Sunday 25 February 2018

Patricia Casey: Emotional abuse is the hidden hurt

Victims may be left with no physical marks, but it is one of the most common and harmful forms of abuse

Photo: Thinkstock. Picture posed.
Photo: Thinkstock. Picture posed.

Patricia Casey

A reader recently contacted me to inquire what was meant by the term "emotional abuse". Indeed the query did not surprise, since the phrase if often used, but less often defined.

It is used synonymously with psychological or mental abuse. Emotional abuse must be distinguished from physical and sexual abuse although it may often occur in association with these. Emotional abuse can occur on its own and this makes it elusive and difficult to detect; there are no physical marks. Indeed, victims themselves often fail to appreciate that the behaviour they are experiencing is abusive since is more subtle than other types of abuse.

The form it takes depends on the setting and the age of the victim. In the home, a child victim may experience emotional neglect, constant criticism and a gross absence of nurturing. Women or men exposed to emotional abuse at home may be subject to constant undermining, to prolonged periods of silence, to possessiveness and jealousy. Elderly people may be subject to name calling and verbal humiliation.

In the school, children and adolescents may face constant criticism or undermining from a teacher. They may be singled out for negative comments and wrongly blamed for the misdeeds of others. Their peers may taunt them. In the workplace, a pattern of disparagement and humiliation may be evident. And social media is now responsible for the much vaunted cyber-bullying.

There is no accurate data on how frequently emotional abuse takes place since it occurs in such disparate settings and age groups. In the US, emotional abuse represents about 7pc of reported child-abuse cases. In general, emotional abuse is regarded as the most common type of abuse although mostly it is unrecognised.

It is accepted by most researchers in this field that in respect of sexual or physical abuse, a single event can constitute abuse while for emotional abuse to be so defined it must be part of a pattern, occurring over time. So, a single act of criticism, say at work or in school, no matter how thoughtless or inaccurate, would not constitute emotional abuse.

As with other types of abuse, there is now a clear recognition that emotional abuse takes place in the context of a power differential. The perpetrator acts in this way because he/she is in a position of power or authority over another. In the case of peer bullying, this differential seems less obvious and the differential usually relates to the personal fragility of the victim.

The impact of emotional abuse depends on the age at which it commenced, whether the person was believed or not and on the level of support offered in combating it. Clearly, children exposed to emotional abuse are the most vulnerable to adverse consequences, especially if it is perpetrated by their parents. Schoolchildren who are intimidated by teachers are also vulnerable but if their parents believe them and address the problem with the school and through therapy, the impact is significantly lessened. Adults themselves also need professional help in coping with emotional abuse. Irrespective of the environment in which the abuse occurs, whether it is at home, school or the workplace, exiting it is strongly recommended.

For those who struggle to be believed, to find support and to remove themselves from the situation, the consequences are little different from those experiencing any other type of abuse.

Lack of self-confidence, anger, mood disturbance, self-harming behaviours including cutting, overdosing and substance misuse and impaired interpersonal skills have all been identified. Thus taking steps to alleviate the abuse and having access to therapy is crucial in dealing with the anger and the feelings of hurt and sadness that have resulted.

It will also help turn around the distorted dynamic whereby the victim blames themselves and endeavours to work harder to find a solution. Therapy may also prevent the intergenerational transmission of this pattern of behaviour that has so clearly been described in the scientific literature.

Minimisation is frequent. Perpetrators deny the effect of their behaviour while victims often suppress the idea that they are victims. This is especially true when the power differential seems unusual or counter-intuitive. Thus men are often the hidden victims of the partner's/wife's abuse; similarly older children who are bullied by those who are younger. It is for good reason that emotional abuse is called the "hidden hurt", and one which begs for our recognition and understanding.

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