sad little boy

Topic 1: Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect—Definitions and Indicators

Emotional Maltreatment

Suspecting emotional maltreatment is challenging. The child will show no bruises or welts and may be appropriately fed and clothed. Yet some consider the damage caused by emotional maltreatment to exceed that of other forms of abuse and neglect. Adding to the challenge is that the child may not be able to disclose the maltreatment, as he or she may think that emotional maltreatment is part of normal parenting.

Legal Definition

Emotional maltreatment is called “Mental Abuse” in Virginia Code. Emotional maltreatment includes patterns of the following behaviors:

Operational Definition

Emotional maltreatment is perhaps the most difficult form of abuse to define, yet its consequences can be devastating. In addition, it is likely that some element of emotional maltreatment is involved in other forms of abuse and neglect.

Caregiver actions that may be considered emotionally abusive include patterns of:

It can be very hard to tell the difference between less-than-optimal parenting and emotional maltreatment. Remember, like neglect, emotional maltreatment hinges on the consequences to the child. If the child has persistent, adverse reactions to caregiver behaviors like the ones mentioned above, emotional maltreatment may be suspected.

Physical Indicators

Emotionally maltreated children often show:

Behavioral Indicators

The range of possible behavioral indicators of emotional maltreatment include:

Emotional Indicators

The developmental delays that are apt to accompany emotional maltreatment include delays in emotional development and can have a significant effect on a child’s ability to age-appropriately handle his or her emotions and social interactions. For example, emotional abuse can be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a child is degraded enough, the child will begin to live up to the image communicated by the emotionally abusive parent or caretaker. This will affect the child’s relationships with others and his or her sense of self-worth.

Cognitive/Academic Indicators

The developmental delays that are apt to accompany emotional maltreatment include delays in cognitive development and can have a significant effect on a child’s academic performance.

(click here for screen reader accessible format)

Read the following scenarios and identify indicators that make you suspicious. Point to the gray box to compare the indicators you identified with those we identified.

Scenario #1

Dave is a sophomore in high school, a good student, and a starter on the basketball team. You go to a game and observe Dave’s father criticizing and ridiculing Dave from the sidelines. He is so disruptive that, during half-time, Dave and he get into a heated argument on the sidelines. Dave fouls out during the third quarter, and his father leaves in obvious disgust. Dave seems relieved when his father leaves, and you see him joking with his teammates.

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators

Scenario #2

Lucy is a very shy, sensitive 7-year-old who has trouble getting along with the other children in your class. You ask her mother to come in to talk to you about it. Her mother claims that Lucy is a “prima-donna” and “stuck-up,” and it’s no wonder the other children don’t like her. You overhear her mother ridiculing her in the parking lot, telling her she is worthless and stupid. During the next week, a new girl comes to your class and Lucy begins to taunt her and pinch her at every opportunity.

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators

Scenario #3

Carlos is usually an enthusiastic and rambunctious six-year-old. Lately you notice that he is either withdrawn or very bossy with the other children. You intervene when you see Carlos grabbing one of the other students and yelling in his face before shoving him to the floor. Carlos tells you not to call his mother or her new boyfriend, Joe, because Joe will get angry and hurt Carlos’ mother.

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators


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