Emotional Abuse and Play Therapy

Emotional abuse (sometimes known and psychological abuse) is the most common form of child abuse. Emotional abuse is when an adult deliberately and repeatedly causes a child emotional distress (Berry Street, 2018). When children are emotionally abused their trust in others is broken. It can make them feel worthless, and they are more likely to develop low self-esteem and mental health problems.


Emotional abuse includes:

  • Forcing a child to be humiliated or perform a degraded act.

  • Scaring or causing a child to be fearful.

  • Rejecting or telling a child they are worthless, unwanted or unloved.

  • Undermining, blaming, scapegoating.

  • Constant criticism or unrealistic expectations.

  • Name calling, threats, making fun of the child.

  • Isolating a child from opportunities to learn, or from interactions with others.

  • Withholding attention, ignoring or never showing affection.

  • Exposure to distressing events including family violence, other types of violence and drug use (Berry Street, 2018).


Symptoms of Emotional Abuse in Children

  • Lack of apparent connection with parents

  • Overly affectionate or clingy with strangers

  • Anxious or extra vigilant

  • Emotional outbursts

  • Problems with interacting with other children appropriately

  • Headaches or stomach aches without a medical cause (Berry Street, 2018).


If you become aware that a child is being emotionally abused:

  • Be alert to any warning signs that the child is experiencing

  • Have gentle, non-judgemental discussions with the child – expressing your concern that a child looks sad or unwell can result in disclosures

  • Do not pressure the child to respond and do not ask questions that put words into a child’s mouth

  • Assure the child that they can come and talk to you when they need to, and listen to them when they do (Department of Child Safety, 2017)

  • Report your concerns to Child Protection.


How Play Therapy can help

  • Play is the way that children learn, make sense of their world, relive and work through vital aspects of their lives, and communicate to others. Children’s ability to communicate their pain through their play makes it one of the most effective means available (White, Draper and Jones, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain, which responds to non-verbal modalities such as play, art, music and sandplay therapy, assists in the processing of trauma (Gil, 2006).

  • Through using play to express their abuse, children can stay emotionally safe by, for example, making the toy feel the emotional pain rather than themselves, or by making a toy the abuser (Ater, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Children learn to come to an acceptance of what has happened to them, and learn new ways of coping to protect themselves from further abuse (Cattanach, 1992, in Landreth, 2001).

Christine Harkin
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