Updated: Nov 10
Throughout history, there exists a close connection between the treatment of children and a
society’s value system. Historically, children were considered the property of their families.
Parents, particularly fathers, had the right to decide how a child was cared for and whether it
lived or died. Many early societies practiced “infanticide” (the killing of infants and young
children) as a form of population control. In some cultures, newborns were plunged into frigid
water to test their ability to survive. Records from early 17th century England attest to the burial of infants murdered by drowning, burning and scalding.
Some methods of discipline used in early western civilization today are viewed as cruel and
abusive treatment. For example, many 18 th century schoolmasters believed in the old English
tradition of “education through pain” and whipped children regularly with leather straps called
“flappers.” Discipline was severe in school and at home in the hope of transforming children into “God-fearing” individuals.
Children often have been the victims of various forms of exploitation by adults, including “well-
meaning” parents. Before child labor laws, many children became virtual slaves to apprentice-
masters in return for room and board. During the Industrial Revolution, children entered the
labor market at very young ages because their small bodies were suited for jobs such as chimney sweeps and mining. They also received less pay than adults did.
Gradually, convents, churches and philanthropists began to lead efforts to protect children. Other concerned citizens became involved with the protection of children and the government passed child protection laws. In the United States today, all states have mandatory reporting laws requiring a variety of professionals, such as teachers, clergy and doctors, to report suspected child abuse and neglect.
Despite strong government legislation, and a healthy change in this country’s attitude toward the treatment of children, some form of child abuse or neglect can be found in nearly every
American neighborhood. Because of the many stresses suffered within society and the family,
childcare experts believe that children today are at high risk to suffer emotional abuse or neglect. In turn, the effects of emotional abuse or neglect can seriously affect a child’s current and future life.
Personal Skills Emotionally Abusive & Neglectful Parents May Have Failed to Master
The following is a list of important personal skills emotionally abusive and neglectful parents
may have failed to master. Parents who mistreat their children generally suffer from low self-
esteem. They probably experienced parental rejection, inconsistency, lack of love and nurturing, emotional abuse or neglect during childhood. As parents gain understanding in the following areas, they reduce the risk that they will continue to emotionally abuse or neglect their children.
Delaying Gratification – Typically, emotionally abusive and neglectful parents experienced
inconsistency during their childhood. One minute they received love or attention, the next minute they were ignored or mistreated. Consequently, many emotionally abusive or neglectful parents have little trust that better things will happen in the future and have difficulty waiting for results. They live in a world of “instant gratification.” They very often expect immediate results from their children. When these immediate results are not forthcoming, they may feel powerless and blame their children for their own frustrations. Parents need to learn how to delay their personal needs for gratification, teach their children not to be impulsive and learn that children seldom perceive time in the same way they do.
Meeting Personal Needs – Many emotionally abusive and neglectful parents express their
personal needs in extreme ways. They learned in early childhood that a quiet request for attention was ignored while a tantrum was acknowledged – if by a slap, cutting remark or other negative response. This family pattern of communication often passes to their children until everybody in the family is vying to meet personal needs through extreme or dramatic behaviors. Parents need to demonstrate healthy ways of communicating their personal needs and responding to the personal needs of other family members.
Determining Limits of Responsibility – Emotionally abusive and neglectful parents are often
unable to accept responsibility for their own actions and tend to blame others for their problems. Unfortunately, children are often the targets of angry or frustrated parents who blame others for their unhappiness. By accepting responsibility for their own lives, parents can demonstrate the value of being self-directed, rather than always feeling like a “victim” of other people’s actions.
Decision-Making – Healthy families teach children how to make decisions. For example, by
teaching them how to choose a nutritious breakfast, parents help children learn how to decide
what to eat. Emotionally abusive and neglectful parents tend to fear loss of control, feeling
“threatened” by their children’s independence. Such parents fail to teach their children how to
make decisions, which can limit their ability to master the personal skills of adulthood and
Agencies to Contact About Child Abuse & Neglect
National Child Abuse Hotline – The National Child Abuse Hotline is a toll-free number that
can be called from anywhere in the United States and is available around the clock.
Police Department – Most police departments have at least one officer responsible for juvenile
matters or an officer who investigates crimes against persons.
Telephone # 911
Child Protective Services – CPS is a special unit in each state and local Department of Human Services responsible for investigating suspected child abuse and neglect.
Telephone # Check your local phone book*
*Adapted from our book, Emotional Abuse & Child Neglect: Why Parents Abuse Their