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Emotional Abuse Laws: When to Seek Legal Help

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Emotional abuse may be harder to identify than physical abuse, but that doesn't make it any less harmful. Whether in the context of marriage, family, or even strangers, emotional abuse can leave lasting psychological and sometimes physical effects.

Fortunately, there are laws that can protect victims and prosecute perpetrators of emotional abuse. Here are some of those laws that you can, and sometimes must, use to protect yourself and others.

Criminal Emotional Abuse Laws

Although it was not always considered a crime, more and more states have criminalized emotional abuse. Most of these laws are included under statutes prohibiting domestic violence and abuse, child abuse, and elder abuse. And many of these laws make reporting emotional abuse mandatory in certain situations.

Domestic Abuse

After a long history of being ignored and sometimes even condoned by families, neighbors, and police, domestic abuse and domestic violence have become more public issues. And while physical assaults and batteries (especially by famous athletes) get most of the headlines, emotional, psychological, financial, and sexual abuse are also types of domestic violence and can also be illegal.

One way emotional abuse manifests itself in the domestic violence context is battered women's syndrome, which may keep many victims of domestic abuse from seeking help themselves. These victims may need outside help to break the cycle of violence. Both victims and their family, friends, and even neighbors should be aware that there are domestic violence victim resources available to report cases of emotional abuse.


Often an aspect of domestic violence, stalking can have lasting emotional impacts on victims. Unwanted pursuit, contact, and harassment can be psychologically damaging and put a person in constant fear for their own safety. Every state has criminal stalking laws, and although these statutes can vary in their specifics, stalking is a crime and you can report it to the police.

Child Abuse

Just as with domestic abuse, child abuse is not always physical in nature. Child neglect and child pornography, along with other forms of child emotional abuse, are both psychologically damaging and illegal.

State child abuse laws are extensive and include prohibitions on emotional abuse. And anyone who suspects a child is being emotionally abused should report it to the police or other child authorities.

Elder Abuse

Whether it occurs in a nursing home or in their own home, emotional abuse of elders can have tragic consequences. Elder abuse, including emotional and psychological abuse, is a crime. Emotional abuse can range from verbal threats or insults to neglect or isolation, and victims of elder abuse or their families, friends, or others who suspect abuse is occurring should report elder abuse immediately.

Mandatory Reporting

In some cases, it may be up to you to call police or otherwise report emotional abuse. But in other situations, it's not optional. Especially in cases of child abuse, doctors, teachers, social workers and others who have direct contact with children have a legal obligation to report child abuse, including emotional abuse. (In some states, everyone is a mandatory reporter when it comes to child abuse.)

Mandatory reporting may also apply in the context of elder abuse. State laws may require professionals who are in frequent contact with seniors (like employees in care facilities, medical personnel, and even clergy) to report suspicions of elder abuse. And federal law, under the Elder Justice Act, makes anyone associated with long-term care facilities that receive federal funds a mandatory reporter.

If you would like help reporting criminal emotional abuse, you can contact an experienced criminal law attorney in your area.

Civil Emotional Abuse Laws

Criminal statutes aren't the only recourse for emotional abuse. In some cases, victims of emotional abuse or their families can file civil lawsuits. Many of these lawsuits can be negligence or wrongful death claims, but most lawsuits for emotional abuse will be based on an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is an intentional tort based on conduct so awful that it causes the victim extreme emotional trauma. Emotional distress claims are difficult to prove and win, and don't apply to simple rudeness or generally offensive behavior. Instead, these cases arise when conduct is so reprehensible that the emotional effects are real, lasting, and damaging.

In order to have a successful claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a person must prove three elements:

  1. Extreme or Outrageous Conduct: Again, this is behavior that is more than merely malicious, harmful, or offensive -- the conduct must exceed all possible bounds of decency;
  2. The Conduct Was Intentional or Reckless: Careless or negligence behavior won't suffice -- the actor must intend to cause emotional distress or know that emotional distress is likely to occur; and
  3. The Conduct Caused Severe Emotional Distress: This can be the hardest to prove, but severe and lasting emotional effects like persistent anxiety and paranoia, or possible bodily harm like ulcers or headaches could show a person suffered extreme emotional distress as a result of the conduct.

Emotional abuse should not be taken lightly, and victims and witnesses of emotional abuse should seek legal help immediately. An experienced personal injury attorney may be able to help you with your case.

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