Widely prevalent but mostly unacknowledged, emotional abuse of children takes many forms, from controlling them to ignoring them
Maryam, an average 5th standard student, is socially very active and has many hidden talents. She also has a knack of being friends with everyone and loves painting and making things out of waste. But when it comes to studies, she is not able to cope. On every exam day she cries, for she feels she does not know or remember anything and can’t perform well in her exam. But the reality is totally different. She always performs far better than what she feels and her reaction after completing each paper is totally opposite of what it is in the morning. But the next day, the same thing happens again. Looking at her stressful and anxious face every morning has become a routine for her parents, and nobody is able to help her at such times. Her mother gets angry at her behaviour and also has a hard time in handling it. It has been very difficult and frustrating for her mother to change her daughter’s attitude towards her exams. She knows Maryam can perform better but is not able to understand what is holding her back. Her mother is also short-tempered, and things are not easy for her as well. She vents out her frustration on her children many times and her father has the same habit. Both of them love their children but their way of dealing with their children cannot be justified through love.
What is holding Maryam back? It is emotional abuse, one of the most common types of child abuse prevalent in society. Emotional abuse is considered a lesser evil both by parents and by other family members. Such abuse or maltreatment, however, is holding back many children in multiple ways. Some children who face such abuse may perform well academically but they will be lagging behind in other fields. Emotional abuse has many forms, which mothers might not even consider as abuse but which leave a severe impact on children. Emotional abuse of children means continuous emotional mistreatment which includes humiliating or criticising a child, shouting and name-calling, making the child a subject of jokes, blaming, trying to control the child’s life, ignoring the child’s choices, exposing the child to upsetting events (domestic violence, family conflicts, etc.), controlling social activities, ignoring them, comparing them with other children, belittling them in front of others, and most importantly, never showing any affection while interacting with them. Force feeding is also one of the types of child abuses that has a negative impact on the emotional well-being of the child, be it at any age.
Many times, parents think that harsh ways of dealing with children will make them well disciplined and punctual but that is not necessarily the result of such behaviour. Emotional abuse has been shown to leave a debilitating impact on the cognitive development of the child. Emotional abuse has been found to actually damage one’s brain structure, resulting in shrinking of the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for learning. This brain part also plays a great role in short-term memory, which is a basic step in the learning process. The effect on neurons in the hippocampus is caused by a stress hormone known as cortisol, which is released in one’s body when it is in stress, thus causing the hippocampus to reduce in size. Another part of the brain affected by emotional abuse is amygdale which controls breathing and heartbeat. It is also the emotional control center that determines how feelings are processed, such as love, hate and fear. As one experiences emotional abuse constantly, one is always alert to even the slightest form of abuse and hence is in constant state of fear or flight. Some studies have also revealed a lack of connection between left and right side of the brain which increases the chances of anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation and drug abuse in later ages. Such direct effect on brain structure affects the learning process which could result in the child not performing as per their capacity, which further leads to repeating of the cycle of abuse.
Apart from the impact on brain, emotional abuse has also been found to lead to behavioural problems in children, for e.g., constantly wanting attention or becoming clingy, not caring how they act, tying to make people dislike them, and indulging in risky behaviour. Various other negative impacts found are lack of confidence, low self-esteem, difficulty in maintaining healthy relationships, higher level of depression, various health-related problems (mostly headaches), mental health problems, eating disorders, self-harm, and faulty language development.
Parents have always been considered as the safest people for children and they always try to give best to their children, but it is not necessary that their way of dealing with children is always right. There are many children who are victims of abuse in one way or the other and our society is such where even using sticks for children (in school) is encouraged by some parents. For the mental well-being of children, and overall health of children, parents must look out for proper ways of dealing with children. We are living in an age where getting information is easier then breathing. Parents must also consider the words they use for their children and what impact, both long-term and short-term, it could leave on them. Present crises and past conflict have undoubtedly affected almost everyone in Kashmir mentally, but children are most vulnerable in the circle of conflict and amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In these situations, the right way of dealing with children must be the first priority of parents and every other family member.
Parents also need to learn how to deal with children according to their age. Parents mostly have high expectations from their children. They feel like their children know what is right and what is wrong. Even if they know it, that doesn’t mean they are supposed to do everything as per the right way. Children have their own world and way of learning things, which parents need to understand first. Knowing is not doing; people know that cigarette smoking is injurious to health but still they smoke. Why shall we not expect immature behaviour and mistakes from children? Parents need to accept their children as children and to behave with them accordingly. Children are in need of love and care; they must be dealt in that way only.
—The writer is a research scholar at University of Kashmir. firstname.lastname@example.org