Approximately a third of South African children under 17 are abused or neglected, resulting in invisible scars that increase their risk of mental illness and limit their ability to function as adults.
The Australian NGO Kidshelpline describes emotional abuse as repeated acts of mistreatment that accumulate over time and have long-lasting impacts.
The development and well-being of a child are typically negatively impacted by a pattern of maltreatment that continues over time.
Following are some instances of emotional abuse: rejecting or dismissing, exposure to domestic violence, blaming, shaming, or criticising a child nonstop and withholding love, support, praise, or attention from a child and bullying, teasing, insulting or belittling a child among other things.
The most frequent perpetrators of psychological abuse and neglect of children's emotional needs for love and support are those who are closest to them and responsible for their upbringing and development, such as parents, relatives, and other family members. This abuse occurs at all socio-economic levels.
Dr Eugene Allers, a spokesperson for the South African Society of Psychiatrists, notes that although physical abuse in childhood is the most common, affecting 56.3% of children, the risk of experiencing severe mental health issues is four times higher for the 35.5% of victims who experience emotional and psychological abuse.
He said that despite physical and sexual abuse frequently appearing in the media and in court cases, psychological abuse, such as emotional neglect, receives significantly less attention.
Emotional abuse and neglect during childhood harm a child's sense of self, ability to trust, and capacity to form healthy connections. It can have a significant impact on a child's prospects by affecting both their physical health and educational outcomes.
He alludes to the fact that these types of abuse often overlap in children who suffer from physical abuse and sexual abuse. As a result, they are most likely to also experience emotional abuse and neglect. The majority of South African children will experience some form of abuse before the age of 17, while 27% will experience multiple types of abuse.
“All abuse leaves emotional or psychological scars. While physical injuries can heal, emotional scars are disabling and crippling to most individuals, and psychological abuse and neglect are much more prominently associated with mental illness in later life than physical or sexual abuse,” said Dr. Allers.
A third of all psychiatric diseases begin before the age of 14 and a half before the age of 18.
Understanding what emotional abuse comprises, as well as the symptoms and indicators, is rarely addressed because it is harder to describe and recognise than physical abuse.
Emotional abuse is more subtle, ongoing, and generally not connected to a single incident such as a beating or sexual assault.
Dr Allers argues that, despite the importance of protection for a child's safety, overprotection can be just as harmful to kids as neglect. If a child is overprotected, they will not be able to live a regular life and acquire useful life skills. As both extremes of the spectrum constitute child abuse, there must be a balance when it comes to protecting children.
Signs of emotional abuse in children
Children who were emotionally abused or neglected displayed anxiety and depression symptoms, isolated themselves, exhibited disruptive behaviour, exhibited mood changes such as aggression and agitation, depression, sleep problems, refused to attend school, or performed poorly, as well as delayed development and language.
There is also a heightened risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour.
He reiterated that social workers and medical experts are required by law to report all types of child abuse, including emotional abuse. Children should be referred for psychiatric interventions that can help them cope and regain their self-esteem when emotional abuse or neglect is suspected, and perpetrators must be dealt with by the legal system.
Childline advises the following steps when reporting suspecting child abuse
School personnel should contact a Social Worker from a Child protection organisation, such as a Child Welfare Society, or the Department of Social Development, or the Child Protection Officer of the South African Police Services. The reporting of abuse and neglect is mandated by law, and this law supersedes school policy.
Reasons for concern, any documentation of indicators, and any relevant statements made by the child.
Child's name, address, and telephone number.
Parent's or guardian's name and telephone numbers.
Take the credentials of the person assisting you i.e.
the name of the intake worker receiving the call; the date and time of the call.
The social worker (and the police in some cases) will interview the child as soon as possible. A decision concerning the child's safety will be made by the social worker at this time.
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