What is emotional abuse?
Imagine for a moment a scenario where a young child who is following her mother but struggling to catch up to her pace and the mother says to her: “If you don’t hurry up, I’m going to leave you behind!”
Sounds like a fairly innocuous demand, right? A stressed-out parent, late for work or some other obligation, becomes impatient with a child, and says something she really doesn’t mean.
Or does she?
Is this emotional abuse?
I’m going to return to this scenario in a moment, but first I want to offer a definition of emotional abuse and/or emotional neglect:
It is when a parent or caregiver repeatedly ignores, dismisses, minimizes, or derides their child’s emotional being.
It can be subtle, which is one of the reasons people may not recognize it in their own lives or the lives of others. In fact, people usually conceptualize childhood abuse as “physical” abuse, and disregard or misunderstand how emotional abuse or neglect can be just as damaging.
I like to tell clients who rationalize emotional abuse in this way that they may never have been hit, but they were hurt.
The legacy of emotional abuse/neglect is that we can disconnect from, distrust, and discount our own emotional experiences as adults until and unless we face what happened to us as children. We live as grey ghosts in a world of vibrant color.
So, to return to the scenario briefly outlined above and the question posed, “Is this emotional abuse?”
In order to do this, we need to look more closely at the details, specifically in the subtle, non-verbal interactions between mother and child.
Imagine that the child in the scenario is 4, and the struggle to keep up with her mother is evident on her face and her body. She is sobbing, her breathing is labored. She’s in a lot of internal distress as well. So exquisitely attuned to the threat of exile from a mother’s protection and love, she may not have fully understood the words “left behind,” but she no doubt felt the vibrations of her mother’s impatience and irritation, and they felt terrifyingly unsafe. The child, in this scenario, may understand the demand “hurry up”, but something is happening to that child internallythat is preventing them from obeying.
Now let’s imagine that the mother hearsher daughter’s distress, then turns and quickly seesher daughter’s distress. More accurately, she feels her daughter’s distress. She has the capacity to put aside her own needs and be empathically present with her child’s emotional experience in that moment, attending to her distress, listening and reassuring. She is able to discern and fulfill her 4-year-old’s developmental needs for protection and attunement.
But what if the mother in the scenario does not turn around? What if she keeps her pace, and the child slips further behind? What if this mother cannot hear, see, or feel her child’s distress? In fact, she unconsciously holds contempt for her daughter’s vulnerability and dependency needs, for to recognize and attend to them would surely open up her own childhood wounds.
For this mother and child, the threat of abandonment is real. She is communicating, without words: “I cannot and will not stay present for your suffering. You are on your own.”
So, if a client says to me that his childhood was “normal”, that he was never hit, but then adds, off-handedly, that his mother or father was often frustrated and impatient with him, I would be curious about what he means by that. Was there a hidden threat in that impatience? Did he often feel alone and inadequate when sensing the frustration of his parents?
I would also be curious whether that client has learned to be impatient and frustrated with himself—how he might feel driven, without conscious awareness, to live his life at someone else’s pace, a pace that often feels inauthentic and hollow.
For until we address the hidden, historical damage to our emotional beings, we repeatedly and mercilessly abandon our true selves.