Emotional abuse lacks the public and political profile of physical and sexual abuse, despite being at their core and frequently their most damaging dimension. Difficulties in recognition, definition and legal proof put children at risk of remaining in damaging circumstances. Assessment of the emotional environment is necessary when interpreting possible physical or sexual abuse and balancing the risks and benefits of intervention. This article considers factors contributing to professional difficulty. It is suggested that understanding emotional abuse from the first principles of the causes and implications of the dysfunctional parent–child relationships it represents can help prevention, recognition and timely intervention. It may facilitate the professional communication needed to build up a picture of emotional abuse and of the emotional context of physical and sexual abuse. Doing so may contribute to the safety of child protection practice. The long-term cost of emotional abuse for individuals and society should be a powerful incentive for ensuring that development of services and clinical research are priorities, and that the false economy of short-term saving is avoided.
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