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Illinois Family Law: What Constitutes Emotional Abuse by a Parent?

All parents should understand that domestic abuse is not limited merely to physical violence. A parent can cause serious psychological damage to their child through emotional abuse. Under Illinois law, evidence of emotional abuse of a child will be considered by a family law court in child custody or child visitation cases.

One of the things that makes emotional abuse cases so challenging is that it can be difficult to identify mental health trauma. In this article, our Illinois child custody attorneys explain what constitutes emotional abuse by a parent. In addition, we discuss what you should do if you believe that your former partner is emotionally abusing your child.

Examples of Emotional Abuse of a Child

It is not always easy to determine what exactly constitutes emotional abuse. While it is obvious in some cases, emotional abuse can also be deeply subtle. It can be something that occurs gradually over time. Emotional abuse may slowly cause more and more damage to a vulnerable child. With emotional abuse cases, it is crucial that the full context of the parent’s relationship with the child is properly considered. Some specific examples of parental behavior that can constitute emotional abuse include:

  • Harsh criticism, belittling, or insulting language;

  • Name-calling

  • Yelling, screaming, intimidation, or swearing at the child;

  • Isolation;

  • Humiliation or demeaning jokes;

  • Teasing about a child’s physical appearance or cognitive abilities;

  • Threats of harm; and

  • Words meant to provoke fear.

Emotional abuse is often perceived to be of less concern than physical abuse or neglect because there are generally no visible signs of trauma, physical harm, or an obvious effect upon the child. But over time, emotional abuse can have serious long-term effects on a child’s social, emotional, and physical health and development. Recent studies have shown that toxic stress caused by emotional abuse can result in high releases of cortisol in children. Over time, the toxic stress and ongoing release of cortisol into the child’s body cause a negative impact on the structure and function of the child’s developing brain. Studies at Stanford University, in which digital imaging of children’s brains was conducted, demonstrated physical changes to frontal lobe areas relating to exaggerated fear responses later in life; much akin to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you find yourself or your child in a situation involving emotional or physical abuse, it is crucial that you take immediate action to protect the health and well-being of your child.

Document Everything and Be Ready to Take Action

If you suspect emotional or physical abuse, you should document everything. Certainly, if you have physical evidence, such as text messages, emails, or voicemails, you should preserve that documentation. In addition, you should also take contemporaneous notes, documenting your observations, and recording anything that your child tells you. The notes should be kept in a journal form. The more you write down at the time the event occurred, the more reliable your testimony will be.

You also need to be ready to take legal action to protect your child. The best thing you can do is to speak to an experienced Illinois child custody lawyer. Your lawyer will be able to help you explore your available options and take action. In some cases, a licensed psychologist may need to conduct an evaluation of your child.

Speak to Our Illinois Child Custody Lawyers Today

At Keller Legal Services, our compassionate family law attorneys have extensive experience handling difficult child custody cases. If you need legal help, please do not hesitate to contact our legal team for a free initial family law consultation. With offices in Aurora, Wheaton, and Naperville we serve communities throughout the region, including in DuPage County, Will County, and Kane County.