What Are the Signs of Mental Child Abuse?

N. Madison
N. Madison

A victim of mental child abuse may exhibit many signs that he is suffering mental and emotional harm. Among the most common signs are behaving in an overly compliant manner or displaying an excessive need for affection. Overly aggressive behavior may also point toward possible mental abuse in children and may include both mental and verbal aggression. Additionally, a child who is suffering mental abuse may attempt to harm himself, develop habits to pacify himself, or wet or soil his clothing or bed linens. Suicide attempts are often a sign of mental child abuse as well.

Children who have been mentally abused may exhibit an excessive need for attention from adults.
Children who have been mentally abused may exhibit an excessive need for attention from adults.

One of the most common signs of mental child abuse is overly complaint behavior. For example, a child may seem desperate to please others and win approval, especially that of adults. In some cases, a child may be unable to say what he wants or likes because he views his abuser's wants and needs as more important than his own. He may seem fearful that he won’t please others or his abuser, appear timid about stating his opinion, or have difficulty refusing to do things he doesn't want to do.

Physical aggression toward other children is a sign of mental child abuse.
Physical aggression toward other children is a sign of mental child abuse.

Another possible sign of emotional abuse is the excessive need for affection. If a mentally abusive parent is remote and withholds affection from the child, he may seem starved for attention. For example, the child may attempt to get affection from other adults or even latch on to other children who are older than him for this purpose.

Acting in an overly compliant manner and displaying a need to win approval from adults are signs of mental child abuse.
Acting in an overly compliant manner and displaying a need to win approval from adults are signs of mental child abuse.

Sometimes the signs of mental child abuse include aggressive behavior. A child who is being abused mentally may sometimes deal with the stress of the abuse by hitting, otherwise harming, or verbally abusing others. A mentally abused child may be quick to become angry and have a hard time dealing with the anger without an emotional blowup. Additionally, a mentally abused child may experience anger that seems dramatically out of proportion with the situation that caused him to become angry.

When a child experiences mental child abuse, he is harmed emotionally.
When a child experiences mental child abuse, he is harmed emotionally.

The signs of mental child abuse also can be physical in nature. For example, a mentally abused child may frequently rock back and forth or exhibit signs of trying to pacify himself. Sometime a victim may bang his head against a wall or another hard surface; others may self-inflict wounds. Additionally, some mentally abused children have frequent episodes of wetting or soiling their beds or their clothing. Unfortunately, some may even attempt to commit suicide.

A child who has been mentally abused will likely have very low self-esteem.
A child who has been mentally abused will likely have very low self-esteem.
In some cases, child abuse treatments may involve prescription medication.
In some cases, child abuse treatments may involve prescription medication.
A child who is neglected or abused may experience psychological problems.
A child who is neglected or abused may experience psychological problems.
N. Madison
N. Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments


My four year old grandson has suddenly overnight become so emotional over staying with us or his daddy. This has never been a problem. Before, he loved being with us and staying over.

His behavior has also become so bad, he has suddenly gone from a loving, caring little boy to one who hits, smacks and cries all the time and doesn't want to be with us. Then 10 minutes later he is telling us he misses and loves us. Please can anyone shed some light to what is going on? Thank you.


My mother let me live with a family on the next street when I was age two, but after three years, she wanted me back. I went back home to the 4 brothers I barely knew, plus new siblings. I still spent holidays and weekends with the surrogate family, but I was sexually abused there, and the same thing happened at the home of my biological family.

Both families were of a different social class and had different expectations of me. I'm now in my 50's, and still don't know who I really am today, but generally, I'm super adaptive to however someone wants me to be. I would really like to get to know the person I should have been. I may have even liked her.


I think it's so sad when a girl starts out in life starved for affection and winds up settling for a jerk later on in life just to have someone to fill that void. That happened to my cousin, and though I have tried to make her see what's going on, it has no effect.

Her mother did not plan the pregnancy, and she let her daughter know that she really didn't want her. She never told her that she loved her, and she basically just ignored her existence.

My cousin has gone through several bad relationships because of this. She hates to be alone, and she settles for whoever will hold her and call her their own.

Her current boyfriend cheats on her, but she thinks she can't live without him. Since he shows her affection, nothing else matters to her.


I believe that one of my coworkers must have been mentally abused as a child. I always knew that she was soft-spoken, but after having lunch with her a few times, I saw some other signs of abuse.

She stutters, and she has trouble stating entire sentences, because she stops to doubt herself and her voice fades out. She is constantly tugging at her sweater, as if to cover herself up further, though she wears blouses that go all the way up to the base of her neck.

I think that she was probably mentally abused rather than physically harmed, because it's like she's afraid of her own words. Her parents must have chided her for stuttering or ridiculed everything she said, because I have never met anyone else so self-conscious about their words.


When I was in third grade, I had a classmate who was particularly violent. He would pick fights with the boys, and if they refused to fight, he would beat them up. He even hit girls, seemingly for no reason.

He ended up in the principal's office just about every day. After he attacked the teacher with a pocket knife, he got expelled.

No one knew why he acted that way, but I'm pretty sure he must have learned it from his parents. I saw in the newspaper a few weeks ago that he had been arrested for assaulting a police officer, so I guess his parents never saw the need to get him psychological help. This adds to my belief that they contributed to his anger.


@JessicaLynn - Teachers do seem to be in a difficult position when it comes to reporting child abuse.

I think the hardest thing about mental child abuse is that it's mental, not physical. It seems like it would be easy to choose to report a child that was covered in bruises.

However, I imagine a teacher might feel weird about calling CPS and saying something like, "Little Timmy seems starved for attention." I know I would wonder if CPS would take me seriously for making a call like that.


My friend is a teacher, and from what he told me it seems like most teachers receive training in recognizing the signs of both mental and physical child abuse. However, despite knowing the facts, child abuse is hard to deal with when you actually do notice it.

My friend tells me that some of his other teacher friends have expressed reservations about getting child protective services involved. Even if they think the child is being abused, some people feel like the child is probably better off being with their parents than being "in the system." Unfortunately, some foster homes aren't much better than the original abusive homes were.


@BrickBack - That is so sad. The other day I was watching a program about a man that was abandoned at a park by his biological mother when he was ten. The mother never came back for him and she left with his sister.

I could not ever imagine a mother doing something like this. The man said that some ladies that were in the park felt bad for him and took him to the local police station and he was later put in foster care.

Luckily for him, he said that his adoptive parents were a blessing and his well adjusted life was really a result of their care.


@Anamur -I agree that child abuse articles like this do a wonderful service in educating the public about child abuse symptoms and how to detect it in children.

It is so sad to hear cases of child abuse especially when children are placed in the foster care system. There was a tragic case in South Florida in which a little girl died because of the extreme abuse from her foster parents. Child Protective Services really dropped the ball in the case and now a poor little girl is dead.

We also have to do a better job at following up with children that are placed in foster care because this tragedy could have been prevented because the little girl’s teacher did report the abuse.

I read that about 1,800 children die every year because of abuse and in 80% of those cases the parents were at fault.


@wander - I don't think child abuse facts are as well known as they should be. Even when I was in school a lot of the teachers really stuck their heads in the sand and pretended everything was OK. It was particularly sad because we even had a class about what is child abuse to help us spot the signs.

I think that as time goes on more and more awareness will be raised. I know one of the best books I ever read on the subject was, A Child Called "It". This shocking story shows you just how horrible mental and physical child abuse should be. Looking the other way just isn't an option nowadays.


It is interesting as to how the signs of mental child abuse are interpreted in different cultures. While I was working as a teacher in ESL is seemed that the Korean teachers were woefully unwilling to learn the facts about child abuse.

Even if a child was openly disruptive and showed signs of child physical abuse the attitude there was very much that children will be children. It was shocking to me that I couldn't figure out how to stop child abuse when I saw it in my own classroom. There were just no outlets, and a foreigner's opinions were very much unwelcome. I wonder if other places are as set on pretending child abuse doesn't happen?


This is a great article, very informative. I think all teachers and parents need to be trained and knowledgeable about these signs. At our kindergarten, all of our employees received information on child abuse and the signs to look out for.

You've pretty much covered it all here, but the other thing I would like to add is that children who are abused express these problems and signs more easily while they are playing games. We had several students who were emotionally abused and the teachers noticed it by the way they were acting and speaking during play time with their friends.

Children tend to repeat their parent's behavior, so we always pay attention to any unusual behavior during our playtime sessions and classes. This is a great time to notice any signs of abuse.


I'm an elementary teacher and if a child is violent to himself or to others, I absolutely think that authorities need to be engaged with the child and his or her family. Counseling and psychological therapy for both the child and the parents should be available to them.

But for the other signs mentioned here, I see them all too often with my students. I try to engage and converse with my students as much as possible and I often sense with some students that all is not well at home. But this is so prevalent that I'm starting to think that every child experiences some kind of trauma growing up. I'm not sure if every instance could be called abuse because I don't think that parents harm their children intentionally.

I'm starting to think however, that if we provide children with psychological support and counseling, they might be better equipped to deal with some of these issues as they grow up. Otherwise, I don't think it's possible to prevent every child from emotional abuse and trauma. It really is more common than we think.


My father was mentally and verbally abusive to both me and my brother. We were separated from him as teenagers but the harm he caused us until that time remains with us today. Several of the signs mentioned here, especially aggressive behavior and the need for affection is how my brother and I reacted to his abusive treatment. The sad thing is that we still give the same reactions today even though we are much older.

My brother was and is to this day very aggressive, short tempered and even violent at times. In fact, he used to beat me a lot as a child because I think he couldn't be aggressive with my father since he was so scared of him. I, on the other hand, developed an extreme need for affection and love that I never received from my father. I express this need to my loved ones now too often which frustrates and annoys them. I literally beg for their love and attention.

There are different types of child abuse but they all leave such deep wounds that take a long time to heal and still leave behind a scar afterward. I wish my mother and relatives were aware of these signs and had done something to help us then.

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