Emotional maltreatment includes acts of commission or omission by the parents or other persons responsible for the child's care that have caused serious behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. This can include extreme or bizarre forms of punishment, such as torture or confinement of a child in a dark closet, or more subtle forms of abuse, such as belittling, scapegoating, or terrorizing a child.
Emotional abuse is the most difficult form of child maltreatment to identify. First, the effects of emotional maltreatment, such as lags in physical development, learning problems, and speech disorders are often evident in children who have not experienced emotional maltreatment. Second, the effects of emotional maltreatment may only become evident in later developmental stages of the child's life. Third, the behaviors of emotionally abused and emotionally disturbed children are often similar (DePanfilis and Salus, 1992).
There are some guidelines that can help distinguish an emotionally disturbed child from an emotionally maltreated one. The parents of an emotionally disturbed child generally recognize the existence of the problem and seek help, whereas the parents of an emotionally maltreated child often blame the child for the problems or ignore the existence of a problem. These parents often refuse offers of help and appear punitive and unconcerned about the child's welfare (DePanfilis and Salus, 1992).
Although any form of maltreatment may be found in isolation, they often occur in combination. Emotional maltreatment is almost always present when other forms of maltreatment are identified (DePanfilis and Salus, 1992).