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Six tips for teachers who see emotional abuse

The scars of emotional abuse are invisible, deep, and diverse; and unfortunately, emotional abuse likely impacts more students than we think.

Emotionally abusive behavior broadly consists of criticism, degradation, rejection, or threat. Emotional abuse (also known as psychological maltreatment or verbal assault) can happen anywhere, both within and outside of families, and can refer to a single severe incident or a chronic, ongoing pattern. Educators, caregivers, coaches, school mental health professionals, administrators, and peers are all capable of acting emotionally abusive toward school-age youth. That is part of its insidious invisibility; despite emotional abuse being highly involved in childhood abuse cases, it is often forgotten and overlooked. This type of interpersonal trauma is typically chronic and cuts deeply, as it is associated with mental and physical health issues (e.g., anxiety, depression, stress, sleep problems, self-harm) during the school years and beyond.

Even with this existing knowledge, emotional abuse remains misunderstood, minimized, unseen, and unreported by many, including school professionals. We outline three things teachers need to know about emotional abuse and three things they can do to meet the needs of students experiencing emotional abuse.

What to know

The impact on the student determines the occurrence of emotional abuse more than the behavior that caused it. 

There is no legal or clinical universal definition of emotional abuse. For example, two students with a parent teasing them about their appearances may react differently, in part based on context and relationship with the parent. Emotional abuse would be determined by the impact on the student, rather than the teasing alone.

Emotional abuse is detrimental to both a student’s way of thinking and feeling. 

Children create their sense of self from stories that others construct about them. Students may believe the destructive narratives that are told to them. That is, these harmful words may impact students at their core—shifting how they think about themselves and the world, and how they feel about themselves and others.

There are numerous ways that emotional abuse may manifest. 

Emotional abuse is not simply hearing harmful words. The context around the experience of emotional abuse are varied and diverse. A student may internalize or externalize their behaviors, or something in between. If a school-aged youth is repeatedly told that she is worthless, then the student may be meek in class. If a student is threatened repeatedly, then she may act aggressively toward others.

What to do

Take care of your emotional needs and your emotional health.

Educators cannot support students if they cannot support themselves. As some students may constantly hear emotionally destructive words in their home environments, teachers certainly do not want to bring any semblance of that into their schools. Nevertheless, working with students can be tiring and frustrating. If their emotional energy is low, teachers may react rather than respond to difficult situations that unexpectedly arise. Rather than taking a breath, teachers might begin to punitively scold or admonish a student. Teachers need to take care of their emotional needs so that they do not parallel any unhealthy at-home behaviors in the classroom.

Foster sharing through strong relationships. 

Try to examine the life contexts behind a student’s behaviors. Rather than focusing on what is wrong with students, be curious about the circumstances in students’ lives that may influence how they act in school. To have a firmer understanding, teachers need to create brave spaces in our schools and classrooms so that students may feel comfortable sharing with adults. Students often regard educators as more effective guardians in violence protection than police or security, which speaks to the importance of continuing to cultivate this trust. When students share feelings, provide positive reinforcement by expressing your gratitude or by giving a thoughtful, affirming response.

Know the laws around mandated reporting, and communicate with transparency.

Check state regulations and learn to whom to report and how to report within your district or county. If and when suspicion or reports of abuse arise, reach out to your school mental health professionals. Encourage your administrators to grow emotional abuse awareness, prevention, and intervention initiatives so that others feel willing to report even in instances of suspected abuse. Openly discuss what happens after a report is made, as this transparency allows for students to feel more comfortable with the idea of reporting.

Words are powerful, and as such, can be weaponized and wounding. Words can also be healing, spoken with gentleness and justice. Teachers should listen wholly to their students and their unstated needs; let teachers use their minds and words wisely and act knowingly.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Okan AKGÜL on Pixabay

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