Family Works

Emotional abuse

Rob Coombs ID. Min. Ph.D.
Posted 3/9/18

Speaking on Emotional Abuse

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Family Works

Emotional abuse


Speaking on Emotional Abuse

Cliff was a perfect eight-grade student. He had to be. His father, a policeman, expected him to live the straight and narrow. Mistakes simply were not tolerated. Cliff complied. He wore his hair in a crewcut because this was what his father demanded. I never saw him without his shirt neatly tucked-in. Always, he was respectful to authority. He was one of the few students who actually would say “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir” when speaking to a teacher. Not once did he fail to raise his hand when he had a question. His grades, as you might guess, were excellent. He was a model son and a model student . . . until one Thursday.

My sister, Sherran, sat next to him in band among the clarinets. I played a bass clarinet so I was nearby. As we flipped pages to the next song we would rehearse, he turned to Sherran and calmly said, “Well, I guess they will come and get me anytime.”

Moments later, while we were playing that song, policemen came pouring into our classroom. I remember dozens of cops. In reality there were probably only two or three. To our collective amazement (and fear) they handcuffed Cliff right there in front of us. I thought such things only happened on the evening news, certainly not in my classroom. He, along with the policemen, walked out of our lives never to be seen again.

Later we discovered that Cliff had taken a 9-year-old girl into the woods the night before. He had used a hatchet to cut her up into little pieces. Impossible! No one could believe it. Not perfect Cliff. How could he do such a thing? Why would he do such a thing?

My guess was Cliff was an emotionally abused child. Although reasonable expectations are good for all children, either too little or too great expectations can push a child toward acting out in destructive ways. Too few expectations and the child never develops a reason to try. He easily accepts a low level of functioning even though he could do better.

Too many expectations and the child is riddled with anxiety knowing that no matter how hard he tries, it will never be good enough. This was the case for Cliff. He just got tired of trying to meet unreasonable and unattainable expectations. When he acted out, he proved to himself, his dad, and all of us he really wasn’t perfect.

Emotional abuse is widespread. Although difficult to identify since it leaves no visible marks, emotional abuse is defined as “a pattern of behavior that can seriously interfere with a child’s positive emotional development.”

There are several warning signs that may indicate that a child is being emotionally abused.

(1) Parents of emotionally abused children are usually overly harsh and critical.

(2)  Parents are guilty of withholding love and acceptance.

(3) Parents do not give the children either physical (a pat on the back or a hug) or verbal encouragement (words of thoughtfulness and affirmation).

(4) Parents expect performance, but they do not support their child’s endeavors.

(5) Parents constantly use shame and ridicule to shape the child’s behavior.

(6) Parents use a fear of rejection as a manipulative tool to get what they want. (It’s my way or the highway.)

Regardless of the child’s performance (whether he is a little angel or a little hellion), humiliation fuels his actions; a humiliation that can push some children to do the unthinkable.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.


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