What is the difference between “emotional” and “psychological” abuse?

In the struggle and search for answers to the problem of abuse, we encounter the question of what is or is not considered abuse.

One immediate problem for me is that the definition of “emotional” abuse is used synonymously with “psychological” abuse. KP O’Hagan addressed the problem in 1995, in his article in Child Abuse and Neglect.

The confusion of interchangeable use and indistinct definitions arises repeatedly in the literature, as seen yet again in 2012: “There is no universally agreed definition of psychological maltreatment or emotional maltreatment”. Despite two decades of debate and attention, the literature lacks a clear distinction between emotional and psychological abuse.

Is it important to distinguish between emotional and psychological abuse?

For me, yes. I think KP O’Hagan’s distinction is valuable. Emotional abuse, in O’Hagan, involves exactly what it says:Graphic of question marks emotions. This involves how we feel, what we feel, and the coping mechanisms we develop for both. Psychological abuse according to O’Hagan, however, has more effect mentally. That includes development of cognitive function, and memory.

In other words (namely, mine), emotional abuse occurs when any caregiver terrorizes, neglects, isolates, rejects, and/or verbally attacks without causing physical harm. Mental abuse occurs when the caregiver’s actions prevent normal learning activities and cognitive development (e.g., refusal to allow access to education).

Is this distinction valid?

It is valid to say that distinctions like this add confusion. To me, the distinction is the point.

I was never denied access to educational opportunity, nor discouraged from expressing imagination or curiosity. Mental abuse was largely if not entirely absent from my childhood.

Charcoal sketch of child in fetal position

Emotional abuse, however, ran rampant. By making the distinction, I believe we can better explain and examine certain types of family dynamics. Of course, emotional and mental abuse rarely exist in a vacuum.

Want to know the definitions of non-sexual physical abuse versus sexual abuse?

This leads to the next question I will attempt to address in my next post.

Images are original art by C.E. Miller.


5 thoughts on “What is the difference between “emotional” and “psychological” abuse?

  1. That is an interesting point – that you did not suffer mental abuse, but did suffer emotional abuse. I know that my education was always promoted as well, and I was always being sent to mental health therapists, but I suffered from being brainwashed by my parents at the same time.

    You are right, and I think that dynamic – promoting mental health while doing emotional abuse – is a feature of that particular family’s dysfunction.


    • Exactly! There’s often such overlap that it’s difficult to distinguish. Educational encouragement alone isn’t a sign you’re mentally “un-abused”, merely that the family dynamic didn’t include that particular feature. To be trained into a certain way of thought, against all “outside” thought (how I see brainwashing, admittedly, not the definition), is absolutely mental abuse. It’s restriction on the growth and development of intellectual curiosity.

      Thanks for the comment:-)


  2. I can see where the difficulty arises – in my case I was told that what I was feeling was invalid and unacceptable, which I believe caused both emotional and psychological damage. The overall effect of the abuse was a warped sense of what is that has taken me years to undo.


    • VJ, my own abuse in that sense had similar effects. To question what is/is not “okay” to feel, and to therefore wonder if I am, to borrow your phrasing, valid and acceptable if I deviate(d)? Devastating to a child or an adult, and I’m still working on the problem. Thanks for your comment!


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