What Child Care Providers Need to Know about Identifying Emotional Abuse

Sad boy lying down

Identifying possible child abuse is one of the most stressful responsibilities of a child care provider. Emotional abuse is not as easy to identify as physical abuse because the signs are more subtle.

What Child Care Providers Should Know about Emotional Abuse

  • Emotional abuse includes blaming, belittling or rejecting a child; In addition, this includes constantly treating siblings unequally or persistent lack of concern for a child’s welfare. It also includes bizarre or cruel forms of punishment — for example, locking a child in a dark closet.
  • Emotional abuse is hard to identify because the signs are rarely physical. The effects of emotional injury, such as lags in physical development or speech disorders, are not as obvious as bruises and cuts. Sometimes children who are being emotionally abused show stress reactions as facial tics, rocking motions and odd reactions to a person in authority. Other effects might not show up for many years.
  • Although emotional abuse does occur alone, it often accompanies physical or sexual abuse. Emotionally abused children are not always physically abused, but physically abused children often are emotionally abused as well.

Identifying Signs of Emotional Abuse

Consider the possibility of emotional abuse when

The child:

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as being overly compliant, demanding, extremely passive or aggressive
  • Is inappropriately adult(parenting other children, for example)or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging)
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development compared to other children the same age
  • Talks about hurting himself or has attempted suicide
  • Shows signs of an angry, hostile or ambivalent attachment to the parent
  • Shows dramatic changes in behavior in a short period of time

The parent or adult caregiver:

  • Openly rejects the child
  • Regularly blames, belittles or berates the child
  • Calls the child inappropriate names
  • Compares the child negatively to siblings or other children
  • Is unconcerned about the child’s feelings
  • Refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems

Examples of Adult Behavior That May Suggest Emotional Abuse

Each time he comes to pick up 5-year-old “Nathan,” Mr. Wheeler makes fun of his son’s efforts. Typical comments include: “Can’t you button that coat right? You never get the buttons to line up with the holes. You look like an idiot.” “What’s that a picture of? Is that the only color you know how to use?” “Can’t you climb to the top of the climber yet? All the other kids climbed to the top. What’s the matter with you? Are your legs too short?”

“Yolanda,” 3 years old, was so busy playing with her friends that she wet her pants instead of using the toilet. Her mother, who had just arrived, notices her wet pants and says sternly, “Well, Yolanda, I see that you aren’t just playing house. You really are a baby. Only a baby would wet her pants.”

For More Information

To learn more about preventing, recognizing, and handling child abuse and neglect in child care settings, visit the Child Abuse and Neglect section, or check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: