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Emotional Abuse: Showing Hostility and Making Threats

Emotional Abuse: Showing Hostility and Making Threats

“Just hurry up, will you?” Alicia heard her mother yell out the window. She attempted to walk-run to the car, even though Alicia knew she wasn’t supposed to run on the school sidewalk. “I don’t know why you’re always so late,” her mother muttered as Alicia got into the car. Sighing deeply, her mother eyed the rearview mirror and pulled away from the curb, declaring, “You should have been here ten minutes ago.”

Alicia could feel the familiar tension in her stomach. Her mother was in one of those moods in which she was mad at everything and Alicia couldn’t do anything right. Alicia thought about explaining that Mr. Hernandez had kept her a few minutes after class to talk about her collage, which he wanted to put up in the glass case by the office. She had been so proud to tell her mother, but now she knew she’d better wait.

Emotional abuse happens when an adult uses a child as a convenient receptacle for hostility and negativity that have nothing to do with the child.

Those who are perceived as weaker, for whatever reason, can become convenient targets for the hostility of others. Animals are a known target, as evidenced by the work of organizations such as the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Children, sadly, also fall within that hierarchy of power and control. They can become punching bags on which adults vent their anger, frustration, irritation, annoyance, or any emotional negativity. Often this negativity vented on children is in no way directly connected to them. Children become, as they say, collateral damage to an adult at war with the world.

Adults who take out their anger on children rarely are truthful about the source of that anger and hostility. Some shift the blame unfairly to their punching bag of choice, placing the burden of their actions, as well as the reasons for the actions, on the child. Others leave the reasons for the negativity unexplained. In either case, the child is left to conclude they are responsible, through either direct indictment or indirect inference.


“Don’t make me come up there!” Elliott should have been in bed more than thirty minutes ago, but he’d gotten caught up in the video game he was playing. If he’d been quieter, his father wouldn’t have known he was still awake. Elliott played this game every night—oh, not the video game, the game with his dad.

At least once a night, Elliott would hear “Don’t make me come up there!” bellowed from downstairs. The game was to figure out how quickly his dad would get mad and yell at him. Tonight, Elliott knew he’d been too loud, but some nights his father could yell about anything. If his father was mad enough to come up, Elliott would be in a lot of trouble, with no telling what privileges he would take away. Elliott was told repeatedly that nothing he had was his. “I put food on the table, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head,” his father never forgot to remind him. The implied threat was, at any time, an essential item could be snatched away for bad behavior. The secret was not to show you cared too much about anything. That’s why Elliott made sure to play with the dog when his father wasn’t around.

Emotional abuse happens when an adult threatens consequences that rarely happen but when they do are inappropriately severe.

Children need structure and stability to get their balance in the world. Within an atmosphere of constant threats, children lose a sense of security. They begin to doubt and distrust. When nothing is safe, they hoard and become secretive to protect what is most vital to them.

If threats are verbalized but never materialize, children can falsely conclude they are immune from negative consequences. They may feel disdain toward and disrespect for authority figures. They may become unpleasantly surprised when consequences actually happen.

If you or a loved one is struggling with past abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help.  Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues, and bringing healing to the whole family. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.

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