The attorney and author Andrew
Vachss has devoted his life to protecting children. Parade
Magazine asked Vachss, an expert on the subject of child
abuse, to examine perhaps one of its most complex and widespread
forms--emotional abuse: What it is, what it does to children,
what can be done about it. Vachss' latest novel, Down in the Zero, just published by
Knopf, depicts emotional abuse at its most monstrous. Further
information about Andrew Vachss and his work, including a
comprehensive database of Resources, is available at www.vachss.com.
Emotional abuse of children can lead, in
adulthood, to addiction, rage, a severely damaged sense of self
and an inability to truly bond with others. But - if it happened
to you - there is a way out.
I'm a lawyer with an unusual specialty. My
clients are all children—damaged, hurting children who have been
sexually assaulted, physically abused, starved, ignored, abandoned
and every other lousy thing one human can do to another. People
who know what I do always ask: "What is the worst case you
ever handled?" When you're in a business where a baby who
dies early may be the luckiest child in the family, there's no
easy answer. But I have thought about it—I think about it every
day. My answer is that, of all the many forms of child abuse,
emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest-lasting of all.
Emotional abuse is the systematic
diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or
both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event.
It is designed to reduce a child's self-concept to the point where
the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect,
unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all
children: love and protection.
Emotional abuse can be as deliberate as a
gunshot: "You're fat. You're stupid. You're ugly."
Emotional abuse can be as random as the
fallout from a nuclear explosion. In matrimonial battles, for
example, the children all too often become the battlefield. I
remember a young boy, barely into his teens, absently rubbing the
fresh scars on his wrists. "It was the only way to make them
all happy," he said. His mother and father were locked in a
bitter divorce battle, and each was demanding total loyalty and
commitment from the child.
Emotional abuse can be active. Vicious
belittling: "You'll never be the success your brother
was." Deliberate humiliation: "You're so stupid. I'm
ashamed you're my son."
It also can be passive, the emotional
equivalent of child neglect—a sin of omission, true, but one no
And it may be a combination of the two,
which increases the negative effects geometrically.
Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioral,
active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often
as painful as physical assault. And, with rare exceptions, the
pain lasts much longer. A parent's love is so important to a child
that withholding it can cause a "failure to thrive"
condition similar to that of children who have been denied
Even the natural solace of siblings is
denied to those victims of emotional abuse who have been
designated as the family's "target child." The other
children are quick to imitate their parents. Instead of learning
the qualities every child will need as an adult—empathy,
nurturing and protectiveness—they learn the viciousness of a
pecking order. And so the cycle continues.
But whether as a deliberate target or an
innocent bystander, the emotionally abused child inevitably
struggles to "explain" the conduct of his abusers—and
ends up struggling for survival in a quicksand of self-blame.
Emotional abuse is both the most pervasive
and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims
are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible.
In an era in which fresh disclosures of unspeakable child abuse
are everyday fare, the pain and torment of those who experience
"only" emotional abuse is often trivialized. We
understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse
need both time and specialized treatment to heal. But when it
comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the
victims will "just get over it" when they become adults.
That assumption is dangerously wrong.
Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer,
it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can
metastasize if untreated.
When it comes to damage, there is no real
difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that
distinguishes one from the other is the abuser's choice of
weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long
since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain.
"It wasn't just the incest," she said quietly. "It
was that he didn't love me. If he loved me, he couldn't have done
that to me."
But emotional abuse is unique because it is
designed to make the victim feel guilty. Emotional abuse is
repetitive and eventually cumulative behavior—very easy to
imitate—and some victims later perpetuate the cycle with their
own children. Although most victims courageously reject that
response, their lives often are marked by a deep, pervasive
sadness, a severely damaged self-concept and an inability to truly
engage and bond with others.
renounce the lie that emotional abuse is good for children
because it prepares them for a hard life in a tough world.
I've met some individuals who were prepared for a hard
life that way - I met them while they were doing life.
Emotionally abused children grow up with
significantly altered perceptions so that they "see"
behaviors—their own and others'—through a filter of
distortion. Many emotionally abused children engage in a lifelong
drive for the approval (which they translate as "love")
of others. So eager are they for love—and so convinced that they
don't deserve it—that they are prime candidates for abuse within
The emotionally abused child can be heard
inside every battered woman who insists: "It was my fault,
really. I just seem to provoke him somehow."
And the almost-inevitable failure of adult
relationships reinforces that sense of unworthiness, compounding
the felony, reverberating throughout the victim's life.
Emotional abuse conditions the child to
expect abuse in later life. Emotional abuse is a time bomb, but
its effects are rarely visible, because the emotionally abused
tend to implode, turning the anger against themselves. And when
someone is outwardly successful in most areas of life, who looks
within to see the hidden wounds?
Members of a therapy group may range widely
in age, social class, ethnicity and occupation, but all display
some form of self-destructive conduct: obesity, drug addiction,
anorexia, bulimia, domestic violence, child abuse, attempted
suicide, self-mutilation, depression and fits of rage. What
brought them into treatment was their symptoms. But until they
address the one thing that they have in common—a childhood of
emotional abuse—true recovery is impossible.
One of the goals of any child-protective
effort is to "break the cycle" of abuse. We should not
delude ourselves that we are winning this battle simply because so
few victims of emotional abuse become abusers themselves. Some
emotionally abused children are programmed to fail so effectively
that a part of their own personality "self-parents" by
belittling and humiliating themselves.
The pain does not stop with adulthood.
Indeed, for some, it worsens. I remember a young woman, an
accomplished professional, charming and friendly, well-liked by
all who knew her. She told me she would never have children.
"I'd always be afraid I would act like them," she
Unlike other forms of child abuse, emotional
abuse is rarely denied by those who practice it. In fact, many
actively defend their psychological brutality, asserting that a
childhood of emotional abuse helped their children to
"toughen up." It is not enough for us to renounce the
perverted notion that beating children produces good citizens—we
must also renounce the lie that emotional abuse is good for
children because it prepares them for a hard life in a tough
world. I've met some individuals who were prepared for a hard life
that way—I met them while they were doing life.
The primary weapons of emotional abusers is
the deliberate infliction of guilt. They use guilt the same way a
loan shark uses money: They don't want the "debt" paid
off, because they live quite happily on the "interest."
your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been
deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your
fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or
will not provide it - you play the role assigned to you by
your abusers. It's time to stop playing that role.
Because emotional abuse comes in so many
forms (and so many disguises), recognition is the key to effective
response. For example, when allegations of child sexual abuse
surface, it is a particularly hideous form of emotional abuse to
pressure the victim to recant, saying he or she is "hurting
the family" by telling the truth. And precisely the same
holds true when a child is pressured to sustain a lie by a
Emotional abuse requires no physical conduct
whatsoever. In one extraordinary case, a jury in Florida
recognized the lethal potential of emotional abuse by finding a
mother guilty of child abuse in connection with the suicide of her
17-year-old daughter, whom she had forced to work as a nude dancer
(and had lived off her earnings).
Another rarely understood form of emotional
abuse makes victims responsible for their own abuse by demanding
that they "understand" the perpetrator. Telling a
12-year-old girl that she was an "enabler" of her own
incest is emotional abuse at its most repulsive.
A particularly pernicious myth is that
"healing requires forgiveness" of the abuser. For the
victim of emotional abuse, the most viable form of help is self-help—and
a victim handicapped by the need to "forgive" the abuser
is a handicapped helper indeed. The most damaging mistake an
emotional-abuse victim can make is to invest in the
"rehabilitation" of the abuser. Too often this becomes
still another wish that didn't come true—and emotionally abused
children will conclude that they deserve no better result.
The costs of emotional abuse cannot be
measured by visible scars, but each victim loses some percentage
of capacity. And that capacity remains lost so long as the victim
is stuck in the cycle of "understanding" and
"forgiveness." The abuser has no "right" to
forgiveness—such blessings can only be earned. And although the
damage was done with words, true forgiveness can only be earned
For those with an idealized notion of
"family," the task of refusing to accept the blame for
their own victimization is even more difficult. For such
searchers, the key to freedom is always truth—the real truth,
not the distorted, self-serving version served by the abuser.
Emotional abuse threatens to become a
national illness. The popularity of nasty, mean-spirited,
personal-attack cruelty that passes for "entertainment"
is but one example. If society is in the midst of moral and
spiritual erosion, a "family" bedrocked on the emotional
abuse of its children will not hold the line. And the tide shows
no immediate signs of turning.
Effective treatment of emotional abusers
depends on the motivation for the original conduct, insight into
the roots of such conduct and the genuine desire to alter that
conduct. For some abusers, seeing what they are doing to their
child—or, better yet, feeling what they forced their
child to feel—is enough to make them halt. Other abusers need
help with strategies to deal with their own stress so that it
doesn't overload onto their children.
But for some emotional abusers,
rehabilitation is not possible. For such people, manipulation is a
way of life. They coldly and deliberately set up a
"family" system in which the child can never manage to
"earn" the parent's love. In such situations, any
emphasis on "healing the whole family" is doomed to
If you are a victim of emotional abuse,
there can be no self-help until you learn to self-reference.
That means developing your own standards, deciding for yourself
what "goodness" really is. Adopting the abuser's
calculated labels—"You're crazy. You're ungrateful. It
didn't happen the way you say"—only continues the cycle.
Adult survivors of emotional child abuse
have only two life-choices: learn to self-reference or remain a
victim. When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have
been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your
fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not
provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.
It's time to stop playing that role, time to
write your own script. Victims of emotional abuse carry the cure
in their own hearts and souls. Salvation means learning
self-respect, earning the respect of others and making that
respect the absolutely irreducible minimum requirement for all
intimate relationships. For the emotionally abused child, healing does
come down to "forgiveness"—forgiveness of yourself.
How you forgive yourself is as individual as
you are. But knowing you deserve to be loved and respected and
empowering yourself with a commitment to try is more than half the
battle. Much more.
And it is never too soon—or too late—to