Child emotional aggression and abuse: Definitions and prevalence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Research on and intervention for child emotional abuse and emotional aggression toward children have been severely hampered because there have been no agreed-upon, clinically usable definitions. Methods: We have (a) proposed and field-tested a set of criteria to operationally define child emotional abuse for clinical settings and (b) used these criteria to design a parent-report measure of parental emotional aggression and child emotional abuse that could be used in research. In this paper, we review the development and field trials of these criteria for making substantiation decisions. Results: Agreement between master reviewers and field decisions was extremely high in a 5-site development trial (96% agreement, κ= .89) and a 41-site dissemination trial (90% agreement, κ= .73). We compare these criteria to other research criteria in the literature. We then present data collected using a self-report measure designed to parallel these criteria from an anonymous online survey of US Air Force personnel and their spouses. The final sample (N= 52,780) was weighted to be representative of the United States civilian population. The prevalence of parents' emotionally aggressive acts was much higher than the prevalence of emotional abuse (acts plus impact), but rates of parents' acts of emotional aggression were lower than those typically reported in the literature. Additional analyses tested for differential effects due to gender of perpetrator (i.e., mothers or fathers), age of victim, and clustering within families. These factors did not drive rates of aggression or abuse. Conclusions: In sum, the criteria developed and proposed appear to support reliable clinical decision making regarding child emotional abuse and can be translated to research survey tools that better capture the continuum of parents' emotional aggression and child emotional abuse than the measures that are currently available, advancing the state of the science with respect to child emotional abuse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)783-796
Number of pages14
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2011


  • Child emotional abuse
  • Child maltreatment
  • Criteria
  • Prevalence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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