Emotional abuse & prevention

Miami Autumn — March 2021

Emotional abuse can affect anyone of any age, especially children and the elderly. MAPs could be vulnerable to emotional abuse by anti-MAPs and by the general population because of stigma and discrimination. Emotional abuse is preventable. All people can help by learning what it is, what effects it is associated with, and how to prevent it. ‎ ‏‏‎ ‎


Emotional abuse (also referred to as verbal abuse) includes behaviors used to “manipulate, intimidate, and maintain power and control over someone” (Brennan, 2020). Emotional abuse can manifest as a variety of behaviors:

Emotional abuse often affects children and often gets ignored when it is disregarded as being “discipline.” Emotional abuse is not discipline — it is abuse. Emotional abuse, including yelling at or shaming children, is ineffective at changing children's behavior in the long term and is harmful (Sege & Siegel, 2018). ‏‏‎ ‎

Potential effects

According to a meta-analysis conducted by Norman et al. (2012) that included 124 studies, emotional abuse is associated with various illnesses:

Strong evidence

Inconsistent evidence

Limited evidence

Emotional abuse is also associated with physical abuse and often precedes it (Karakurt & Silver, 2013). ‏‏‎ ‎


Alterations in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis seen in depressive disorders subsequent to emotional abuse may be associated with changes in DNA methylation at stress-related genes (Farrell et al., 2018). Degree of DNA methylation may or may not be associated with cortisol levels (Farrell et al., 2018; Tang et al., 2020). Decreased reactivity to cortisol has been seen in individuals with a self-reported history of emotional abuse (Carpenter et al., 2009; Abercrombie et al., 2017). ‏‏‎ ‎


Preventing emotional abuse begins first with recognizing all people, including children, as individual humans who are deserving of health and well-being. Emotional abuse does not become permissible under certain circumstances (such as when angry at a spouse or when attempting to discipline a child); it is always abuse.

Individuals should utilize healthy coping mechanisms to manage emotional stress and avoid acting violently towards others (see: Anger management; Stress management), and identify defensive communication strategies and replace them with supportive communication strategies (see: Diffusing defensive communication; Defensive & supportive communication Security notice: use Tor Browser when visiting this site due to unencrypted connection).

Caregivers of children should practice positive behavior management strategies and avoid all forms of punishment (see: Toddler discipline without shame Note: this is relevant to children of all ages, not just toddlers).

If you or a loved one is experiencing emotional abuse or is engaging in emotional abuse, please contact a medical professional for advice. This article is for education only and is not intended as medical advice. ‏‏‎ ‎


Abercrombie, H. C., Frost, C. P., Walsh, E. C., Hoks, R. M., Cornejo, M. D., Sampe, M. C., Gaffey, A. E., Plante, D. T., Ladd, C. O., & Birn, R. M. (2018). Neural signaling of cortisol, childhood emotional abuse, and depression-related memory bias. Biological psychiatry. Cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, 3(3), 274–284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2017.11.005.

Brennan, D. (2020, November 24). Signs of verbal abuse (emotional and verbal abuse). WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-verbal-abuse.

Carpenter, L. L., Tyrka, A. R., Ross, N. S., Khoury, L., Anderson, G. M., & Price, L. H. (2009). Effect of childhood emotional abuse and age on cortisol responsivity in adulthood. Biological psychiatry, 66(1), 69–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.02.030.

Farrell, C., Doolin, K., O' Leary, N., Jairaj, C., Roddy, D., Tozzi, L., Morris, D., Harkin, A., Frodl, T., Nemoda, Z., Szyf, M., Booij, L., & O'Keane, V. (2018). DNA methylation differences at the glucocorticoid receptor gene in depression are related to functional alterations in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity and to early life emotional abuse. Psychiatry research, 265, 341–348. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2018.04.064.

Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: the role of gender and age. Violence and victims, 28(5), 804–821. https://doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00041.

Norman, R. E., Byambaa, M., De, R., Butchart, A., Scott, J., & Vos, T. (2012). The long-term health consequences of child physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS medicine, 9(11), e1001349. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001349.

Sege, R. D., & Siegel, B. S. (2018). Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children. Pediatrics, 142(6), e20183112. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-3112.

Tang, R., Howe, L. D., Suderman, M., Relton, C. L., Crawford, A. A., & Houtepen, L. C. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences, DNA methylation age acceleration, and cortisol in UK children: A prospective population-based cohort study. Clinical epigenetics, 12(1), 55. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13148-020-00844-2.