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Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse

Alternate Names

  • psychological abuse
  • mental abuse
  • verbal abuse


Emotional abuse occurs when a person uses words or actions that make another person think less of himself or herself. It may be accompanied by physical abuse or sexual abuse.

What is going on in the body?

Emotional abusers control their victims in these ways:
  • Cause their victims to feel lonely and isolated. This is done by controlling what the victims do, what people they see and talk to, and where they go.
  • Cause their victims to have negative feelings about themselves or to feel degraded. This is done through insults, name-calling, making false accusations, and playing games with the victims' minds.
  • Make sure their victims are financially dependent on them. The abuser may control the finances so that the victim has little or no access to money. He or she also will prevent the victim from getting or keeping a job. The abuser may make the victim ask or beg for money.
  • Make their victims fear them by using violent looks or gestures or by destroying property.


What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Emotional abuse usually occurs when one person wants power and control over another person. Emotional abuse can affect any age or gender. While there is no one type of person who is at risk for abuse, certain factors do put some people at greater risk. These risk factors are as follows:
  • being a drug or alcohol abuser or having a partner who is one
  • being a female, especially between the ages of 17 and 34
  • being in a marriage or relationship in which one person is more dominant than the other
  • being in the first 5 years of a marriage or a live-in relationship
  • being pregnant
  • being socially and emotionally isolated
  • being unemployed
  • dealing with poverty, money problems, poor housing conditions, and frequent moves


What can be done to prevent the condition?

Friends, neighbors, and family members need to ask directly about signs of possible abuse. Talking to the victim and being supportive can make the victim feel less isolated. Showing concern lets the victim know that there is someone to turn to if he or she wants help.
Everyone should know what resources are available for abuse victims within their community. This can be done by reading books and articles on abuse. It's also important to support and promote training and education on recognizing and addressing emotional abuse.


How is the condition diagnosed?

Since emotional abuse does not always leave visible scars or bruises, it can be hard to diagnose. In fact, sometimes the victims themselves do not even see it. They may not feel good about themselves or their relationships, but they fail to connect it with how their abusers treat them.
Sometimes, a third person will witness the abuse and recognize it, either right away or over a period of time. Healthcare professionals also may be able to diagnose the abuse if they ask the victim the right questions when the abuser is not present.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Emotional abuse can destroy the victim's self-esteem so that he or she feels unworthy of love, respect, or friendship.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

It is hard for someone with such low esteem to have healthy relationships with others. In addition, victims of abuse sometimes become abusers themselves.


What are the treatments for the condition?

The ultimate goal is for victims to reestablish their lives without the abusers and to get counseling that will help them deal with the emotional scars. The best thing a third person such as a friend, neighbor, family member, or healthcare professional can do is be supportive no matter what the victim chooses. The victim cannot be rescued. He or she needs to be the one to make the decision to leave the abuser.
If the victim wants help, one should assist him or her in finding a safe place to stay. It could be the home of a friend or relative or an emergency shelter. It is important to keep in mind that people who are emotionally abusive can be violent, even if they have never caused physical harm in the past.
Individual psychotherapy and group therapy are very important. For many, a consultation with a pastoral professional can be helpful. The victim needs to realize that he or she has value as a person. He or she must learn how to recognize abuse.
Group support which includes talking to people with similar experiences can be helpful. The victim needs to heal mentally so that he or she is less likely to enter into another abusive relationship.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

The abused person may have to move out of his or her home and find other living arrangements.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

If the emotionally abused person has moved from his or her home, permanent arrangements may have to be made. The person may be able to return to his or her home if the abuser has received help, followed through with counseling, and is not likely to continue to be abusive.


How is the condition monitored?

The victim may not be able to monitor the abuse because he or she may not recognize it when it happens. A family member or friend may help to monitor emotional abuse.


Stuart and Sundeen, Principles and Practice of Psychiatric Nursing: 4th edition, 1991

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, 1994

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