What is Psychological Maltreatment?

Psychological maltreatment occurs when a caregiver's pattern of behavior, whether through action or inaction, creates psychological hurt for a child. 

In North Dakota, psychological maltreatment is included in the definition of child neglect.

A “neglected child” is legally defined under the definition of “deprived child” in the Uniform Juvenile Court Act (NDCC Chapter 27-20-02(8)). This act states that a deprived child is “without proper parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care or control necessary for the child's physical, mental, or emotional health [emphasis added], or morals, and the deprivation is not due primarily to the lack of financial means of the child's parents, guardian, or other custodian."

pattern of psychological treatment can include rejecting, isolating, threatening, ignoring, exposing to negative influences, refusing services, or involving in domestic violence disputes or caregiver relations.


The caregiver does not appear to acknowledge the child’s worth and the legitimacy of the child’s needs. For example:

  • Singling out one child to scapegoat, criticize, or punish; to perform most of the household chores; or to receive fewer awards of praise
  • Consistently having unrealistic expectations of achievement for the child that are shown by the caregiver’s criticizing, punishing, or condemning when the child does not achieve above capabilities in school, sports, or social status
  • Belittling the child on an ongoing basis, stating that the child is different or unacceptable, or that the child reminds others of a person who is unacceptable to the family
  • Not allowing the child physical contact or nurturing
  • Overemphasizing the child’s shortcomings with a lack of understanding or an indifference about age-appropriate behaviors; offering critcism or disapproval that is beyond what the child's actual behavior warrants -- or that is used in an unfair, inconsistent, or excessive way
  • Using excessive threats of punishment, generally in an attempt to control the child


The caregiver denies the child opportunities for normal social experiences, prevents the child from forming friendships, or attempts to convince the child that he or she is alone in the world. For example:

  • Providing punishment that doesn’t fit the behavior or is inconsistent
  • Making inappropriate demands on the child or exploiting the child


 The caregiver verbally assaults the child, creates a climate of fear, or bullies or frightens the child. For example:

  • Placing the child in a frightening situation (in the dark, etc.) or creating sensory deprivation
  • Making direct or indirect verbal threats of abuse or harm that, if carried out, could result in physical or emotional harm


The caregiver deprives the child of essential interaction and responsiveness or stifles emotional growth and intellectual development. For example:

  • Showing little attachment to the child or providing little nurturance
  • Expressing minimal affection toward the child and avoiding physical closeness such as hugging, touching, or holding
  • Providing minimal discipline or rules
  • Being inattentive or indifferent; offering little stimulation in the home

Exposing to Negative Influences

The caregiver “mis-socializes” the child, encourages the child to engage in destructive antisocial behavior or illegal activities (such as gang behavior), or makes it difficult for the child to have healthy social experiences. For example:

  • Exposing the child to maladaptive or harmful influences or illegal activities; permitting or forcing the child to engage in such activities
  • Exposing the child to pornographic material
  • Exposing the child to adult sexual activity
  • Exposing the child to abusive third parties or failing to take steps to stop repeated abuse by third parties

Refusal of Services

The caregiver denies services to a child who needs such services, especially a psychologically or emotionally impaired child (a child at risk for suicide, a child who misuses chemicals, etc.). For example:

  • Not folllowing through with a referral from a professional -- and that lack of follow-through results in increased risk to a child
  • Not following through with a referral for evaluation or treatment for a child who is reported to have been sexually abused or is reported to have been sexually abusing other children

Involving in Domestic Violence Disputes 

The caregiver exposes the child to adult domestic violence or the threat of physical violence. (As a result, the child may feel responsible to protect her or himself or the adult being abused.) For example:

  • Involving the child physically in a domestic dispute
  • Creating the possibility of injury to a child because the child is in the vicinity of a domestic abuse event
  • Verbally threatening the child during a domestic abuse event
  • Inflicting domestic violence, such that the child becomes aware of the violence
  • Using a firearm or other weapon during a domestic dispute when the child is present

Involving in Parental/Caregiver Relations

The caregiver consistently places the child in the middle of custody and visitation disputes between caregivers, asks the child to choose sides, or exposes the child to degrading language regarding another caregiver or parent. For example:

  • Frequently uprooting the child, as custody is unclear or regularly changing
  • Drawing the child into arguments between caregivers

In addition, a caregiver may have reduced capacity for caregiving, which can also affect a child's safety.

Caregiver Capacity Concerns

For example:

  • Children living in environments where one or both of the caregivers are actively chemically addicted
  • Caregivers suffering from a mental illness, mental retardation, or physical handicap that limits their ability to protect their children, not through a lack of will, and this disability results in increased risk of harm to the child
  • Children experiencing ongoing fear of exposure to harm, because their caregivers cannot provide the protection and supervision needed to keep them safe from situations in which they may be exploited, molested, injured, or neglected

More information on psychological maltreatment can be found in The Psychologically Battered Child, written by James Garbarino, Edna Guttman, and Janis Wilson Seely. Psychological maltreatment should also be considered as a component or consequence of other forms of maltreatment (such as physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse).

As The Psychologically Battered Child (page 8) states, “Rarely does one form of maltreatment occur alone (physical abuse without psychological abuse; sexual assault in the absence of emotional threat). When one form of maltreatment does exist in isolation of others, it is likely to be psychological in nature. Rarely, if ever, does a child experience physical abuse or neglect, or sexual assault or exploitation, in a relationship that is positive and nurturing.”