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Learn how childhood emotional abuse can cause serious effects in adulthood.

Hidden Wounds, Lasting Hurt: Understanding Childhood Emotional Abuse

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Childhood emotional abuse can be subtle and nuanced, or even so routine that it seems almost normal. For adult survivors of childhood emotional abuse, knowing how the abuse has shaped their lives may be difficult. Understanding what has happened can offer a path to healing.
This blog contains a trigger warning for those who have experienced childhood abuse.

The lasting trauma of child abuse on survivors is becoming better understood as conversations and treatment for mental health issues continue to expand. For adults who have experienced childhood emotional abuse, the wrongs may be more difficult to pinpoint than sexual or physical abuse, but can be just as damaging.  Knowing more about the different manifestations of childhood abuse can help clarify whether this may be behind persistent mental health issues, and determine the necessary next steps.

Types of Childhood Emotional Abuse

Childhood emotional abuse can take several different forms, and some people may have experienced multiple forms of emotional abuse from their family or others in positions of authority or care. Emotional abuse is insidious and often normalised, which makes it hard to detect despite creating problems later in life.

Emotional Neglect

What it looks like…
You’re playing with toys by yourself at home. You’d like to play with your parent, so you bring them toys, a book, anything to try to get them to engage. They never do, telling you they are “too busy,” or simply “don’t bother me with that.”

You’ve been bullied at school. You are hurt and crying, and your parent tells you to “get over it, it’s not a big deal,” and then proceeds to ignore you. This is a typical response to when you feel upset or hurt.

What it is…
Emotional neglect occurs when a child’s ongoing needs for nurturing, support and stimulation are not met. This can occur particularly when parents are also dealing with mental health issues, including substance addiction, as well as addiction to work, TV or Internet.  Emotional neglect often leads to feelings of emptiness, a lack of emotional understanding both for oneself and for others, and a fear of dependency in adulthood. This can make forming healthy relationships very difficult.

Verbal Abuse

What it looks like…
Despite doing your best, you are having trouble with your math homework, and come home with a poor grade on a recent quiz. Your parent sees it and comments that the reason you didn’t do well is because you are “stupid and lazy.” This is a common response to a mistake or failure.

You are playing with a younger sibling when they fall and scrape their knee. Your parent tells you that “this is your fault,” and that you are always causing problems in the family.

What it is…
Verbal abuse is the use of degrading and harmful words to address another person.  It can have a devastating impact on children, and is potentially linked to the development of personality disorders and other psychiatric conditions. Those who have experienced verbal abuse may find that they have deeply negative self-talk, meaning that their inner narrative is also harsh and focused only on perceived flaws or mistakes.

Psychological Grooming

What it looks like…
You’re fourteen years old and experiencing the challenges of being a young teen. Your favourite teacher always makes time to listen to you and talk to you about what you’re going through. You feel like you can tell them anything, and you do. They also begin to confide in you, including about their relationships or other personal issues, and initiate contact with you outside of school hours. You feel like they are the only person you can trust. It becomes obvious that this person is interested in a physical relationship with you, even though you are a child, and they are an adult.

What it is…
Grooming is a highly manipulative psychological tactic often designed to coerce a child into sexual behaviour with an adult. It involves a drawn-out process of isolating a potential victim, building trust and breaking down personal boundaries in order to exploit and control this person.  In many cases, victims of grooming and sexual abuse will wrongly feel that the abuse was their fault, and will blame themselves.  

Shame and Humiliation

What it looks like…
You’re five years old, and have wet the bed. You feel embarrassed and go to your parent for help. They yell at you and tell you that you’re such a baby and you should be ashamed of yourself.  This is a frequent response to accidents or mistakes.

You are a young teenager, and trying out a new fashion with your one close friend. Your parent sees you and tells you look like a freak and that it’s no wonder you don’t have lots of friends. You are often ridiculed or degraded when you attempt something for the first time, or express interest in something different than your family. If you point it out, they say they are just kidding and that you are being overly sensitive.

What it is…
Shame and humiliation involves taking a subject of sensitivity or embarrassment and using that to punish or criticise a child. This is commonly done in front of others, and if the child gets upset or defensive, the person may say that they are only joking or that the child is taking things too seriously. Shame and humiliation is extremely damaging to self-esteem and self-worth, and can contribute to anxiety and depression.


What it looks like…
You feel as if you are your parent’s closest confidant. They tell you everything, including about their sex life, fears for the future, and other “adult” topics, even though you don’t always want to hear it. If you protest, they make you feel guilty for “not loving them.” While the relationship doesn’t involve sexual abuse, you may feel suffocated by the level of support you are expected to provide for your parent, often at the cost of your own personal growth and development.

What it is…
Enmeshment, also known as “covert incest,” is a co-dependent relationship between a child and their parent or parents that tends to reverse traditional parent-child roles. This results in the child being responsible for fulfilling the parent’s emotional needs. In cases of parental addiction, the child may be tasked with carrying out a parent’s physical duties as well, such as waking them up in the morning or cooking meals. This can affect the development of a person’s identity outside of this relationship, and seriously impact a person’s ability to set healthy boundaries, leading to the potential for other codependent relationships in the future.

Impacts of Childhood Emotional Abuse

The trauma of childhood emotional abuse has been linked to a wide variety of mental health disorders in adulthood. Studies have suggested that part of this is due to the impacts of the abuse on a child’s identity, self-worth, and feelings about themselves at a time when their brains are rapidly developing. These negative events during this critical time of growth can lead to someone deeply internalising and believing what is being said.

People who struggle with the long-term impacts of childhood emotional abuse may experience feelings or issues related to:

  • Fear of or aversion to any type of conflict
  • Social anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty trusting others and forming relationships
  • Indecisiveness and self-doubt
  • Fawning
  • Defensiveness
  • Codependency
  • Anger
  • And more

Seeking professional treatment for the long-term effects of childhood emotional abuse can help you further understand the root causes of your issues and then confront them in a safe, supportive environment. This treatment also integrates how to redirect problematic behaviours, and manage stress, depression, and anxiety.

Healing Old Wounds at The Dawn

The Dawn Wellness Centre unique programme is designed to help people struggling with mental health and addiction.

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in northern Thailand is a specially designed residential treatment facility that has been created to foster an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and overcome addiction or mental health issues. 

Licenced by the Thai Ministry of Health, The Dawn offers tailor-made programmes that cater to each individual’s needs by using a comprehensive, holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results.

Call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can create a personalised treatment plan to help you overcome your past and embrace your future.

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