How to recognize child psychological abuse

A recent online Time magazine article highlighted a disturbing fact: one of the more prevalent forms of child abuse is also one of the more difficult types of abuse to identify.

The July 30 article stated that a group of pediatricians, writing for the journal Pediatrics, called on parents to stay alert for signs of psychological abuse. But even then, the doctors acknowledge that it can be difficult to figure out whether a child is being abused in this fashion.

From Time’s Healthland blog:

“What makes this kind maltreatment so challenging for pediatricians and for social services staff, however, is that it’s not defined by any one specific event, but rather by the nature of the relationship between caregiver and child. That makes it unusually hard to identify.”

Dr. Elaine Cabinum-Foeller is a board certified child-abuse pediatrician at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine and is the medical director of the TEDI BEAR Children’s Advocacy Center. Speaking of psychological abuse by a caregiver, Cabinum-Foeller said such abuse can take many forms but that it’s important to understand that isolated incidents do not necessarily mean that abuse is occurring. Psychological abuse often refers to a pattern and can include the following actions:

  • Ridiculing and terrorizing a child
  • Exploiting or corrupting a child
  • Being excessively detached or uninvolved in that child’s life

“You must remember that these are extremes of behavior,” Cabinum-Foeller says. “Putting a child in an appropriate time out is not psychological abuse. Isolating them in a room and not allowing them contact with others for extended periods of time may be psychological abuse.”

What makes this type of abuse difficult to identify is that a concerned person has to know how these actions make a child feel, and that these actions are part of a pattern. To correctly identify psychological abuse, a person can refer parents and children to mental-health counselors, domestic violence organizations, and pediatricians. In North Carolina, all people are required to contact Child Protective Services if they believe a child is being abused. (Reports can be submitted anonymously, if need be.)

People can also be supportive by listening to the child in question, but there are things that person should not do in this situation.

“A person should never make promises that they cannot keep,” Cabinum-Foeller says. “For example, don’t tell a child that you won’t tell anyone if you know that you might have to report what they tell you to CPS or someone else.”