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Emotional abuse/harm includes all patterns of neglect, actions, or lack of action which result in the absence of a nurturing environment for the child. This is often demonstrated by serious anxiety, depression, withdrawal, self-destructive or aggressive behaviour or delayed development in a child. It also occurs when a child exhibits these serious behaviours and the person having charge of the child does not provide services or treatment to alleviate the harm.


Emotional abuse can also include exposure to domestic violence. Emotional abuse happens when a caregiver treats a child in an extremely negative way that damages self-esteem and the concept of “self.” This type of behaviour might include constant yelling, demeaning remarks, rejection or isolation, or exposing a child to domestic violence.

The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to those that follow. It is important to realize that the presence of any one indicator is not conclusive proof that a child has been abused. In most instances, abused children will exhibit a number of behavioural and physical indicators.

Physical indicators in children

  • The child does not meet developmental milestones as expected

  • Often complains of nausea, headaches, stomach aches without any obvious reason

  • Wets or soils pants

  • Is intentionally not given adequate food, clothing and proper care.

  • May have unusual appearance causing humiliation or embarrassment (e.g., strange haircuts, dress, accessories)

  • Bed wetting that is non-medical in origin

  • Child fails to thrive, e.g., poor weight gain

Behavioural indicators in children

  • Is unhappy, stressed out, withdrawn, aggressive or angry for long periods of time

  • Severe depression

  • Goes back to behaving like a young child (e.g., toileting problems, thumb-sucking, constant rocking)

  • Tries too hard to be good and to get adults to approve

  • Too neat or too clean

  • Tries really hard to get attention

  • Tries to hurt oneself

  • Criticizes oneself a lot

  • Does not participate because of fear of failing

  • May expect too much of him so gets frustrated and fails

  • Is afraid of what the adult will do if he does something the adult does not like

  • Runs away

  • Has a lot of adult responsibility

  • Does not get along well with other children

  • Discloses abuse

  • Displays extreme hesitancy in play

Behaviours observed in adults who abuse children

  • Often rejects, insults or criticizes the child, even in front of others

  • Does not touch or speak to the child with affection

  • Talks about the child as being the cause for problems and things not going as wished

  • Talks about or treats the child as being different from other children and family members

  • Compares the child to someone who is not liked

  • Does not pay attention to the child and refuses to help the child

  • Isolates the child, does not allow the child to see others both inside and outside the family (e.g., locks the child in a closet or room)

  • Does not provide a good example for children on how to behave with others (e.g., swears all the time, hits others)

  • Lets the child be involved in activities that break the law

  • Uses the child to make money (e.g., child pornography)

  • Lets the child see sex and violence on TV, videos and magazines

  • Terrorizes the child (e.g., threatens to hurt or kill the child or threatens someone or something that is special to the child)

  • Forces the child to watch someone special being hurt

  • Asks the child to do more than he can do for himself (e.g., extreme chores)

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