Psychological abuse is a type of abuse that involves subjecting people to pain and distress of an emotional, rather than physical, form. In cases of extreme psychological abuse, the stress created by the abuse can actually lead to the manifestation of physical symptoms of abuse ranging from loss of appetite to self-harming behavior. Identifying and addressing this form of abuse can be challenging because it can take varied forms and it is very dependent on the nature of the individuals involved.
Often, psychological abuse occurs within the dynamic of an existing unhealthy relationship and the abuser may engage in physical abuse as well. It can occur in caregiver situations, such as those involving parents and children and caregivers and older or disabled adults, as well as in intimate relationships. It also shows up at school and in the workplace in the form of bullying and harassment, and can often be seen in situations where there are unequal power dynamics.
There are many forms of psychological abuse. It can include harassment, infantalization, threats, intimidation, isolation, control, and attempts to belittle the victim. Both verbal and nonverbal means can be used to perpetrate abuse, ranging from yelling or screaming at someone to creating physical isolation by refusing to touch the victim and isolating the victim from friends and family.
Victims of psychological abuse can develop a number of symptoms including behavioral changes, stress, and unhappiness or emotional distress. Some may become abusive themselves, as seen when children experience harmful emotional dynamics at home and become bullies on the playground. A cycle of abuse and emotional violence can be created, with people experiencing abuse and turning on others. This type of abuse can also escalate and become physical in nature and it can be accompanied with neglect and other forms of abuse.
For people who intervene in abusive relationships, such as members of law enforcement, counselors, and teachers, identifying psychological abuse requires being very perceptive and taking small cues seriously. Looking for patterns of behavior and changes in the way someone behaves with other people is important, as is interacting directly with the victim and using carefully phrased questions to gather information about the situation. People in abusive relationships are sometimes reluctant to seek help or to report on the abuse because they fear reprisals. As a result, simply asking if someone needs help is often not enough, as initial offers of assistance may be turned down.