Child abuse comes in all different forms.
Neglect. Physical. Sexual. Emotional. None is acceptable, all are abhorrent. Yet until recent days, the fourth form on that list – emotional abuse – wasn’t, amongst the general population, at least, considered to be as serious as the others. This is a misconception that has been challenged in no uncertain terms. Not before time.
Emotional abuse is abuse and it is just as harmful to a child as neglect, physical and sexual mistreatment. Indeed, a victim of all forms said, during a recent harrowing radio interview, that in her case, emotional abuse had caused the greatest damage of all. ‘[The foster parents responsible] never cuddled me [and] never once told me they loved me,’ she said. ‘That has been by far the worst abuse [that] I suffered.’
This has been a major talking point of late due to the fact that the Government are considering introducing laws to make it a criminal offence to subject children to deliberate acts of emotional cruelty. Those convicted could face a prison sentence. For the first time, acts of emotional abuse would be considered on a par with physical and sexual misdemeanours. It’s our opinion that this is a welcome development because, like the emotional abuse victim whose experiences put this into perspective, we believe from clear evidence that this is something that causes real damage to children.
It is estimated that 1.5 million children in the UK suffer from neglect in one form or another. That this is something that must be tackled is beyond question. This is a good first step.
Let’s be clear on this: this isn’t about punishing parents who are struggling to cope or demonising those who have their own issues. This is intended, as the MP Robert Buckland explained, to stop those who are doing, quite deliberately, ‘significant harm’ to children. ‘Isolating them, belittling them, rejecting them and corrupting them,’ he said. ‘You can look at a range of behaviours from ignoring a child’s presence [and] failing to stimulate a child right through to acts of terrorising a child so the child is frightened to disclose what’s happening.’
In this, we’re talking about deliberate acts that damage a child’s intellectual, emotional, behavioural or social development. In this, we’re talking about things that often sentence a child to a lifetime of mental health problems of their own.
To quote Sir Tony Hawkhead, the Chief Executive of Action for Children, ‘I have met children who have been scapegoated in their families, humiliated and made to feel unloved. The impact is devastating and can lead to lifelong mental health problems and, in certain cases, suicide’.
This is what emotional abuse can do. This is the reason why it must stop.
Like all things political, this could prove contentious but beneath all our partisan differences lies something far more important: children, their wellbeing and the abuse that threatens it.
The fact that existing legislation (and a definition of child cruelty is not written into law) dates back so long (some of it to 1933, some to 1868) makes it clear that the time has come to act.
John Bowlby, the eminent psychiatrist, psychologist and psychoanalyst, noted six decades ago that love is as vital as vitamins for a child to flourish.
It has taken a long time – much too long, in fact – for this to be recognised universally, but at last, as a society, we’re starting to realise that emotional abuse is as damaging as the other forms. We got there in the end. Better late than never.