Nothing Baffling About Psychological Abuse

The most common and harmful type of child abuse is psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse and neglect).   Decades of research confirm that parents who thwart their children’s emotional and psychological needs cause long term problems equal to and often worse than physical and/or sexual abuse.  Psychological maltreatment is described in two ways.  One description focuses on the parent’s abusive behaviors such as; terrorizing, exploiting and rejecting.  The other way to describe child psychological maltreatment is in terms of the symptoms a child displays when being psychologically abused or neglected.  

Some authors argue that there are mild or moderate degrees of emotional  abuse, but these cases fall below the threshold of psychological maltreatment.  Mild or moderate cases of emotional abuse can be treated as dysfunctional parenting problems.  Psychological maltreatment on the other hand is characterized by chronic, severe, and escalating patterns of psychological abuse that puts the child at risk of psychological harm.

 A growing number of parents who have been linked to psychological abuse display relationally abusive narcissistic/borderline traits.  These parents are very reactive under relenting stress.   Typically, they are unable to transition through the divorce process they escalate their abusive behaviors toward the other (targeted) parent.  Ultimately, the abuser wants to drive the targeted parent out of the children’s lives.   The harm this causes every psychologically abused child (and the targeted parent) is extreme and it is widespread.  Harman and Biringrin (2016) and other authorities estimate that the number of families struggling under this emotional assault could be as many as 22 million.   There is an immediate need to break the cycle of narcissistic/borderline psychological abuse, one family at a time.

Despite the urgent need for intervention in cases of psychological maltreatment, child and family welfare courts and agencies seriously underreport. under investigate, and rarely intervene in these cases.  In the article, Unseen Wounds (Spinazolla, 2014) the authors  suggest that child welfare professionals may be baffled by the “covert” and “insidious” nature of psychological abuse and that those who are responsible to prevent and intervene for the children, may adopt an apathetic or helpless attitude.   As pathetic as this sounds, it may be true.   The problem of stopping child psychological abuse would seem insurmountable,  IF social workers, mental health providers and the courts focused on the abuser only.   Obviously, investigators cannot get behind closed doors to personally witness what any abusive parent is doing.    No one “sees” these acts, except for the (ex) partner who is often not given much support or credibility, and the traumatized child, who should not be re-traumatized by having to testifying against either of his or her parents.  



However, if social workers, mental health providers and the courts used the evidence presented by psychologically abused children in the same way they do for physically and sexually abused children, these professionals would realize that there is nothing covert, insidious or baffling about psychological maltreatment.   In fact, a physically or sexually abusive parent and their victim may be able to hide scars or bruises, or make up stories about how the child fell or had an accident, but psychologically maltreated children cannot cover up their symptoms with clothes or lies.  In fact, these cases are much easier to identify, locate, intervene, and provide treatment for than physical and/or sexual abuse cases, because severely psychologically abused children act out so outrageously that the family draws attention.

Identifying a severely psychologically abused child is as easy as opening your eyes.  The child will conspicuously and reliably display three (3) profoundly abnormal and delusional symptoms when relating to both parents inside and outside of court.  Anyone with a little training can learn to identify the indicators of psychological abuse, as defined by the state statutes and the DSM-V.  The icing on the cake is that the child will hyper bond or enmesh with the abuser against the other parent, leaving no doubt as to which parent is the perpetrator.


Locating psychologically abusive parents is as easy and going down to the court  house.  Due to the abusers’ patterns of narcissistic/borderline traits and their need to escalate conflict, these families can be found in protracted contested custody cases, filling family court dockets across America.   There is not another crime where the perpetrator walks right in through the court doors.  

Intervention and treatment for these psychologically abused children is fairly simple.  The non-abusive parent and abused children need a time of protective separation from the abuser for psycho-educational healing and reuniting.  In addition, each family member needs to learn how to recognize and prevent further psychological abuse.   The family is monitored to ensure that that treatment is effective and preventive measures are put in place, thus breaking the cycle of narcissistic/borderline psychological abuse, one family at a time.


I'm working on linking the full documents described in these blogs.  Anyone know square space?   Kay




Harman PhD, Jennifer; Biringen PhD, Zeynep (2016-01-03). Parents Acting Badly: How Institutions and Societies Promote the Alienation of Children from Their Loving Families (Kindle Locations 522-523).  . Kindle Edition.

Spinazzola, J., Hodgdon, H., Ford, J.,…Kisiel C., (2014). Unseen wounds: The contribution of psychological maltreatment to child and adolescent mental health and risk outcomes.  Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6, 518-828.