The children’s saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is far from true. While we often think of abuse as being only physical harm, emotional abuse and neglect are just as damaging. And these forms of abuse are on the rise, primarily because they leave no physical scars.

Screaming, intimidation, tongue-lashing, and humiliation are all forms of emotional abuse. Neglect isn’t just the failure of a parent to feed and look after a child – it includes a lack of parental interaction with a child and failure to provide love and affection. Over time, these actions take away the self-esteem of a child. The resulting mental and emotional scars can never be fully repaired and permanently impact the way an adult relates to his or her environment.

Many abused and neglected children are babies who are born premature, colicky, or sickly. As a result, they cry a lot and tend to create anxiety in their parents. Young families are most likely to be unable to cope with such a situation. In many cases, psychologists find that one parent becomes the prime abuser, while the other becomes the enabler of the child. Sometimes their children display the very characteristics and traits that these parents see in themselves and, therefore, find disquieting. Occasionally, the abused or neglected child is the scapegoat for the entire family.

Children who experience neglect and abuse operate differently than their siblings and friends. When abused children go to school, they are abusive themselves and display generalized anger and rage. Their need for attention, even negative attention, can reach unreasonable heights. It’s easy to spot these children, as they avoid other kids, approach adults in a lateral way as an equal, and display a range of needy behavior. Abused children learn at an early age not to trust adults. These are the kids that act out, pull out their hair, bite their nails, wet their beds, and talk incessantly.

Not only do victims of emotional abuse become underachievers, they actually expect to fail. Moreover, abused children may follow the model of abuse and become abusive parents, continuing a legacy of abuse.

How do we stop the cycle of abused children growing up to become abusive parents? One answer is in finding sensitive and trained caregivers who can help parents of at-risk children from the moment of birth. Other remedies include group counseling, which can occur using the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which the support of a meaningful person can be engaged to help the abuser. Other times, lay people who can visit and be empathetic can often head off problems before they start. Task forces and child protection services, as well as friends, doctors, teachers, and other professionals, can also intervene in emotional abuse.

Educating and remediating parents and children to discover alternative ways of interacting offers the greatest opportunity for social and emotional well-being in our schools and homes. It is important to recognize that abusive parents can be rehabilitated and the cycle of abuse stopped. The solution may be simpler than we think.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.