It is important to remember that there are elements of psychological abuse in all parenting, with most parents saying and doing thoughtless or inappropriate things to their children on occasions but, in general, they are caring and loving. Trowell (1983) suggested that ‘adversity in manageable doses that comes in digestible packages’ is essential for normal development. Children cannot be brought up wrapped up in cotton wool, devoid of painful experiences, but we would not label that as emotional abuse. In contrast, emotional abuse is a persistent, chronic pattern of parental behaviour, often towards a particularly vulnerable child, which over the years becomes internalised and gives rise to the feeling that the child alone is to blame. Laing (1976) quotes a poem of an emotionally confused and hurting child:
My mother does not love me,
I feel bad,
I feel bad because she does not love me,
I am bad because I feel bad,
I am bad because she does not love me,
She does not love me because I am bad.
Children who have been emotionally abused consistently give up trying to progress in their development and succumb to ‘learned helplessness’ (Suligman, 1975), a state of mind which is characterised by the belief that one has no control over the outcome of adverse events. Once established,such an attitude is very difficult to reverse or eradicate. There is much evidence from follow-up studies that unless something is done to help them, emotionally abused children may, as adults, be unable to form warm, intimate relationships, and have difficulty with the management of hostility and aggression which, it is claimed, may give rise to depression in later life (Rutter, 1995b).