Know the signs: Mental Injury


In Alaska, what is sometimes called emotional abuse, exposure to family violence, and/or psychological maltreatment falls under the category of mental injury.

Mental injury (or psychological/emotional abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Mental injury is often difficult to prove, and therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other types of maltreatment are identified. (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015).

The term mental injury is associated with parental behavior that is so frightening, overwhelming, or threatening that it can damage a child’s developing brain.

Domestic Violence

Even reasonable adults can disagree and find themselves yelling, name calling, shutting down or engaging in other behaviors that challenge healthy family functioning. Domestic violence, on the other hand, happens when a family member’s behavior, actual or threatened, causes another to fear for their personal safety or well-being. When a child witnesses an incident of domestic violence, and especially if domestic violence occurs as a part of a pattern of family behavior, domestic violence harms a child. Domestic violence can not only impact the safety and well-being of a child, it can damage a child’s developing brain, and interfere with healthy development.

Mental injury includes a child who was present (sight or sound) during a domestic violence incident. Mandated reporters are required to report suspicion or knowledge of mental injury and thus, should be reporting children who witness or are exposed to domestic violence.

Psychological Maltreatment

Psychological maltreatment usually means that the child receives, sees, or hears repeated inappropriate emotional displays or language by the parent or guardian. This may include fighting, yelling, name-calling, and threats to either the child or another family member. On the other hand, there may be no overt abuse — no yelling, no name-calling — but also no warmth or concern for the child. Children who have all their physical needs met but are emotionally neglected may fail to develop the ability to form a trusting, loving bond with anyone.

Signs of Mental Injury in Children

Children may be considered mentally injured if:

  • They show emotional or behavioral problems related to the parent’s behavior
  • They are placed in the middle of disputes between their parents
  • They are subjected to extreme discipline
  • They are subjected to extreme confinement, such as being locked in a closet
  • The parent excessively controls their actions, which inhibits their growth and development
  • They are exposed to domestic violence, drugs, or criminal activity
  • The parent's ability to provide protection or supervision is limited (by substance abuse, mental illness, or other factors)

Mentally injured children may:

  • Have habits such as sucking, rocking, head-banging, or biting
  • Not like to be around people, even parents or guardians
  • Break things on purpose
  • Be too passive or too aggressive with others
  • Engage in criminal behavior such as stealing
  • Intentionally hurt animals
  • Attempt suicide
  • Seem cold or distant to other children or to adults
  • Become violently angry without warning
  • Choose to be alone
  • Be uncomfortable when someone shows them care or concerns

Signs of Mental Injury by Parent(s)

Domestic violence occurs when one person in an intimate relationship uses violence or the threat of violence to dominate or control the other person. Domestic violence is sometimes referred to as family violence, domestic abuse or spousal abuse. Perpetrators of domestic violence can also use guilt, shame, threats, and/or intimidation to control another family member.

Adults who mentally injure may:

  • Constantly blame, make fun of, or yell at the child
  • Reject offers of help for the child’s problems
  • Openly reject the child
  • Discipline inappropriately, such as locking the child in a closet
  • Insist on being in total control of the child’s actions
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Use words to attack, bully, scare, or shame the child
  • Make the child lie to protect the adult
  • Put the child in the middle of arguments between parents, or ask the child to choose sides between parents
  • Show lack of concern for the child
  • Ignore the child’s physical or emotional needs

Left Arrow Neglect | Sexual Abuse Right Arrow