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: 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.
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.