Teaching Children to say “No” to Emotional Abuse Even In Sports

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 7.11.54 AM      Teachers, coaches and adults in general are confident, maybe even self-righteous, about judging children and advising them on how to be better. Generally, adults are secure in the knowledge that because we have been on the planet longer, we are automatically entitled. We’re wiser, stronger and therefore clearly in a position to evaluate, judge and recommend. Some of us may even feel that displays of outraged disappointment and disgust at children’s mistakes, false steps, and failures are necessary to teach them to be more like us. We might even feel that screaming, yelling, humiliating, berating, ignoring and shunning are all helpful tools in our educational or coaching kit to teach kids to be more like us.

But, does more time lived on the planet automatically mean a person is better, stronger, or more skilled? Does experience really equal goodness, wisdom and strength?

Not in my experience.

Being an adult, having time on the planet does not make one “good” or “strong” or a “role model.” It does not mean that a person is smarter, more athletic, more intelligent or more anything frankly. In fact, it is just as likely to make a person just the opposite: lacking in character, weaker, and an example to avoid.

However, we have a bad habit of teaching children to ‘respect their elders.’ While this is a socially noble practice in general, it can be very risky when adults are in power over children. The epithets of “good, strong, and role model” must be earned, not by years accumulated, but by conduct.

Children need to learn how to differentiate, just like they do with sexual abusers: touching can be loving and supportive or touching can be manipulative and harmful. We must teach children to trust the former and reject the latter and say “no.” Report it. Coaching and teaching can be demanding or demeaning. We must teach children to trust the former and reject the latter and say “no.” Report it.

Children should be taught that age does not automatically equal a person to trust, a person who’s safe, good, or someone to emulate. They need to be taught to stand up for their rights and all children’s rights to safety, fairness, and respect. The second a teacher or coach is degrading or humiliating them, or any child, they need to speak up and recognize it as wrong and hurtful. We must teach them to say “no” to emotional abuse just as we teach them to say “no” to sexual abuse.

While emotional abuse is starting to be less acceptable in the classroom, it appears to still be condoned in far too many sports regardless of a great deal of research that documents that it is extremely harmful especially to children.

Many studies document that emotional abuse experienced in childhood produces more anxiety and depression, presently rampant in our youth populations, than does physical and sexual abuse. In their work on emotional abuse in sports, University of Toronto experts, Gretchen Kerr and Ashley Stirling discovered the following:

“Previous research on emotional abuse in the parent–child relationship has reported that emotional abuse can be harmful to a child’s wellbeing due to the debilitating developmental effects and life-long implications (Jellen, McCarroll, & Thayer, 2001). The experience of emotional abuse from parents in childhood has been found to have serious implications for the child’s mental health and psychosocial functioning (Jellen et al., 2001), and has been suggested to correlate more strongly with depression and anxiety compared with other childhood traumas including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect (Kent & Waller, 1998).”[1]

There is a perpetual refrain from educational administrators that trying to identify “emotional abuse” is complex and difficult. The following 2013 article based on a study conducted at the University of Toronto is as clear in its definition of emotional abuse as it might be for physical or sexual abuse. Moreover, the study documents research into emotional abuse that dates back more than twenty-years. Emotional abuse in sports is not a new concept nor is it difficult to define:

“Emotional abuse is defined as a pattern of deliberate non-contact behaviors within a critical relationship between an individual and caregiver that has the potential to be a harmful critical relationship, also referred to as a caregiving relationship, is a relationship that has significant influence over an individual’s sense of safety, trust, and fulfillment of needs (Crooks & Wolfe, 2007). An example of a critical relationship in sport is the relationship between the coach and the athlete. In the sport environment, the coach may play the role of the caregiver, as he/she may be entrusted with ensuring the safety and fulfillment of many of the athlete’s physical and emotional needs. This is especially true at the higher levels of sport, where athletes may spend more time with their coach than their own family (Donnelly, 1993). Ways in which athletes may experience emotional abuse within the coach–athlete relationship include: through physical behaviors (e.g. throwing objects, punching walls), verbal behaviors (e.g. ridicule, belittlement, name-calling, humiliation), and the denial of attention and support (e.g. intentionally ignoring the athlete or refusing to provide adequate feedback) (Stirling & Kerr, 2008). Previous research has indicated that emotionally abusive coaching practices exist in sport (Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Stirling & Kerr, 2007, 2008). And investigations of abuse in the coach–athlete relationship suggest that emotional abuse may be the most frequently occurring form of abuse in the sport environment (Kirby, Greaves, & Hankivsky, 2000).”[2]

Emotional abuse of student-athletes by coaches was being studied and defined as far back as 1993. Administrators and educators—in the classroom and on the court or field—must be well versed in how to protect children from all forms of abuse ­– be it physical, sexual, or emotional. It is incumbent on adults, especially those in caregiver positions, to be informed, and educated, about all aspects of child development.

Teach children to say “no” to emotional abuse, even, or especially in sports.

[1] Ashley E. Stirling and Gretchen A. Kerr, “The perceived effects of elite athletes’ experiences of emotional abuse in the coach–athlete relationship.” The International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 11.1, 2013: 87-100.

[2] Ashley E. Stirling and Gretchen A. Kerr, “The perceived effects of elite athletes’ experiences of emotional abuse in the coach–athlete relationship.” The International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 11.1, 2013: 87-100.


About Jennifer Fraser PhD

I am an author and educator. My latest book Teaching Bullies tells the story of 14 students who came forward to report on the verbal, emotional and some physical abuse at the hands of their teachers. How they were treated by school administrators, lawyers, and educational authorities is cause for alarm. The story is grounded in psychological, psychiatric, neuroscientific and sports journalism. It is a call to action for all those who want to protect children from bullying especially when it's done by teachers and coaches.
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