Emotional Abuse, Physical Abuse, and Sexual Abuse

Warning: Material in this article may be triggering to physical abuse survivors and sexual abuse survivors.

I believe that all forms of abuse involve emotional abuse. Research has, in fact, shown that this is true. In a literature review article on child abuse by Sandra Kaplan, David Pelcovitz, and Victor LaBruna in the October 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, they have this to say about emotional abuse:

Research [by Claussen and Crittenden from 1991] indicates that emotional maltreatment (also referred to as psychological maltreatment) occurs in an overwhelming majority of physical abuse cases but also occurs independently of other types of maltreatment. As a result, emotional abuse and neglect are likely the most frequent forms of maltreatment experienced by children and adolescents. Unfortunately, emotional maltreatment has not been a focus of research until recently because it was often thought to be less damaging than physical maltreatment, and it can be more difficult to quantify compared with physical evidence of trauma. The existing research suggests that emotional maltreatment may actually have a stronger relationship to long-term psychological functioning than other forms of maltreatment.

A 2003 article by Maxia Dong , Robert Anda, Shanta Dube, Wayne Giles, and Vincent Felitti in Child Abuse and Neglect reports on the occurrence of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) along with other adverse childhood experiences, including emotional abuse. They confirm that multiple studies prior to theirs showed that many kids who suffered from CSA also suffered from emotional abuse.

In their study, they assessed emotional abuse based only on two questions: “How often did a parent, stepparent, or adult living in your home swear at you, insult you, or put you down?” and “How often did a parent, stepparent, or adult living in your home act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?” Participants had to answer often or very often in order to be classified as being emotionally abused. This is anything but a comprehensive assessment of emotional abuse!

And yet, of the nine adverse childhood experiences that they checked, emotional abuse was the one that garnered the highest results. In other words, it was likely that sexually abused participants in their study, which they claim was a decent sample, suffered emotional abuse as opposed to other adverse childhood experiences such as physical abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and domestic abuse.

Emotional Abuse and Physical Abuse

On the surface, physical abuse is about discipline, and physically abused kids are made to feel responsible for the physical violence that they suffer. According to the abuser, they misbehaved and they deserve to be taught a lesson.

But there’s something wrong with this logic. Society is ready to acknowledge that physical violence against strangers is wrong, but when it comes to children, many are reluctant to apply the same standards. Susan Forward in her book Toxic Parents speaks of the sanctity of parenthood, or indeed any adult figure a child faces. There’s this aura of righteousness about everything an adult does to a child, particularly when that adult is a parent. Society focuses on the intent of the behavior, but when we step back from the situation and view the child as a human being, we see a different picture.

I think physical abuse has a lot to do with a parent’s difficulty in dealing with their anger. The excuse is that children will make a connection between misbehavior and pain, which will deter them from doing it again, but I think physical abuse is really about control, and controlling behaviors are about emotional abuse. They reflect the abuser’s attempt to gain control of a situation that they feel they’re not controlling, which certainly happens when a child misbehaves. They physically lash out at their children in order to soothe their own discomfort and confusion.

Helpguide’s article on child abuse and neglect also tells us that unlike legitimate discipline, physical abuse is often unpredictable.

The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.

This is typical of emotional abusers as well. One strong indication that we’re dealing with emotional abusers is the presence of a distorted worldview. Part of this unpredictability is because these abusers don’t respond to reality. The mental environment in their brain shifts based on imaginary winds, and victims are left wondering what they said or did to bring on the attack. So here we see a similar dynamic with physical abuse, possibly motivated by a similar reason (distorted worldview), at least in some cases.

Emotional Abuse and Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is an extremely complicated form of abuse when discussing motivations. I’m not going to go into why molesters do it. But it’s not a secret that sexual abusers are masters at making their victims feel like it’s their fault. They may indicate that a victim dresses or behaves in a certain way that makes them lose control. A victim may believe this even if the molester doesn’t say anything, especially if they feel singled out from other family members. They may also blame themselves for not being physically force the molester to stop.

Molesters also make sure to make their victims feel bad if they tell anyone. Threats of them breaking up the family or ruining the molester’s life aren’t uncommon. They also instill feelings of rejection and shame by telling the victim that no one will believe them. Some go so far as to threaten physical harm if a victim tells. I heard of a molester who told his young victims that he’d cut their legs off if they told.

Molesters are manipulators, and manipulators are emotional abusers. Instilling shame, guilt, and fear purely serves their needs and denies the victim theirs. It’s also a form of oppression, making the victim feel like they can’t get away from this monster if the abuser is frequently around them. Molesters may use gaslighting in an attempt to erase the abuse, denying that it happened and making the victim feel like they’re crazy.

As I quoted above, researchers are now suggesting that the pain from emotional abuse carries burdens that are at least as heavy, if not heavier, than physical forms of abuse, and discussions among abuse survivors who’ve suffered from both confirm this. Whether you classify it as a separate experience and call it emotional abuse, or whether you think of it as the emotional effects of the physical experience, it needs to be taken seriously.

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