Children are powerless and vulnerable, a fact exploited indiscriminately in child abuse. In India, several efforts in the form of laws, programs, and research are being made to curb the menace of child abuse. However, until now, they have mostly dealt with physical and sexual child abuse, leaving out of their scope a most detrimental form of child abuse called emotional child abuse.
Mostly brushed aside, emotional abuse can affect children for life, sometimes even disparaging their chances to develop healthy relationships in their adult lives. Further shocking, more often than not, children fall prey to it within the very four walls of their homes, at the hands of those who are traditionally expected to be their first providers of love and care—parents/caregivers.
Accordingly, this paper sheds light on the implications of emotional child abuse, particularly within a family. It explores the challenges in mitigating such incidences of abuse and recommends a few solutions to overcome them.
Emotional Child Abuse
India is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 (CRC). The Convention defines every person below eighteen years as a child. In terms of child abuse, the definition sounds fit as a child can suffer all imaginable forms of abuse within their own family space (Chopra, 2015, p. 165). In India, generally, a person resides in their family home for at least the first eighteen years of their lives.
Child abuse is a dreadful issue that afflicts the entire world. Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary (2008, p. 80) defines child abuse as “a complex set of behaviors that include child neglect and the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children.” In India, where 39% of the population is below 18 years of age (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation Government of India, 2018), the need to eradicate child abuse immediately and in totality cannot be stressed enough—the keyword being “in totality.”
Though not much nationwide data regarding emotional child abuse in India is available, in a major study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (2007) in 13 states, it was found that the incidence of all forms of child abuse, including emotional abuse, was widespread. The alarming part of the findings was that a large share of the abusers was not a stranger to the child. Two conclusions to be drawn herein are every form of child abuse needs to be tackled, and the foremost step to prevent child abuse is cautioning the family against child abuse.
Understanding Emotional Abuse
It is well-documented that the quality of the relationship shared between caregiver and child is crucial for a child’s emotional development (Sroufe, 1996). Bracing against a parent/caregiver, they step into the world. Thus, it is pivotal that such relationships are always the healthiest—one where a child can unhesitatingly trust and feel safe. However, when a child suffers emotional pain and neglect in the relationship, the promise of a healthy child is broken.
Emotional child abuse is generally understood as a repeated verbal harassment of a child through ridicule, threat, and criticism or where the role of the child and caregiver is reversed (Skuse, 1989). Studies show it is the most common form of child abuse with the most deleterious effects on children (Dye, 2020); in some cases, it may even alter their developing brains forever.
It has been found effects of emotional child abuse linger well on to the adulthood of the child. In emotional child abuse, there are no scars to tend to. Rather, these scars remain buried in the deep recess of the mind and continue to haunt and hurt the child even when the child has become an adult. Such adults may experience emotional dysregulation, low self-esteem, self-worth, and despair and are highly vulnerable to stress. Often they might even develop more severe forms of mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse problems (Iram Rizvi & Najam, 2014).
These individuals are also prone to sexual victimisation and perpetration in later stages of life (Zubriggen, Gobin, & Freyd, 2010). Having suffered emotional pain at the hands of their close ones, they grow up believing they are not worthy of a loving relationship and inadvertently choose emotionally abusive, toxic relationships (Riggs & Kaminski, 2010), entering themselves into an endless circle of psychological pain.
A child can suffer emotional abuse in several different ways. These situations can be radically different from each other. However, what remains common is the emotional violence caused to the child. A child may suffer it in a family where the violence may be primarily limited between the parents; watching parents indulge in violent behaviour can psychologically harm a child a great deal (Stiles, 2002). Or a child may be emotionally abused by parents by actively making them feel they are unworthy of love or inadequate or withholding love till the child meets their emotional demands.
Or it can occur in families where the roles of child and parent are reversed or where a child is prematurely forced to act like a grownup. Such families may look perfect on the surface, however, the child who has to act as the parent—the parentified child—may be suffering unimaginable emotional distress (Hooper, 2007).
Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro in her short story, “the time of death”, masterfully captures a scenario similar to it. In the story, when the mother leaves her younger children in the care of her eldest child, nine-year-old Patricia, and her youngest son dies, scalded by the hot water Patricia had boiled to clean the house, she openly blames the death on her, even barring her from attending the funeral. However, Patricia does not react to it, or to the death itself. She goes on looking after her other siblings, making sure they act properly in their neighbour’s house, where they are sent to spend the night after the accident, offering even to help with the dishes there. Later, when an offer comes for her to sing in a concert, the mother swiftly reconciles with her and Patricia goes to perform on the stage too.
It is only after weeks that she unexpectedly comes to terms with the death of her brother when she catches the sight of an approaching peddler whom her brother was fond of. She breaks into wild, raging screams and is only able to be subdued after being made to swallow a big dose of soothing syrup with a lot of whiskey in it.
Through Patricia, Munro paints a perfect portrait of a parentified child growing up with a volatile parent which has made her grow up so much beyond her age, an inflated sense of responsibility has developed in her; so inflated, it takes precedence over her own emotions, preventing her from processing her emotions as naturally as a healthy child would.
The Right to Protection against Emotional Child Abuse
Presently, little has been done legally to protect children from emotional child abuse. It seems a common belief exists among governments and the public alike that the emotional well-being of a child is not worth a legal right and that the State does not have an obligation to ensure it. However, this is not the case.
India is a party to the Convention of Child Rights, 1989, and is required to comply with it. Article 6 of the Convention recognizes the inherent right to life of every child. Article 39 makes it the duty of the State Parties to take measures to promote the psychological recovery of a child who has been the victim of any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse. In the year 2021, the National Crimes Record Bureau recorded 10,732 suicidal deaths of people below 18 years of age; the leading cause of the suicides was family problems (3233) followed by illness (1408) in which insanity/mental illness accounted for 822 suicides.
The constitution of India in Article 51A (h) declares a fundamental duty to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform. Thus, it is incumbent on every citizen to view the issue of emotional abuse through the lens of science. A layman may find it hard to understand the complications of emotional injury as the child may appear physically sound still. In these situations, one must depend and trust on scientific research and findings to comprehend the issue. There are many things the naked eye may miss, but that does not mean they do not exist or pose harm.
Article 45 guarantees the right to early childhood care and education to all children until they complete the age of six years. Here, the term ‘childhood care’ should not be construed narrowly to mean only food and clothes but also emotional happiness. Article 47 directs the state to raise the standard of living and improve public health. Most importantly, Article 21 guarantees the fundamental right to life to all citizens; children are within the meaning of citizens. Hence, it is the inalienable, basic right of a child to enjoy a life that has dignity and is more than just mere animal existence (Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi, 1981) and is worth living (In Re: Noise Pollution, 2005). Physical well-being alone does not promise these elements.
National Policy for Children (2013), in its guiding principles, mentions that mental and cognitive development has to be addressed in totality.
Section 75 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, states that “Whoever, having the actual charge of, or control over a child…abuses, exposes or wilfully neglects the child or causes or procures the child to be…abused, exposed or neglected in a manner likely to cause such child unnecessary mental…suffering, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine of one lakh rupees or with both.”
In Lubna Mehraj And Ors. vs Mehraj-Ud-Din Kanth (2003), the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir recognized the harm of emotional child abuse and observed when parental actions are disruptive or disturbing in a relationship, and hostility between parents goes out of control, children are the first to suffer, and suffer the worst.
Challenges and Recommendations
A critical challenge to preventing emotional child abuse is the scant literature on it. For long, emotional abuse has been viewed as a condition co-occurring with other forms of child abuse. There is little research that investigates the independent consequences of emotional child abuse. Therefore, its dangers have remained largely underemphasized and ignored.
Since emotions are subjective and no two persons are emotionally alike, it is difficult to define emotional child abuse. From a legal perspective, it becomes a roadblock as any law will require certain parameters to decide whether an act amounts to emotional abuse. Moreover, since emotional injury is invisible, the victim may appear absolutely healthy and there would virtually be no evidence to demonstrate the abuse.
Usually, in other forms of child abuse, there is a probability the child may share the experiences of abuse with their close ones. However, since emotional abuse is so subtle and the abused children are only aware of a parental relationship where emotional abuse has been normalised, they naturally fail to recognize what they have been suffering is in fact abuse. Therefore, the abuse is rarely revealed.
Children can also be emotionally abused unintentionally. It can be through unwitting mistakes embedded in the parenting style itself. Since it is impractical to rid every parenting style of any shortcomings or figure out a flawless parenting style, emotional abuse often seems impossible to prevent.
From the above discussions, it could be clearly established that while emotional abuse is still not much understood or known by people, it certainly can ruin a child’s state of life and mind, pushing them into a life-long battle with varied mental health issues. Therefore, being so threatening and elusive in nature, it is critical that a set of targeted steps is taken to eradicate it, ranging from awareness programs to educational and legal reforms.
Making Parents Aware. The author recommends the first step toward preventing emotional child abuse is to educate parents about emotional abuse and sensitise them to its long-lasting implications. Mental health is still not prioritised in India, which has led to many parents neglecting their own as well as their children’s emotional well-being. As the common saying goes—you can help others better when you put your own mask first. In the same vein, parents will take care of their children better when they are doing mentally well.
Similarly, it is to be remembered there is no need for a common-to-all parenting style to secure children against emotional abuse. What is necessary is to ensure parents keep the emotional well-being of their children as their first priority while parenting them.
Law to Combat Emotional Abuse
While section 75 of IPC does provide a welcome protection to children against mental abuse, the provision does not provide for emotional abuse that may not have been inflicted wilfully by their own caregivers over the years. Also, the punishment prescribed (imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine of one lakh rupees or with both) may be extreme in cases where the first line of action could be simply the correction of parenting style.
The policymakers must bring specific legislation against it so as to create much-needed awareness about the issue among the public. Under the new law, it should be made obligatory for the schools to hold a regular mental health assessment of their students. Where a child is found to have been abused emotionally, the child should be mandatorily assigned to psychotherapy sponsored by the government.
The issue of emotional child abuse is complicated and subjective. Consequently, the author contends that one should not aim for an exhaustive definition for it. Simply, any behaviour that causes emotional distress to a child to such a degree it has begun to mentally hurt the child should be viewed as emotional child abuse.
In addition to the child, the caregivers of the child, where they are found responsible, should also be sent to therapy until the attending therapist is satisfied that there is negligible chance of any future emotional abuse of the child. Where the family refuses to go to therapy, there should be fines imposed. In extreme cases, where after a certain prescribed time of therapy, the emotional abuse does not stop or reduce, the child should be taken away from the parents and put up for foster care and section 75 of IPC may be applied. India urgently needs a well-established foster care system.
In situations like spousal violence, traditionally the suffering spouse is regarded as the sole victim. Children suffer equally or more in these situations (Stiles, 2002). It is essential that laws dealing with domestic violence or mental cruelty take children within their purview too.
Schools to Make Children Aware
At last, in elementary education, children are taught important moral values like selflessness, compassion, and kindness. However, it forgets to teach a few other necessary values like self-care, self-compassion, and self-kindness. A child while being taught to respect other’s needs should also be taught to respect their own needs, their own happiness. Such values can stop a child from easily falling victim to emotional abuse.
Without awareness of a problem, one cannot ask for help. It is, therefore, of foremost importance that children are gradually introduced to the subject of mental health and illnesses as part of their curriculum.
Such knowledge prepares them to promptly identify early symptoms in them and seek help. At present, without even basic knowledge of mental health, most growing kids are rather caught off guard in the face of mental illnesses. Bewildered and hurting, lacking the right words to ask for help, they are forced to cope in silence, often resorting to self-treatment, which doesn’t always end well.
When a child is emotionally abused, the trauma inflicted continues to plague the life of the child forever. It is unfortunate that little has been done to save children from such a lifelong curse. Presently, the children of India have been left alone to fend for themselves emotionally; they have to ensure their mental wellbeing on their own. It is imperative now that the State and society together embrace and lend a much-needed helping hand to those defenceless children.
- Child abuse. (2008). In Webster’s new world medical dictionary (3rd ed.). Webster’s New World
- Chopra, G. (2015). Child Rights in India. Springer Publishing.
- Dye, Heather. (2020). Is Emotional Abuse As Harmful as Physical and/or Sexual Abuse? Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 13, 399-407. DOI: 10.1007/s40653-019-00292-y.
- Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi, 2 SCR 516 (1981)
- Hooper, L. M. (2007). Expanding the Discussion Regarding Parentification and Its Varied Outcomes: Implications for Mental Health Research and Practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 29(4), 322-37. DOI: 10.17744/mehc.29.4.48511m0tk22054j5
- In Re: Noise Pollution, 5 SCC 733 (2005)
- Iram Rizvi, S. F., & Najam, N. (2014). Parental Psychological Abuse toward children and Mental Health Problems in adolescence. Pakistan journal of medical sciences, 30(2), 256–260.
- Lubna Mehraj And Ors. vs Mehraj-Ud-Din Kanth, 1 JKJ 418 (2004)
- Munro, A. (1968). The time of death. Dance of the happy shades (pp 89-99).
- Riggs, S. A., & Kaminski, P. (2010). Childhood Emotional Abuse, Adult Attachment, and Depression as Predictors of Relational Adjustment and Psychological Aggression. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 19(1), 75-104. DOI: 10.1080/10926770903475976
- Skuse, D. H. (1989). Emotional Abuse and Neglect. BMJ, 298, 1692-94. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1836746/pdf/bmj00237-0044.pdf
- Sroufe, L. A. (1997). Emotional Development: The Organization of Emotional Life in the Early Years. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
- Stiles, M. M. (2002). Witnessing Domestic Violence: The Effect on Children. Am Fam Physician, 66(11), 2052-2067. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/1201/p2052.html
- Zurbriggen, E. L., Gobin, R. L., & Freyd, J. L. (2010). Childhood Emotional Abuse Predicts Late Adolescent Sexual Aggression Perpetration and Victimisation. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 19(2), 204-223. DOI: 10.1080/10926770903539631
This article has been contributed by Abhik Roy.
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