BACKGROUND The assessment and management of childhood emotional abuse is of increasing importance in psychiatric practice. At present there are no consensus views about the definition of emotional abuse and information from research is limited.
METHOD Information about emotional abuse from the medical, psychological, social science and legal literature is summarised. Definitions and proposed mechanisms of damage are discussed. Current research data and an overview of childhood and adult sequelae are presented. Proposals for clinical and medico-legal practice are made.
RESULTS Theoretical models of emotional abuse and its consequences are derived from theories of childhood psychological development. Empirical research is beginning to show that emotional abuse may have a profound effect on aspects of psychological development in children.
CONCLUSIONS The developmental theories and methods of assessment well established in psychiatry are useful approaches to the clinical assessment and further understanding of emotional abuse.