Emotional abuse: recent developments

In recent years there has been much focus in the media on sexual abuse and discussion about how to prevent it. Whilst this is undoubtedly the correct strategy, we must not lose sight of another type of abuse which continues to have a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of children each day – emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is almost always involved in sexual and physical abuse but it can occur alone.

The problem

In 2015, emotional abuse was the second most common reason for children needing protection from abuse in the UK (according to the child protection register and plan statistics).

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is often referred to as psychological abuse because it can cause long term psychological injury including anxiety and depression. In the past, it has often gone undetected due to the difficulties of identifying signs that it is occuring and a lack of understanding.

Emotional abuse was defined by the government in its 2015 guidance for teachers, social workers and police officers as:

“The persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.

It may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate.

It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction

It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying (including cyber bullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children.”

Recent media coverage

The BBC’s “The Archers” radio series captured the nation’s imagination over the summer, following the long running story of Helen’s abusive marriage. For many people it was her husband’s manipulative and controlling behaviour that formed some of the most shocking parts of the story. Helen’s story demonstrated that emotional abuse often starts slowly and in such a way that you don’t notice it. A nasty comment or remark designed to belittle you. A confusing conversation where you are persuaded that things didn’t happen the way you recall or you end up accepting blame for something that wasn’t your fault.

The storyline undoubtedly increased awareness and understanding of emotional abuse.

As the storyline intensified in February, there was a 17% increase in calls to the National Domestic Violence helpline, run by Refuge and Women’s Aid.

Legal developments

During the course of The Archers storyline, the law in England and Wales was actually changing to support adults like Helen but also children.

A new offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships” was introduced by the Serious Crime Act 2015. It carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

Controlling behaviour is defined in government guidance as “A range of acts making a person subordinate and/or dependent on their abuser. These include isolating them from sources of support, depriving them of means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.”

Coercive behaviour is defined as “A pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”

Police support

In an encouraging move, police officers are now to be given more training to protect victims of abuse from controlling and coercive behaviour. Under a new pilot scheme run by the College of Policing, officers from three police forces will be trained to spot the signs and patterns of coercive abuse and controlling behaviour.

The future

The introduction of new laws and The Archers have done much to raise the profile of emotional abuse. Having acted for many clients who have suffered emotional abuse, we know how long lasting the effects can be, particularly on a child’s emotional and social development. I am hopeful that recent developments will help to bring further attention to this important issue.