top of page
Safeguarding KP Website Strip Header (1).jpg

What is emotional abuse?

E5 Purple.png

...the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.

What are the signs and indicators of emotional abuse?

There are many signs and indicators of emotional abuse. Some of these might be more obvious if we witness them or we're made aware that they're happening, such as:


  • The pupil being told they’re worthless, unloved or inadequate

  • Age or developmentally inappropriate expectations of the child

  • Being silenced or made fun of

  • Seeing or hearing mistreatment of others

  • Experiencing serious bullying causing frequent fear (including bullying by other children, which is child-on-child abuse)

  • Being stopped from socialising or playing with others

  • Relationships with parents/caregivers that are at the extremes, e.g. lack of closeness or being overly close


If we don't see the above happening, we might see other less obvious indicators that emotional abuse is taking place. These include, but are not limited to:


  • Low self-confidence 

  • Constant self-deprecation

  • Mental health difficulties

  • Excessive reactions to mistakes

  • Repetitive actions, e.g. rocking, thumb sucking

  • Abrupt onset of speech disorders

  • Being overly compliant, passive or aggressive/provocative

  • The inability to play

  • Being socially isolated

  • Bedwetting or soiling

  • Delays in physical development, e.g. missing development milestones

  • Substance abuse

  • Compulsive theft

  • Self-harm

What puts pupils at greater risk of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse often occurs alongside other forms of other abuse and exploitation, but it can occur alone. When it does, it's often related to the parents' and caregivers' well-being, mental health and past experiences.


Caregivers who are stressed and overwhelmed may inadvertently subject children to emotional harm due to their inability to manage their situation or own emotions effectively. Similarly, caregivers experiencing postnatal depression may struggle to provide the nurturing and supportive environment necessary for a child's emotional development.


Caregivers with unrealistic expectations may impose unreasonable demands on children, leading to feelings of inadequacy or failure. Additionally, the absence of positive reinforcement from caregivers can contribute to a lack of emotional validation and support.


Sometimes, caregivers may do this because they hold the belief that it's the best way to parent a child. However, their choices can also be down to their own experiences. For example, caregivers who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect themselves may unintentionally perpetuate harmful patterns of behaviour. 


Additionally, parents and caregivers with substance abuse issues can significantly impact their ability to provide a stable and nurturing environment for pupils, potentially resulting in neglect or emotional harm. The same can be applied to parents who are experiencing relationship difficulties or abuse themselves, such as where domestic abuse is occurring in a household. 

Be aware...

What are the challenges with detecting emotional abuse?


Detecting emotional abuse can pose significant challenges as the signs may be subtle and hard to detect, particularly among pupils who may not recognise or understand that they are experiencing abuse. Moreover, fear of repercussions or feelings of shame may prevent pupils from disclosing their experiences of emotional abuse, further complicating the identification process. 


An added difficulty can present itself when staff witness parent-child interactions. It can be challenging to distinguish between what constitutes emotional abuse and what may be considered a parenting choice, which can be subjective. This adds to the complexity of assessment and intervention efforts.


Furthermore, caregivers themselves may be unaware that their behaviour and actions are emotionally abusive. Engaging in conversations about this can also be challenging, as it requires sensitivity, empathy, honesty and a collaborative approach to address concerns effectively while maintaining open lines of communication.


Take action

  • Record all suspected incidents - chronologies and logs can reveal the bigger picture.

  • Ask non-leading questions when pupils make disclosures.

  • Empower all pupils through a supportive school culture and robust PSHE curriculum.

  • Follow the safeguarding procedures and speak to the DSL.

Safeguarding Training (Ongoing).jpg

Ready to train your staff?

Ready for training
Read for training

Emotional Abuse: Safeguarding Training Bundle

This flexible pack contains five resources to support your training on the child protection issue of emotional abuse:

  1. A ready-made safeguarding training PowerPoint presentation on emotional abuse.

  2. Two fictional safeguarding scenarios on emotional abuse that staff can discuss by identifying signs and indicators of harm in order to share how they'd respond.

  3. A set of quiz questions on emotional abuse to assess staff understanding and a discussion prompt to get staff thinking.

  4. A one-page, one-minute safeguarding snapshot to display or disseminate as a follow-up to the training. 

Find out more

Back to Knowledge Pathfinder: Safeguarding
bottom of page