In my understanding, there are two types of child abuses: physical abuse and psychological abuse. For the former, we can call social worker/police to intervene. But for the latter, we cannot do anything. I heard that it's because of the privacy law. I understand the importance of privacy, but why doesn't it count the latter as equaled as the former too?

I live in Vietnam, but I think any jurisprudence has the same approach

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    What do you call 'psychological abuse'? The child of an angry parent, a pessimist, or a parent who is less intelligent than their the child? Isn't the problem that physical abuse is quantifiable, but psychological abuse isn't so easy to determine? Dec 28, 2021 at 16:41
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    I think in definitions given in the answers are enough to answer
    – Ooker
    Dec 28, 2021 at 18:04
  • 17
    In fact the legal standards on this vary significantly by jurisdiction, both in theory and in practice. Dec 28, 2021 at 19:18
  • 5
    Who is "we" here? Dec 29, 2021 at 2:43
  • 4
    @WeatherVane : there are extremists at both ends of the political spectrum who claim that it's "psychological abuse" if children are not raised according to their ideological views.
    – vsz
    Dec 29, 2021 at 11:13

3 Answers 3


This answer is based upon law. Outside the United States that law may, and indeed, is likely to, differ, as the legal analysis in U.S. law is unusual in multiple respects with regard to these issue.

The premise of the question is basically incorrect. There is not a stark legal definitional distinction between physical abuse and psychological abuse.

Child abuse and neglect are defined by Federal and State laws. At the State level, child abuse and neglect may be defined in both civil and criminal statutes. This publication presents civil definitions that determine the grounds for intervention by State child protective agencies.

At the Federal level, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) has defined child abuse and neglect as "any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm. CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), 42 U.S.C. § 5101, Note (§ 3).


This definition and other definitions were contained in the 2010 amendments to the Act, but were not codified in the United States Code's text.

State definitions very considerably, but significantly overlap with the CAPTA definition. For example, a non-exclusive list of conduct that constitutes misdemeanor or low level felony child abuse in Colorado if you engage in it includes:

you are in a position of trust in relation to the child, and

  • you participate in a continued pattern of conduct that results in the child’s malnourishment;

  • you fail to ensure the child’s access to proper medical care;

  • you participate in a continued pattern of cruel punishment or unreasonable isolation or confinement of the child;

  • you make repeated threats of harm or death to the child or to a significant person in the child’s life in the presence of the child;

  • you commit a continued pattern of acts of domestic violence in the presence of the child; or

  • you participate in a continued pattern of extreme deprivation of hygienic or sanitary conditions in the child’s daily living environment.

(The criminal child abuse statute, Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-6-401, is somewhat tricky to parse).

Some of this conduct causes emotional harm more than physical harm.

As is typical, this only moderately overlaps with the civil standard for termination of parental rights in Colorado pursuant to Colorado Revised Statutes §§ 19-3-102 and 19-5-105 which state in the pertinent parts:

C.R.S. § 19-3-102:

(1) A child is neglected or dependent if:

(a) A parent, guardian, or legal custodian has abandoned the child or has subjected him or her to mistreatment or abuse or a parent, guardian, or legal custodian has suffered or allowed another to mistreat or abuse the child without taking lawful means to stop such mistreatment or abuse and prevent it from recurring;

(b) The child lacks proper parental care through the actions or omissions of the parent, guardian, or legal custodian;

(c) The child's environment is injurious to his or her welfare;

(d) A parent, guardian, or legal custodian fails or refuses to provide the child with proper or necessary subsistence, education, medical care, or any other care necessary for his or her health, guidance, or well-being;

(e) The child is homeless, without proper care, or not domiciled with his or her parent, guardian, or legal custodian through no fault of such parent, guardian, or legal custodian;

(f) The child has run away from home or is otherwise beyond the control of his or her parent, guardian, or legal custodian;

(g) The child tests positive at birth for either a schedule I controlled substance, as defined in section 18-18-203, C.R.S., or a schedule II controlled substance, as defined in section 18-18-204, C.R.S., unless the child tests positive for a schedule II controlled substance as a result of the mother's lawful intake of such substance as prescribed.

(2) A child is neglected or dependent if:

(a) A parent, guardian, or legal custodian has subjected another child or children to an identifiable pattern of habitual abuse; and

(b) Such parent, guardian, or legal custodian has been the respondent in another proceeding under this article in which a court has adjudicated another child to be neglected or dependent based upon allegations of sexual or physical abuse, or a court of competent jurisdiction has determined that such parent's, guardian's, or legal custodian's abuse or neglect has caused the death of another child; and

(c) The pattern of habitual abuse described in paragraph (a) of this subsection (2) and the type of abuse described in the allegations specified in paragraph (b) of this subsection (2) pose a current threat to the child.

C.R.S. § 19-5-105:

(3) If, after the inquiry, the other birth parent is identified to the satisfaction of the court or if more than one person is identified as a possible parent, each shall be given notice of the proceeding in accordance with subsection (5) of this section, including notice of the person's right to waive his or her right to appear and contest. If any of them waives his or her right to appear and contest or fails to appear or, if appearing, cannot personally assume legal and physical custody, taking into account the child's age, needs, and individual circumstances, such person's parent-child legal relationship with reference to the child shall be terminated. If the other birth parent or a person representing himself or herself to be the other birth parent appears and demonstrates the desire and ability to personally assume legal and physical custody of the child, taking into account the child's age, needs, and individual circumstances, the court shall proceed to determine parentage under article 4 of this title. If the court determines that the person is the other birth parent, the court shall set a hearing, as expeditiously as possible, to determine whether the interests of the child or of the community require that the other parent's rights be terminated or, if they are not terminated, to determine whether:

(a) To award custody to the other birth parent or to the physical custodian of the child; or

(b) To direct that a dependency and neglect action be filed pursuant to part 5 of article 3 of this title with appropriate orders for the protection of the child during the pendency of the action.

(3.1) The court may order the termination of the other birth parent's parental rights upon a finding that termination is in the best interests of the child and that there is clear and convincing evidence of one or more of the following:

(a) That the parent is unfit. In considering the fitness of the child's parent, the court shall consider, but shall not be limited to, the following:

(I) Emotional illness, mental illness, or mental deficiency of the parent of such duration or nature as to render the parent unlikely, within a reasonable period of time, to care for the ongoing physical, mental, and emotional needs of the child;

(II) A single incident of life-threatening or serious bodily injury or disfigurement of the child or other children;

(III) Conduct toward the child or other children of a physically or sexually abusive nature;

(IV) A history of violent behavior that demonstrates that the individual is unfit to maintain a parent-child relationship with the minor, which may include an incidence of sexual assault, as defined in section 19-1-103 (96.5), that resulted in the conception of the child;

(V) Excessive use of intoxicating liquors or use of controlled substances, as defined in section 18-18-102 (5), C.R.S., that affects the ability of the individual to care and provide for the child;

(VI) Neglect of the child or other children;

(VII) Injury or death of a sibling or other children due to proven abuse or neglect by such parent;

(VIII) Whether, on two or more occasions, a child in the physical custody of the parent has been adjudicated dependent or neglected in a proceeding under article 3 of this title or comparable proceedings under the laws of another state or the federal government;

(IX) Whether, on one or more prior occasions, a parent has had his or her parent-child legal relationship terminated pursuant to this section or article 3 of this title or comparable proceedings under the laws of another state or the federal government.

(b) That the parent has not established a substantial, positive relationship with the child. The court shall consider, but shall not be limited to, the following in determining whether the parent has established a substantial, positive relationship with the child:

(I) Whether the parent has maintained regular and meaningful contact with the child;

(II) Whether the parent has openly lived with the child for at least one hundred eighty days within the year preceding the filing of the relinquishment petition or, if the child is less than one year old at the time of the filing of the relinquishment petition, for at least one-half of the child's life; and

(III) Whether the parent has openly held out the child as his or her own child.

The items in bold have, or could sometimes have, a significant emotional well-being component.

In practice, however, this is limited by the constitutional right to raise one's children without undue government interference in circumstances where there is not an imminent risk of serious harm, under the substantive due process doctrine dimensions of the 14th Amendment due process clause,

This is especially true when one's child rearing methods of a religious basis implicating the Free Exercise clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as incorporated against the states through the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

While these constitutional defenses can be asserted in both cases of alleged physical abuse and alleged psychological abuse, these defenses are particularly hard to penetrate in cases of psychological abuse. In particular, In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), the "Supreme Court also recognized a substantive due process right 'to control the education of one's children', thus voiding state laws mandating for all students to attend public school." It said:

We think it entirely plain that the Act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. As often heretofore pointed out, rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the state. The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.

These are sometimes described as "privacy rights" (and also include the right to legal contraception and the abortion rights of Roe v. Wade), but in this context, a "privacy right" is not the right to keep something unknown to the general public in the literal sense of the words. Instead, it is a privacy right in the less common sense of the words meaning a right to autonomy and freedom of conscience of a parent, associated with the underlying purposes of other constitutional rights that protect more literal forms of privacy.

The other issue is that there is less of a consensus concerning what constitutes psychological abuse sufficiently clearly that it is publicly sanctionable, than there is concerning what constitutes physical abuse. Striking a child for reasons other than to improve a child's behavior is usually considered physical child abuse. Intentionally undermining a child's self-esteem, in contrast, for example, can be justified in myriad ways.

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    "Intentionally undermining a child's self-esteem, in contrast, for example, can be justified in myriad ways" - I understand, but I guess psychologists have enough tools to quantify the "abusiveness" of an action?
    – Ooker
    Dec 28, 2021 at 17:44
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    @Ooker "I guess psychologists have enough tools to quantify the "abusiveness" of an action?" Not really, at least not in edge cases. For example, one man's "undermining self-esteem" is another's fulfilling a religious mandate to restrain sinful pride and instill humility. A legal determination of abuse or neglect requires a normative understanding of what is and is not proper in child rearing. Even within the academic psychology literature, however, there is no consensus on this and we usually consider these kinds of questions "to important to leave to the experts" to decide.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 17:52
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    Basically, the key issue is that parenting is embedded in culture and cultural views on what is proper are diverse. theconversation.com/… apa.org/act/resources/webinars/parenting-across-cultures.pdf
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 18:06
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    @Ooker As one random example, the school culture in South Korea is arguably abusive (it leads to mental harm, which is evidenced by the high suicide rate). But if you ask parents in South Korea, it's not abuse, it's just what they need to do to make sure their kids have a good life. npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/04/15/393939759/… Another example is to look at the past as a separate culture--things like harsh physical punishment, child labor, etc., were not considered abusive in the past, but we consider them abusive today. Dec 29, 2021 at 17:12
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    @Ooker It is also notable that in most countries there is a clear identification between the government entity and a particular "nation" (i.e. a culturally coherent majority national identity), even if there are cultural minority populations. In contrast, the self-identity of the U.S. is as a "melting pot" or "mixing bowl" with no one core "nation" which a very widely shared set of cultural assumptions (an intersubjective reality regarding norms). This division of values was true from the inception of the U.S. which had many religious dissenter communities. So it has been reluctant to presume.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 29, 2021 at 19:32

There are two parts to this question. First, when are we "allowed to intervene"? That depends on the jurisdiction: I'll pick Washington state (US) as one illustration. You don't define "intervening" and this isn't a legal concept – let me point out that saying to a parent "You are being mean to your child" is a form of intervention. I don't know of any jurisdiction where it is forbidden to tell a parent that they are being mean to their child.

Certain acts would be legally prohibited. A person cannot break in to a house and seize a child, or snatch a child from a playground, or beat up on a parent – regardless of good-intentioned rationale. Parents generally have the right to raise their children as they see fit, up to some limit established by law, and you cannot violate that right. Unilateral ordinary-citizen intervention is highly limited to defense-of-others law. Under RCW 9a.16.020, you can use force to prevent a person from getting killed or seriously injured. You cannot use force to prevent a person from getting insulted. In general, if as an ordinary citizen you can "intervene" without using force, it's legal (at least non-criminal). Use of force is highly restricted.

A person can, however, "intervene" by officially alleging a violation of the law, for example you can allege a violation of a law against abuse or neglect as defined in RCW 26.44.020. That definition includes "the negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by a person responsible for or providing care to the child", and is not limited to physical abuse. The government then takes responsibility for determining whether the purported abuse is unlawful, and the state may petition the court to order some limit on ordinary parental rights.

In such a case, the details of the alleged abuse are important. Laws (statutory and court-made) exist that prohibit serious emotional and mental harm. Not being "supportive" does not right to that threshold in the US. So it depends on what level of abuse you are talking about.

  • What count as "forcing"? Physically restraining them? Physically restraining them without their willing? Using speakers and talking out loud into their house? There are times that first people will react strongly against your action, but gradually they will change their mind, and thank you for doing so. Or there are people that while they react strongly against your action, but from the inside they just want you to keep doing that. How do we deal with such situations?
    – Ooker
    Dec 28, 2021 at 18:17
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    Force is legally seen as physical force, not metaphorical force where one says "I was forced to pay an extra $5 (because I didn't want to wait in line)". Sound waves and EM radiation do technically constitute instances of "force" at a physical level, but the law does not treat speaking as analogous to striking. Loud speakers are legally dealt with differently, as "nuisances", so you won't get arrested for assault because you spoke to a person.
    – user6726
    Dec 28, 2021 at 18:30
  • What do you think about the arguments that there are times that first people will react strongly against your action, but gradually they will change their mind, and thank you for doing so. Or there are people that while they react strongly against your action, but from the inside they just want you to keep doing that. How do we deal with such situations?
    – Ooker
    Dec 29, 2021 at 8:09
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    @Ooker There are plenty of opposing people who will say the law is too restrictive (pretty much any law, you will find people on both sides). For example, if there's some law about not letting children drink alcohol or do drugs...that means you've had to pick some age at which people are too young to do those things. But what makes people on one side of that line too young and people on the other side old enough? Pick any line you want--14...is a 15 year old able to make good decisions about alcohol? 18, why is a 17 year old too young to make reasonable decisions? Etc. Jan 3, 2022 at 14:15
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    @Ooker The UK has simply decided that everyone will have to use the same cultural standard. Not that other cultures don't exist. For example, it's perfectly legal for a school to have a uniform which prevents you from dressing too modestly: bbc.com/news/education-35413363 but also prevents you from going totally naked, which clearly infringes on both the religious freedoms of people who's religion demands they wear total body coverings and also people who's religion demands they go around totally naked. But the majority of people in Britain support school uniforms. Jan 3, 2022 at 14:23

(Although most of this applies throughout the UK).

In England, there are four categories of abuse: Physical, Sexual, Emotional and Neglect. Everyone who works with children must undertake yearly training to recognise the signs of each type of abuse, and know how to respond.

The government document that gives statutory guidance is "Keeping Children Safe in Education".

In most cases, it is not the person who identifies abuse who will intervene. Intervention will occur through agencies such as social services or the police. Each school has a designated safeguarding lead, to whom teachers report concerns of abuse. Childcare workers intervene by reporting.

If staff have any concerns about a child’s welfare, they should act on them immediately. (KCSIE2021)

There is a duty of care placed on those working with children to report all instances of suspected abuse. There is specific training that privacy (of the child or the parent) cannot be a reason to not report suspected abuse. Two particular points: A childcare worker must never promise confidentially to a child, and the GDPR (European privacy law) does not in any way prevent a childcare worker from sharing concerns with an appropriate person or agency.

[The Data Protection Act] and UK [General Data Protection Regulation] do not prevent the sharing of information for the purposes of keeping children safe and promoting their welfare. If in any doubt about sharing information, staff should speak to the designated safeguarding lead or a deputy. Fears about sharing information must not be allowed to stand in the way of the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. (KCSIE2021)

In this physical, sexual, emotional and neglectful abuse are treated the same.

There is one significant difference: Most instances of physical or sexual abuse would also be criminal offences. Hitting a child would be an assault. This would mean that a person could (for example) restrain a person that they believed was about to hit a child. This is to prevent the criminal assault. But not every instance of abuse reaches the level of criminality. Neglect, for instance, may be "failing to ensure that your child cleans themself". This is not necessarily a crime. Nevertheless, a childcare worker would have a duty to intervene, by reporting the neglect.

Whether the abuse constitutes a crime affects how a school might intervene, but not whether it intervenes:

Important considerations will include: [...] the nature of the alleged incident(s), including whether a crime may have been committed [...] (KCSIE2021)

People who are not working with children may also intervene, although there is no duty for them to do so. They may intervene in cases of physical, sexual, emotional or neglectful abuse. If a person thinks a crime has been committed, they can report it to the police. If not there are phone and internet services. Again, privacy regulations do not prevent the reporting of abuse in this context.

So your premise is incorrect, with regard to English law. There is a right and in some cases duty, to report all forms of abuse. You "can call social worker/police to intervene" for "psychological" abuse.

  • That's interesting. Why do the UK's officials not worry about cultural diversity and the right of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control, like how the US do?
    – Ooker
    Dec 30, 2021 at 11:59
  • Cultural diversity is no defence against abuse. Parents can direct and control their children, but may not abuse them in doing so. Parents can choose how their children are educated, but may not neglect their education.
    – James K
    Dec 30, 2021 at 12:20
  • So you can raise your child as Buddhist, but you may not beat, torment, rape, or starve them if they choose a different faith.
    – James K
    Dec 30, 2021 at 12:25
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    Yes, emotional abuse include "not giving the child opportunities to express their views" "such as to cause severe and adverse effects on the child’s emotional development". There is no defence of "culture". If a child is being made profoundly unhappy by their parent's rejection of the child's religious beliefs. If (for example) the parents are belittling, ridiculing, telling the child that they are worthless as a result of the child's beliefs, then that is emotional abuse, and teachers (etc) have a duty to report this. "Torment" is an example of emotional abuse.
    – James K
    Dec 30, 2021 at 15:46
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    But note that this abuse probably doesn't pass the bar of "criminality", so such abuse is more likely to be dealt with at the level of schools and social workers, rather than police and courts (although family court could get involved at some point)
    – James K
    Dec 30, 2021 at 16:01

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