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Page URL: https://practice.orangatamariki.govt.nz/practice-standards/ensure-safety-and-wellbeing/definitions-of-abuse-neglect-and-harm/emotional-abuse/
Printed: 22/10/2019
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Last updated: 01/07/2019

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is when the psychological, social, intellectual and emotional functioning or development of te tamaiti has been damaged by their treatment by their parents, caregivers or family/whānau.

What it is

Emotional abuse is a pattern of systematic and purposeful harm aimed towards te tamaiti.

It can occur between siblings but is more commonly perpetrated by an adult to te tamaiti.

Emotional abuse is defined by the characteristics of a particular relationship between te tamaiti and the abuser. Emotional abuse is significant when the pattern of abuse is targeted, systematic and purposeful towards te tamaiti.

Emotional and psychological abuse in tamariki occurs when there is prolonged aggression and verbal put-downs that result in te tamaiti feeling humiliated and ashamed (whakamā) and there is an absence of positive affirmation, love and affection for te tamaiti.

Emotional abuse occurs when there are repeated exposures to negative actions by others through deliberately saying things that are nasty and vitriolic. A one-off experience may be hurtful for te tamaiti, but is unlikely to impact on their emotional or social functioning or their development. Repeated experiences can have significant cumulative impacts on te tamaiti. A serious consequence can be described as a broken spirit.

Scapegoating occurs where a particular tamaiti is singled out for admonishment and punishment, regardless of their involvement in the problem, by the parents, caregivers, family/whānau and others in the household including siblings. Te tamaiti is isolated and alienated within their family/whānau.

Emotional abuse can:

  • have significant long-term impacts on mental wellness
  • cause stress and distress
  • impact on someone’s ability to form healthy relationships.

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • patterns of degradation, constant and vitriolic criticism, or repeated negative comparison to others
  • deprivation of contact with people significant to te tamaiti
  • corrupting, exploiting, or actively scaring and threatening te tamaiti
  • a significant period of denying access to cultural, faith or other associations that sustain the sense of normality, identity and self-esteem for te tamaiti
  • ongoing exposure to family/whānau violence.

Meaning of psychological abuse — section 11 of Family Violence Act 2018

Possible signs

These signs are clues that alert us that abuse may have happened and that a tamaiti may need help or protection. However, they are not conclusive evidence of abuse and there may be instances of abuse where there are no obvious signs.

Physical signs

Te tamaiti:

  • soils or wets the bed with no medical cause
  • has frequent psychosomatic complaints (for example, headaches and nausea)
  • is pale and emaciated
  • has prolonged vomiting or diarrhoea
  • has malnutrition.

Behavioural signs

Te tamaiti:

  • has severe developmental lags without an obvious physical cause
  • has depression or anxiety
  • is withdrawn or aggressive
  • has self-destructive behaviour like self-harming or cutting
  • has suicide ideation or attempts suicide.