a definition of verbal abuse

- You understand their feelings, but they never attempt to understand yours;

- They dismiss your difficulties or issues as unimportant or an overreaction;

- They do not listen to you;

- They always put their needs before yours;

- They expect you to perform tasks that you find unpleasant or humiliating;

- You "walk on eggshells" in an effort not to upset them;

- They ignore logic and prefer amateur theatrics in order to remain the centre of attention;

- Instead manipulate you into feeling guilty for things that have nothing to do with you;

- They attempt to destroy any outside support you receive by belittling the people/ service/practice in an attempt to retain exclusive control over your emotions;

- They never take responsibility for hurting others;

- They blame everyone and everything else for any unfortunate events in their lives;

- They perceive themselves as martyrs or victims and constantly expect preferential treatment.

Copyright 2002 Abuse List.


Amedeo and I performed our duties with robotic smiles for years, and then he cracked. He was thirteen years old and enough, enough. Out of self-defence, he had devolved: non-feeling and non-sensing, hard. I had been aware of his growing abstraction. It was as if he was being gnawed. He often drank himself to sleep with vodka from Aldo's panelled study. Unusual lights flared in his eyes and his fists were always by his flanks, as if prepared for an attack.

On the morning of the now-legendary crack-up, Aldo had turned to him. "Never had a girlfriend?" he provocatively asked. "You should just accept that you're a eunuch. Don't let it bother you - some men are like that."

Only the customary criticism, customary sarcasm, customary scorn.

At such junctures, mother would always drift out of the room, patting her hair and poetically murmuring to herself. I methodically consumed my breakfast in silence, interrupting Aldo only to ask for milk or coffee or the honey to his right. Amedeo and I never even dared interarch our glances (this had been known to infuriate and was thus unadvisable). That morning my brother left the house with an abundant slamming of all doors. "The milk has CURDLED!" Thoth screamed at mother, who then burst into a fantasy of tears. I grabbed an apple from the bowl and left for school.

The Pure Weight of the Heart, by Antonella Gambotto

what is emotional abuse?

There is no universally accepted definition of emotional abuse. Like other forms of violence in relationships, emotional abuse is based on power and control. The following are widely recognized as forms of emotional abuse:


- refusing to acknowledge a person's presence, value or worth; communicating to a person that she or he is useless or inferior; devaluing her/his thoughts and feelings. Example: repeatedly treating a child differently from siblings in a way that suggests resentment, rejection or dislike for the child.


- insulting, ridiculing, name calling, imitating and infantilizing; behaviour which diminishes the identity, dignity and self-worth of the person. Examples: yelling, swearing, publicly humiliating or labelling a person as stupid; mimicking a person's disability; treating a senior as if she or he cannot make decisions.


- inducing terror or extreme fear in a person; coercing by intimidation; placing or threatening to place a person in an unfit or dangerous environment. Examples: forcing a child to watch violent acts toward other family members or pets; threatening to leave, physically hurt or kill a person, pets or people she / he cares about; threatening to destroy a person's possessions; threatening to have a person deported or put in an institution; stalking.


- physical confinement; restricting normal contact with others; limiting freedom within a person's own environment. Examples: excluding a senior from participating in decisions about her or his own life; locking a child in a closet or room alone; refusing a female partner or senior access to her or his own money and financial affairs; withholding contact with grandchildren; depriving a person of mobility aids or transportation.


- socializing a person into accepting ideas or behaviour which oppose legal standards; using a person for advantage or profit; training a child to serve the interests of the abuser and not of the child. Examples: child sexual abuse; permitting a child to use alcohol or drugs or see pornography; enticing a person into the sex trade.

denying emotional responsiveness

- failing to provide care in a sensitive and responsive manner; being detached and uninvolved; interacting only when necessary; ignoring a person's mental health needs. Examples: ignoring a child's attempt to interact; failing to show affection, caring and / or love for a child; treating a senior who lives in an institution as though she / he is an object or "a job to be done."

- Emotional abuse accompanies other forms of abuse, but also may occur on its own;

- No abuse - neglect, physical, sexual or financial - can occur without psychological consequences. Therefore all abuse contains elements of emotional abuse;

- Emotional abuse follows a pattern; it is repeated and sustained. If left unchecked, abuse does not get better over time. It only gets worse;

- Like other forms of violence in relationships, those who hold the least power and resources in society, for example, women and children, are most often emotionally abused;

- Emotional abuse can severely damage a person's sense of self-worth and perception;

- In children, emotional abuse can impair psychological development, including: intelligence, memory, recognition, perception, attention, imagination and moral development; and

- Emotional abuse can also affect a child's social development and may result in an impaired ability to perceive, feel, understand and express emotions.

how widespread is emotional abuse?

Only a few studies provide insight about the prevalence of emotional abuse in Canada. Emotional abuse is difficult to research because:

- Its effects have only recently been recognized;

- There are no consistent definitions and it is hard to define;

- It is difficult to detect, assess and substantiate; and

- Many cases of emotional abuse go unreported.

A recent study of Ontario investigations into child maltreatment found that, in 1993, 10% of investigations alleged emotional abuse.

In 1993, 39% of women in abusive relationships reported that their children saw them being assaulted.

In 1995, the Canadian Women's Health Test found that of 1000 women 15 years of age or over:

- 36% had experienced emotional abuse while growing up; 43% had experienced some form of abuse as children or teenagers; and

- 39% reported experiencing verbal/emotional abuse in a relationship within the last five years.

Statistics Canada's 1993 Violence Against Women Survey showed that among ever-married or common-law Canadian women aged 18 to 65 years, emotional abuse is widespread. The study found that:

- 35% of all women surveyed reported that their spouse was emotionally abusive.

- 18% of women reported experiencing emotional abuse but not physical abuse in a relationship.

- 77% of women reported emotional abuse in combination with physical abuse. In one Canadian study on abuse in university and college dating relationships, 81% of male respondents reported that they had psychologically abused a female partner.

In 1995, a study of seniors' client records from various agencies across Canada found that psychological abuse was the most prevalent form of abuse. The 1990 National Survey on Abuse of the Elderly in Canada estimated that:

- 4% of seniors residing in private homes reported experiencing abuse and/or neglect;

- Questions about insults, swearing and threats were asked as a measure of chronic verbal aggression. The study showed that 1.4% of seniors experienced these forms of emotional abuse in the year prior to the study; and

- Chronic verbal aggression ranked as the second most prevalent form of mistreatment following material abuse.

facts to consider

Emotional abuse of children can result in serious emotional and/or behavioural problems, including depression, lack of attachment or emotional bond to a parent or guardian, low cognitive ability and educational achievement, and poor social skills.

One study which looked at emotionally abused children in infancy and then again during their preschool years consistently found them to be angry, uncooperative and unattached to their primary caregiver. The children also lacked creativity, persistence and enthusiasm.

Children who experience rejection are more likely than accepted children to exhibit hostility, aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour, to be extremely dependent, to have negative opinions of themselves and their abilities, to be emotionally unstable or unresponsive, and to have a negative perception of the world around them.

Parental verbal aggression (e.g., yelling, insulting) or symbolic aggression (e.g., slamming a door, giving the silent treatment) toward children can have serious consequences. Children who experience these forms of abuse demonstrate higher rates of physical aggressiveness, delinquency and interpersonal problems than other children. Children whose parents are additionally physically abusive are even more likely to experience such difficulties.

Children who see or hear their mothers being abused are victims of emotional abuse.

Growing up in such an environment is terrifying and severely affects a child's psychological and social development. Male children may learn to model violent behaviour while female children may learn that being abused is a normal part of relationships. This contributes to the intergenerational cycle of violence.

Many women in physically abusive relationships feel that the emotional abuse is more severely debilitating than the physical abuse in the relationship.

Repeated verbal abuse such as blaming, ridiculing, insulting, swearing, yelling and humiliation has long-term negative effects on a woman's self-esteem and contributes to feelings of uselessness, worthlessness and self-blame.

Threatening to kill or physically harm a female partner, her children, other family members or pets establishes dominance and coercive power on the part of the abuser. The female partner feels extreme terror, vulnerability and powerlessness within the relationship. This type of emotional abuse can make an abused woman feel helpless and isolated.

Jealousy, possessiveness and interrogation about whereabouts and activities are controlling behaviours which can severely restrict a female partner's independence and freedom. Social and financial isolation may leave her dependent upon the abuser for social contact money and the necessities of life.

Emotional abuse can have serious physical and psychological consequences for women, including severe depression, anxiety, persistent headaches, back and limb problems, and stomach problems.

Women who are psychologically abused but not physically abused are five times more likely to misuse alcohol than women who have not experienced abuse.

Senior abuse is still a new issue and there is still little research in this field on emotional abuse.

We do know that senior emotional abuse and neglect can be personal or systemic and that it occurs in a variety of relationships and settings, including abuse by:

- a partner;

- adult children or other relatives;

- unrelated, formal or informal caregivers; or

- someone in a position of trust.

Seniors who are emotionally abused may experience feelings of extreme inadequacy, guilt, low self-esteem, symptoms of depression, fear of failure, powerlessness or hopelessness. These signs may be easily confused with loss of mental capability so that a senior may be labelled as "senile" or "incapable" when in fact she or he may be being emotionally abused.

Abusers may often outwardly display anger and resentment toward the senior in the company of others. They may also display a complete lack of respect or concern for the senior by repeatedly interrupting or publicly humiliating her or him. Not taking into account a senior's wishes concerning decisions about her or his own life is an outward sign of abuse.

detecting emotional abuse

Emotional abuse may be difficult to detect. However, personal awareness and understanding of the issue is key to recognizing it. The following indicators may assist in detecting emotional abuse.

possible indicators of emotional abuse

- depression;

- withdrawal;

- low self-esteem;

- severe anxiety;

- fearfulness;

- failure to thrive in infancy;

- aggression;

- emotional instability;

- sleep disturbances;

- physical complaints with no medical basis;

- inappropriate behaviour for age or development;

- overly passive/compliant;

- suicide attempts or discussion;

- extreme dependence;

- underachievement;

- inability to trust;

- stealing;

- other forms of abuse present or suspected;

- feelings of shame and guilt;

- frequent crying;

- self-blame/self-depreciation;

- overly passive/compliant;

- delay or refusal of medical treatment;

- discomfort or nervousness around caregiver or relative;

- substance abuse; and

- avoidance of eye contact.

legal intervention

Legal intervention in cases of child emotional abuse and neglect is governed by provincial and territorial child protection legislation.

All jurisdictions require that alleged or suspected child emotional abuse or neglect be reported to child protection authorities or the police. In some jurisdictions, failure to report child emotional abuse or neglect may result in a fine or imprisonment.

Emotionally abusive behaviour such as repeatedly following the other person or someone known to her or him; repeatedly communicating, directly or indirectly, with the other person or someone known to her or him; harassing the other person with telephone calls; besetting or watching the other person's house or place of work; and / or engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person or a member of her or his family is criminal harassment.

These behaviours must cause a person to fear for her or his safety or the safety of someone she or he knows.

Other forms of emotional abuse such as insulting, isolating, infantilizing, humiliating, and ignoring, although serious, are not criminal behaviours and cannot be prosecuted under the Criminal Code of Canada.

what can you do?

If you are being abused, remember:

-You are not alone;

- It is not your fault;

- No one ever deserves to be abused; and

- Help is available.

if you suspect/know someone is being abused

- Listen;

- Believe;

- Support;

- Let the person know about available support services; and

- Report suspected or known child abuse or neglect to a child welfare agency or the police.

if you are a service provider

Work with other organizations to:

- Increase awareness of emotional abuse;

- Address the needs of those who have been or are being emotionally abused; and

- Keep informed of resources and materials relating to intervention and prevention of abuse.



- 24 hour help-line or distress line;

- transition house or shelter;

- social service agency;

- child welfare or family services agency;

- police;

- legal aid service;

- health professional (e.g., nurse, doctor, dentist);

- community health centre;

- public health department;

- community counselling centre;

- home support agency;

- seniors' centre;

- community living association;

- friendship centre;

- religious/spiritual organization.

child sexual abuse prevention kit

Developed by the Caring Communities Project includes "how to" handbooks, tools and activities, 20 case studies of prevention initiatives and resource lists of books, programs and videos. The kit is available in both English and French. Contact: Canadian Institute of Child Health, 384 Bank Street, Suite 300, Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1Y4. Tel: (613) 230-8838; fax: (613) 230-6654; e-mail:

nobody's perfect

A support and educational program for parents of children from birth to age five. This program is available in both English and French. Contact: Nobody's Perfect National Office, 384 Bank Street, Suite 300, Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1Y4. Tel: (613) 237-7667, ext. 225; fax: (613) 237-8515; e-mail:

Copyright 2002 Laura E. Stevens

feel better

A favorite Dolphin Research Center program, allowing people to enter the dolphins environment and participate in a playful, structured swim session with the dolphins. Participation in educational workshops completes the experience. The program costs $135 per person and requires advance reservations. Minimum age is 5 years old. Children ages 5 - 12 must have an adult in the water with them for the swim. Understanding of spoken English is required.

Reservations can be made the month before you wish to swim. Call the reservation line in Florida on (305) 289-0002. For a reservation schedule and more information about the program, click here.

Absolutely no reservations will be accepted by mail, fax or electronic mail.

Copyright 2002 The Dolphin Research Center

Are you codependent?
Anger and depression
Addicted to love
Trauma + recovery
Illness: a new perspective
Suicidal urges
A healthy life
The healing power of hope
In debt?
The laughter page
Find your own North Star
Optimism - the key to everything!
How to feel better about yourself
Learn more about Antonella Gambotto
An inspiring interview with abuse survivor Louise Hay

Psychological abuse questionnaire
Emotional Abuse survivor resources
Abuse Tips message boards - NOW!
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Abuse tips weekly ezine
Relationships Australia
When Love Hurts
Lifeline Australia - 131 114 - call NOW!
Great free guided audio online relaxation exercises