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COLUMN ONE : Cruelty That Is Not Unusual : The damage wrought by emotional abuse of children is getting increasing attention. But experts can’t agree on how to define such abuse--or what to do about it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some instances of child abuse are clear cut: A mother routinely kicks her 8-year-old son; a father enters his 12-year-old daughter’s room and molests her.

But what do you call it when a parent hurts a child without touching?

How about the father who persistently belittles his son for not playing football? Or the mother who refuses to let her children bathe because she doesn’t want to spend money on soap? Or the stepfather with a habit of berating his wife’s child as “stupid”? Or the foster parents who on occasion discipline a disobedient child by sending him to school with a dog biscuit for lunch?

Those are examples of “emotional child abuse,” a phenomenon that most experts believe can be more psychologically damaging than physical or sexual abuse, yet receives far less attention, primarily because few people can agree on what it is.

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Child development experts believe that hundreds of thousands of children are systematically humiliated, intimidated and terrorized by their parents, often because--as is often the case in all forms of child abuse--the parents were brought up in that same cruel fashion.

Nearly 30% of all cases of child abuse or neglect are categorized as emotional abuse or emotional neglect, according to the most recent federal estimate. Many of these children are plagued into adulthood by anger, self-loathing and feelings of helplessness.

“I’ve had kids who went through it say to me, ‘I’d rather my parents would have hit me, because that’s over in a minute,’ ” said Harold Shriman, who runs a county center for teen-age runaways in Hollywood.

“It is the way you kill a child’s spirit,” said Amaryllis Watkins, a veteran social worker who is an executive with the Los Angeles County Department of Children Services.

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Widespread physical child abuse was first brought to the American public’s attention in the 1970s. The 1980s saw an explosion of concern over sexual abuse. Throughout, emotional abuse has received relatively little exposure. However, in the last several years it appears to be moving closer to center stage:

* Marvel Comics’ character Spider-Man, who revealed in 1985 that he was sexually abused as a youngster, has now told children how he was verbally tormented by his cruel, alcoholic father.

* The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse has been running a dramatic series of public service announcements on television titled “Mouths,” aimed not at parents who beat their children, but those who yell at them.

* A Northern California woman was charged with child endangerment for dressing her 7-year-old son in a pig costume, complete with a snout, and forcing him to sit in front of their apartment to punish him for lying and stealing. She eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and paid a $500 fine.

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* Parent-training videos on child abuse routinely include scenes in which parents berate their children for breaking a dish or argue with a spouse over whether Mom or Dad will get “stuck” with the chore of driving Johnny to school on the way to work this morning. Sample parent-to-child comment: “I don’t know if you’re lazy or stupid or both.”

* Emotional abuse is the focus of an increasingly powerful movement within popular psychology. Its current guru, family theorist John Bradshaw, preaches in workshops that most adults carry inside them a child that is emotionally wounded by parental abuse. These wounds, Bradshaw and his followers contend, lie at the root of all addictions. To break through them, he says, adults must recover their wounded “inner child.”

Yet for all this progress, emotional child abuse remains a gray notion, riddled with contradictions.

American society has few taboos to show parents where strict or insensitive parenting ends and emotional abuse begins. Mental health professionals employ widely differing definitions of emotional abuse. Thus, the mother who hollers insults at her children after a hard day may simply not know whether to rationalize her conduct as an unfortunate consequence of normal life or to condemn herself for causing long-term psychological problems.

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A 1986 Louis Harris poll found that 73% of the public believed that repeated yelling and cursing at children could cause long-term problems. Yet a 1989 survey of 3,200 parents by the University of New Hampshire found that a similar proportion engage in that behavior.

“You can’t define it, and since you can’t define it, how can you tell a person (to recognize) what they’re doing?” said Hershel Swinger, who directs a child-abuse resource center at Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s like smoking or eating. It’s so habitual that the person has a lot of problems even being made conscious of what they’re doing.”

The concept of emotional abuse clashes with the tradition of stern parenting that is hallowed not only in America but in most societies.

Today’s parents may be more aware of a child’s need for self-esteem, but they are also more aware of myriad social problems that confront children--problems which seem to demand that a parent get tough. Contemporary history is filled with testimonials by men and women who survived perilous urban childhoods and bless the parents who were hard on them.

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Even the most abuse-conscious experts acknowledge that proper parenting requires mothers and fathers to challenge their children, that life cannot always be made “nice.”

Most psychologists and mental health specialists say the parent who occasionally takes out his anger at his child under the pressure of daily life is behaving inappropriately, but is not committing emotional abuse.

“When you’re a parent, you snap at your child, that’s not emotional abuse--that’s something you have to apologize for,” said Stan Katz, the director of a Beverly Hills mental health center. “But when it gets to be chronic, and the child starts suffering, then it’s emotional abuse.”

That was Paula’s story.

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Paula’s father left her and her mother when she was 5, according to James Garbarino, president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago, who specializes in “psychologically battered” children.

Paula’s mother held the daughter responsible for the breakup, and told her so at every opportunity. While Paula had enjoyed cuddling with her father, her mother began to tell the girl that all men are bad and only want one thing, and that Paula must never let a man touch her.

By the time she was 7, Paula froze whenever a stranger of any age confronted her, and ran from any man--teacher, mailman, policeman.

She was, Garbarino said, the victim of “emotional assault, her psyche being battered just as surely as another child’s body might be.”

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More subtle abuse was experienced by a Southern California school psychologist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, describing a childhood in which her father routinely belittled her as dumb and incompetent.

“I have spent my life digging out of it,” she said. “What a struggle. I was a frightened child, frightened of making a mistake. My father was depressed and needed this helpless girl to take it out on. . . . I was always afraid to try new things, to make changes, to leave relationships.”

Such accounts do not draw universal sympathy. There are no cigarette burns or broken bones, only questionable parental judgment.

“Emotional abuse is not as harmful and not as painful,” said Wendy Kaminer, a Boston author whose critical examination of America’s self-help culture, “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional,” is due to be published next spring. “There are hierarchies of suffering. . . . If you call being emotionally mistreated by your parents abuse, then what are you saying to people who are victims of incest, or who have been badly battered?”

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Of the 1.4 million U.S. children found to be “seriously endangered” by abuse each year, about 391,000 are victims of emotional abuse or emotional neglect, according to estimates prepared by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, which said the statistics are only “the tip of the iceberg” because most child abuse is never reported.

Despite the fact that sexual abuse is better defined and more publicized, child protection agencies annually receive more reports of children seriously endangered by emotional abuse (188,100) than sexual abuse (133,600), the study found.

Yet rarely will a teacher or a social worker intervene.

“It’s the most difficult area to deal with because you don’t have physical indicators,” said Shayla Lever, director of the Los Angeles School District’s child abuse prevention unit. “It’s very frustrating. It’s virtually impossible to intervene. We see these kinds of children all the time: self-deprecating, constantly in fights, self-mutilating, assaulting other kids, attempting suicide, getting into drugs. We see the effects of it, but it’s very difficult to establish the cause.”

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Lever remembered an 8-year-old boy who misbehaved constantly and told a teacher he would not be receiving any Christmas presents. His father was always telling him he was bad and would have to stay in his room for Christmas.

“I talked to the teacher. The kid was a basket case,” Lever said. “There were no signs of physical abuse, but it was obvious we were looking at an emotionally abused child. But are you going to report that to the police?

The lack of a social consensus on a parent’s right to humiliate a child creates a vicious cycle, according to Lever and other experts.

Teachers find it harder to make judgments and are more reluctant to report emotional abuse. Verbally abusive parents--many of whom regard the use of words as the last remaining, socially acceptable lever of control over children--find it easier to engage in denial.

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Dale Dietz, a 43-year-old cable TV installer from a Detroit suburb, is an example.

Last year, Dietz and his estranged wife were locked in a nasty custody battle over their only child, a 9-year-old boy. Prevented by court order from entering the home, Dietz persuaded the boy to wage a campaign of silence, hunger strikes and tantrums against the mother, whom the father sometimes referred to as “Fang.”

So demonic was Dietz, investigators said, that once he hung up the phone on his son when the boy told him he’d eaten a pizza his mother had brought home.

It was clearly inappropriate exploitation of a son’s affection. But was it emotional abuse?

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Outraged prosecutors thought so after they listened to the mother’s recordings of Dietz’s phone calls. Prosecutors made tapes of their own, and filed felony charges against Dietz--the first use of a 1988 Michigan law that made emotional child abuse punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

After a week of debate, 10 jurors voted to convict Dietz. Two held out for acquittal. A mistrial was declared. Prosecutors refiled the charges. A second trial, held before a judge, ended in acquittal earlier this year when the judge ruled that while Dietz’s conduct was reprehensible, the father did not mean to harm the child. (The child custody case is still in the courts.)

Dietz’s attorney, John Rowland, said his client never should have been prosecuted.

“If this guy’s guilty of child abuse, half the child custody cases in (Michigan’s) Oakland County involve abuses of this sort against the other party. . . . My client was made to look like the worst sleazeball,” he said, adding “that doesn’t make him a criminal.”

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Child abuse expert Garbarino said such conflicts underscore the fact that child abuse “exists only as a social judgment” that competes--usually unsuccessfully--with the ethic of “parent’s rights.”

He said that as the effects of emotional abuse become better known, society may grow more outraged at parents who incessantly yell at their children or belittle them, the same way that outrage has grown toward parents who fail to protect their children with safety seats or seat belts.

“Thirty years ago, if a child were injured because he wasn’t in a car seat, there’d be no question: It was regarded as an accident. Today that same event has been redefined. It is considered neglect. We have a knowledge base: Two-thirds of injuries and 90% of fatalities to kids in cars can be prevented with car seats,” he said.

Even many parents who love their children become trapped in a syndrome of “harsh words that send hurtful messages to children, that poison a family’s time together,” Garbarino said.

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“It’s painful to watch a family tearing itself up over the small missteps of day-to-day life . . . locked into a system of anger and fear that seems to have a life of its own, that seems to be out of control,” he said.

Judging when these conflicts spill into the arena of emotional abuse has left the human-behavior professions “struggling for a midpoint,” said Don Fleming, a Beverly Hills child psychologist and author.

A minority of child development experts, convinced that emotional abuse is far more widespread than generally believed, favor an expansive definition that categorizes many of the most common flaws of well-meaning parents as abusive.

A larger number favor a stricter definition, in which a pattern of abuse must be present. Some say emotional abuse should not be alleged unless substantial changes in the child’s behavior can be documented.

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These experts believe children’s psychological resilience often protects them against the periodic sins of a loving parent. They say it is important to understand the difference between an abusive parent and a firm one, who challenges his or her child in a supportive environment.

Joyce Catlett, a research associate with Glendon Assn., a nonprofit clearinghouse for mental health literature, personifies the minority view, which holds that virtually all children are emotionally abused and that traditional research has covered this up by “idealizing” the family out of fear of “making parents feel guilty.”

As an example, Catlett offered a commonly flawed father “who is worried about his masculinity and instead of facing up to it, he projects it onto his kid, and punishes him for what he considers weak behavior, like crying or whining about something.

“It’s emotionally abusive to impose this image on the child when the child is just growing up to be himself. . . . It’s emotionally abusive to see something you dislike in yourself, or imagine to be a weakness in yourself, and punish your child for it,” Catlett said.

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Joanne Ratcliff, a specialist in child abuse research and the editor of a research journal at USC, takes a more traditional view, regarding parental name-calling as a “murky” area that should not always be judged as having a long-term effect on a child.

“The extent of that damage, I don’t know,” Ratcliff said. “Children are very resilient and very forgiving and the human spirit is terribly forgiving and it takes a lot to damage, seriously damage, a child. . . . There are children who suffer these kinds of onslaughts and do fine, they just learn to tune out the parent. There are others who can be crushed by them. That’s where I think emotional abuse is an enormously difficult area. Part of me says that if people give you a bad time, it makes you tough. I don’t know where that line is,” she said.

Beverly Hills mental health center Director Katz agreed that a pattern of abuse must be present. But he was willing to apply the emotional-abuse label to a case that has troubling implications for career-conscious parents.

When a bright 6-year-old daughter of two successful professionals developed a facial tic, the father brought her to Katz.

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“I was asking her if she had any animals,” Katz said. “She said she had a cat. I asked her who petted it. She said she did, and mommy did. I asked her, ‘Who pets you?’ She said, ‘No one. I want mommy to pet me like she pets the cat.’

“It dawned on me she wasn’t receiving enough physical nurturance. I had the mother come in. She told me she left for work at 6:30 in the morning and came home at 7 p.m. When did she spend time with her daughter? She said, ‘We spend 7 to 7:20 each night--quality time.’

“ ‘This is emotional abuse.’ I told her, ‘The child needs more attention and love from you.’ In one week the tic stopped.”


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