranquillisers for two years to cope with the financial troubles and her sense of inadequacy.
“ I was constantly yelled at and hit by my mother when I was a child and grew up with no self-esteem,” she says.”After finishing my studies (she has a university degree in social sciences), I was too scared to enter the workforce. I’ve never worked. I didn’t believe my mother loved me and as a teenager I was anorexic. Sometimes my mother would get so cold towards me and withdraw from me and I thought it was all my fault. I blamed myself for everything. I used to think I was useless.”
But when Carol married and had her own daughter, she had high hopes of doing it all differently. But soon she began to yell and scream at her daughter and found the same words coming out of her mouth that her mother had thrown at her. Frightened and shocked, she decided to seek help. “I would let fly and then think, ‘Oh God, what am I saying?” she says. “I rang Parents Anonymous and am now learning new ways of dealing with my anger and frustration. It amazes me what kids interpret. We just don’t realise the damaging effect of what we say to them. I’m now being constructive with my emotions.”
Definition of emotional abuse:
• When a child is repeatedly rejected or frightened by threats
• Hostility towards the child
• Derogatory put-downs
• Persistent coldness or withdrawal from the child
• Scape-goating of the child
• Social or physical isolation of the child
• Severe verbal abuse
• Unrealistic expectations of the child
How to tell if you’ve been emotionally abused:
• Low self-esteem
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Feeling bad about yourself
• Feeling everything is your fault
• Lack of trust in others and self
• Exaggerated emotional responses