Brian F. Martin says his mom grew up in a violent household. Her father would slap her across the face and hit her mother. Both her parents insulted her appearance, telling her she would never amount to anything.
As frightening as the physical abuse was, she said it was the emotional abuse that made her feel powerless. It was a feeling that continued when she landed in a violent long-term relationship.
“Why didn’t she leave him? She told me many times, ‘Brian, that’s all I thought I was worth,’” said Martin, the founder of the nonprofit Childhood Domestic Violence Association. “Emotional abuse is very insidious.”
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new statistics on high school students’ mental health. Among its findings was an alarmingly high number of U.S. teens reporting emotional abuse at home: more than half.
Defined by the survey as being sworn at, insulted or put down by a parent or other adult in their home, 55 percent of the more than 7,700 high school students polled said they had experienced emotional abuse.
The survey responses, which were collected in the first half of 2021, asked about experiences in 2020, which included the height of pandemic-related lockdowns.
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While few such nationally representative samples of emotional abuse in children were taken before the pandemic, the number appears to represent a sharp increase.
In 2014, a different set of data, from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, reported that just 15.7 percent of children ages 14 to 17 had experienced emotional abuse in the previous year.
“It was not surprising to see, but sad to see,” Martin said of the recent uptick.
Experts had feared that all types of abuse would rise during the pandemic, when those at risk were isolated and in closer proximity to those causing them harm, said Crystal Justice, the chief external affairs officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
The hotline focuses on intimate partner violence, not child abuse, although emotional abuse is a “near-universal” component of all the types of abuse that callers report, Justice said, adding that the hotline had its highest monthly contact volume in history in February.
Someone may never experience physical violence, but abuse is abuse, and the essential element here is one person trying to maintain power and control over another.”
She stressed that while emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to physical abuse, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.
“We tend to place these types of abuse at a hierarchical order,” she said. “It’s true that someone may never experience physical violence, but abuse is abuse, and the essential element here is one person trying to maintain power and control over another.”
How to address emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can happen between parents and children, romantic partners and colleagues and in other types of relationships, said Hilit Kletter, a child psychologist at Stanford Children’s Health and the director of the Stress and Resilience Clinic.
It can include any manipulating or threatening behavior, such as constantly criticizing or regularly ridiculing people, making people question their self-worth, isolating them from certain people or making accusations against them. It can also include gaslighting, belittling or giving someone the silent treatment.
It can be damaging at any age, and it may be especially harmful to teenagers who look to their parents for warmth and support while their brains are still maturing.
“Imagine if you’re the recipient of this on a daily basis. It basically makes you feel like you’re nothing,” Kletter said.
Those experiencing it may not realize that they are being abused, she added.
“A lot of times, it gets normalized within families, that this is just the way it is, and there’s not a realization that this is not normal behavior,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma and shame, because the victim is made to feel like they’re worthless, so they start to feel that way.”
“There’s a lot of stigma and shame, because the victim is made to feel like they’re worthless, so they start to feel that way.”
The uncertainty of the pandemic, working from home, caring for ill family members and remote schooling, all while the normal social support systems that parents rely on were taken away, are likely to have contributed to an increase in parental stress, she said. She urged anyone who felt stress was impairing their ability to parent to seek professional help to manage it in healthy ways.
Martin echoed that, and he encouraged parents who are worried that their relationships with their children might be becoming emotionally abusive to have an open dialogue with their children. Apologizing won’t make a parent seem weak, he added.
He suggested parents tell kids: “I know this was a difficult couple of years for us as adults. I can’t imagine what this was like for you, and I know I have said and done things over the past couple of years. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Kletter advised teenagers who fear they are being emotionally abused at home to find a teacher, counselor or other trusted adult to talk to.
“One of the factors, especially with emotional abuse, is the isolation, the feeling that you’re all alone,” she said. “So one of the most important factors with any type of abuse is support and finding somebody who can guide you if you’re experiencing significant distress.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship abuse in any form, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text START to 88788, call 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or chat online at TheHotline.org.
For concerns about child abuse, the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is available by phone 24/7 at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
CORRECTION (April 1, 2022, 10:59 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the nature of the relationship that Brian F. Martin’s mother was in. She was in a long-term relationship with a boyfriend; she was not married to Martin’s father.