Protecting Your Child from Parental Emotional Abuse

Parental physical abuse is a horrific evil that leaves children with a lifetime of suffering and struggle, coping with the damage done to them during their childhood. However, less evident, but equally damaging to children can be the emotional abuse a parent can wreak upon a child’s life, creating the same dramatic long-term damage to a child that can leave life-long scars and struggles. While Minnesota law expresses obvious concern over physical abuse, and will grant relief to protect a child from such abuse, the Courts do still recognize, albeit to a more limited degree, the threat of emotional abuse, and a basis to pursue protection for the children from such abuse.

Setting a definition for emotional abuse presents the first problem Courts face in addressing it. There is unlikely to be one agreed upon definition for emotional abuse, as it can vary as widely as from threats, to name-calling, yelling, passive-aggressive humiliation, or controlling statements and behavior. Minnesota law does not have a specific term for emotional abuse that it recognizes. Under the Domestic Abuse Statutes in Chapter 518B, the law’s definition of “domestic abuse” obviously includes actual physical abuse, but it does also include some elements of emotional abuse, including (1) the infliction of fear of physical harm (which could include verbal or emotional abuse), and (2) terroristic threats. While the Minnesota Statutes Chapter 518 does not directly address the issue of emotional abuse, it does recognize a basis to modify custody or parenting time due to an endangerment to the child’s emotional health or development, impliedly from a danger posed by emotional abuse. Minn. Stat. Section 518.18(c).

In the cases where the Court has had opportunity to review emotional abuse claims, the issue of proof of such emotional abuse is the cornerstone of such claims. Emotional abuse must often be proven through a combination of reported behavior along with psychological or developmental analysis that identifies a negative emotional response in the abused. This can come through child psychologists or therapists in the instances of emotional abuse toward a child. In Harkema v. Harkema, 474 N.W.2d 10, (Minn. App. 1991), testimony of a step-parent’s continued yelling and threats towards the minor children were presented to the Court through affidavit of the children’s psychologist, which recounted the children’s stories of the behavior, and also provided an analysis that the behavior had substantially changed the emotional behavior of the children. Although it was admitted by all sides that the step-parent in question had never actually physically harmed or abused the children, the Court still held that the behavior and resulting emotional harm to the children were an emotional endangerment to the children sufficient to warrant a potential change in custody for the children.

The mental health field has made enormous strides in identifying, evaluating, and warning about the threats emotional abuse can have on both children and adults. This progress must continue to trickle down into a justice system that continues to recognize and protect against abuse in all its forms. If you have concerns that a parent may be emotionally abusing your child, seek help with a mental health professional and attorney that can evaluate your concerns and provide options to pursue legal relief that may help protect the child from such abuse.