New Data Shows Emotional Abuse Increased Among Teens During Pandemic

Stanford Medicine child psychologist provides guidance on how to help teens and families manage stress. 

In recognition of April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, staff at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford planted several blue pinwheels around the hospital’s entrances. The pinwheels represent the importance of families and communities working together to strengthen families to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Blue pinwheels in a garden

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shines a light on why. Over the last year of the pandemic, more than half of U.S. high school students (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home.

Hilit Kletter, PhD, a Stanford Children’s Health child psychologist at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, explains emotional abuse involves attempts to frighten, control, or isolate the victim through actions like criticism, name-calling, shaming, manipulation, rejection and invalidation.

“It can be just as damaging as other forms of abuse and increases the risk for posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance use and chronic health conditions,” Kletter says. “It may also result in feelings of worthlessness, difficulty regulating emotions, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, and difficulty with trust and forming relationships.”

What can you do?

The last two years of pandemic uncertainty and school shutdowns took away people’s normal support systems, likely contributing to increased parental stress levels. In her own practice, Kletter has seen the pandemic exacerbate stressors that were already there. To manage stress in healthy ways, Kletter suggests the following for caregivers:

  • Monitor your own feelings. If you feel stressed, take space to calm down before interacting with your child.
  • Have your own coping plan for how you will deal with stress. That can include getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising, having work-life balance, and connecting with family and friends.
  • Create a list of things that help you feel relaxed.
  • Identify a support system of other adults with whom you can share your concerns.
  • If the stress is starting to take a toll on your emotional well-being or functioning, seek professional help. 

For teens, the best thing to do is to seek support. Find a trusted adult, such as a teacher, guidance counselor, coach, primary physician, or other trusted adult to confide in. It might also help to speak with a mental health professional.

“One of the factors, especially with emotional abuse, is feeling like you’re all alone,” she says. “So, finding somebody who can guide you if you’re experiencing significant distress is critical for support.”

Other resources

“By recognizing the signs and raising awareness, as a community, we can play a role in preventing abuse,” Kletter says. “Part of that involves becoming familiar with the support systems that are available to those experiencing emotional abuse.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship abuse in any form, there are national resources for families and places to report concerns:

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