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Childhood emotional abuse is amongst the most damaging for mental health and cases are on the rise

Childhood emotional abuse is amongst the most damaging for mental health and cases are on the rise


Jet James was eight when his mother was violently killed by his father. His journey back from childhood trauma led him in an unexpected direction.

Jet James’ childhood memories are chequered with flashes of breaking into houses with his dad and sitting on drugs during police raids.

But, he says, the enduring memory is one of love.

“I remember a lot of love from my parents, but I also saw a lot of things.”

Artist Jet James with his work
Jet James remembers a childhood of trauma and of love.()

He was the child of Angie King, a 60s-era muse who was once married to Eric Burdon of The Animals, and War.

The marriage lasted less than two years.

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In rock’n’roll annals documenting the time, the model was reportedly linked to Jimi Hendrix, and briefly, Michael Hutchence.

But the rock star life had its pitfalls and as she bounced between boyfriends, she developed a drug problem.

By the time the flower-power era ended, Angie had moved to Australia to be near family.

It was during this time in the 80s that she settled with Jet’s father, Steven Blurton, in the suburbs of Perth.

The de facto partnership was marked by drug use and jail time as Angie made repeated attempts to get clean.

Jet with his father Steven Blurton
Jet with his father Steven Blurton and mother Angie King as a child()

Jet has more than one memory of coming home to an empty house or calling an ambulance after his mother overdosed.

He was also enlisted by his father as an assistant in crime.

“I was breaking into houses with my dad. He’d get me to climb through windows,” Jet said.

“It was quite confronting, but it was normal because that was just how life was.”

Artist Jet James as a child
Jet and his sister were caught in the middle of a bitter break-up of their parents.()
Jet James as a child
Helping his father commit crimes was a regular feature of Jet’s childhood.()

Then at age eight, his father Steven stabbed his mother to death in a drug-fuelled argument.

The argument began when Angie forgot she’d left Jet at an arcade to go to the pub. 

She then accused, her now-estranged partner, Steven of taking Jet.

“I didn’t know where she was. I just cried on the street,” Jet recalled. 

Newspaper clippings of the trial
Newspaper clippings show Steven Blurton was convicted of manslaughter for stabbing Angie King.()

Eventually police came to his aid and Jet remembers having to walk them to his house because he didn’t know his address. 

There he found his home in disarray and he knew something terrible had taken place.

“I hadn’t realised the full extent of what had happened. It just sort of snowballed.”

Jet’s father was convicted of Angie’s manslaughter and served two years.

Newspaper reports from the time suggest Angie chased Steven into the street with a knife and Steven stabbed her during a scuffle.

Jet was sent to live with relatives on a remote station in Far North Queensland.

After being released from prison Steven took his own life.

While no one ever laid a hand on Jet his exposure to family violence left him with a “heaviness” that stayed with him for decades.

Jet James as a child
Jet James was eight when he was abandoned in Perth’s city centre.()

“When you’re an orphan as a child you do feel like a profound sense of loneliness,” Jet said.

“I hated my dad for a long time.”

On top of the traumas permeating Jet’s young life, what he experienced is also known as emotional abuse.

And while his is an extreme example, figures show emotional abuse of all types is on the rise.

‘I wish you’d never been born’

Dr Divna Haslam from Queensland University of Technology has studied emotional abuse and said it includes any pattern of insulting, humiliating, rejecting or withholding affection from children.

“Parents saying to children things like, ‘I wish you’d never been born. I don’t love you’,” she said.

Dr Haslam co-authored the landmark Australian Child Maltreatment study which shows 34.6 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds have experienced some form of emotional abuse as a child.

The study also found the rates were higher compared to previous generations. 

The study counted exposure to domestic violence separately, finding 43.8 per cent of young people had been exposed to some form of it from their parents or carers as a child – far higher than the national average which takes in older generations.

Dr Divna Haslam
Dr Divna Haslam from Queensland University of Technology co-authored a landmark study measuring emotional abuse.()

“It was devastating to see these numbers and to see how widespread emotional abuse is in Australian society,” she said.

The ABC has collected figures from child protection agencies around the country that paint a troubling picture of just how widespread emotional abuse has become.

States include exposure to family violence in their figures, whereas in the maltreatment study they were counted separately.

The Victorian child protection agencies did not provide data to the ABC and Tasmanian authorities only provided the number of substantiated cases.

However, the available figures show that reports to authorities from people like teachers, doctors and police are on the rise, as are reports that ultimately get investigated and are substantiated.

It’s a picture Dr Haslam said is likely the “tip of the iceberg”.

Emotional abuse is a type of “adverse childhood experience” which has well-established links to mental health issues

Dr Haslam said rising rates of this type of abuse might in part explain an explosion of teen mental health issues.

“There’s no doubt that the presence of emotional abuse has a significant impact on the development of mental health disorders,” she said.

Their research found that emotional abuse on its own was one of the most damaging forms of abuse. 

It was associated with higher rates of suicide, self-harm and substance abuse.

“I think parents generally think that it’s not really that harmful. I’m just angry. But these figures show there are dramatic impacts,” she said.

Emotional abuse can impact mental health
Young people can be damaged by emotional abuse.()

“It’s really that rejection from someone who’s supposed to love them more than anything else that’s most damaging.

“The message that these actions show children is that they don’t matter. Then they internalise those beliefs and that triggers a cascading impact of harm.”

Dr Haslam said it was crucial parents realised that how they spoke to their children significantly impacted their mental health.

“We need to be getting that message out there to parents that it’s not okay to call children names, even in jest.”

‘I felt like less of myself’

Teresa holding a remote control
Teresa* says she’s now in control of her life after overcoming a childhood of emotional abuse.()

Sydney teen Teresa* knows how isolating it can feel to have an emotionally abusive parent.

The 21-year-old, who is from a Greek background, endured years of insults from her mother, who she believes favoured her brother.

At times her father would echo the behaviour, while other times she said he was painfully indifferent.

For Teresa, family fights were a regular feature of her childhood.

She said a lot of her mother’s abuse centred on her looks and what she ate.

“She used to call me a fat slut. And then she told me to finish my food on the plate if I couldn’t eat it anymore.

“It’s just all that f**king with my brain.”

She said the abuse led her to become an angry adolescent who turned to marijuana to cope.

“I remember flipping chairs and tables on teachers. I remember hitting kids for nothing.”

A car wheel
Teresa now has a car and a job.()
Teresa's car key
For Teresa getting a car represents her new found independence away from her parents.()

Only now is the young woman rebuilding her life away from the taunts of her immediate family.

She’s taking control and has a car and a job on her own terms, but the scars of the abuse remain.

“My parents, the two people that are supposed to love me, just made me feel like less of myself.”

What’s causing the rise? 

Dr Haslam said experts think factors such as social stressors, the economic climate and lack of services are likely to contribute to emotional abuse.

In Queensland, the Department of Child Safety said the rising cost of living was adding to an increase.

“Sadly, we know families are under increasing pressure and facing complex issues including domestic and family violence, cost-of-living pressures and drug and alcohol misuse,” a spokesperson said.

In New South Wales this chart shows just how steep the rise in reports of emotional abuse has become.

Dr Haslam said it was important to remember emotional abuse didn’t occur in a vacuum and affected all levels of society.

“It occurs when parents are stressed, when their own needs are not met, when there are other substance issues going on,” she said.

“What this tells us is we really need to better support parents.”

Parenting programs are one solution but in Australia there’s just one program that’s free and universally available to all parents and it’s only offered online.

National Children's Commissioner Anne Hollands
National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollands says parenting programs should be normalised and widely available.()

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollands said there was a shortage of programs that struggling parents would trust.

“It’s a bit of a postcode lottery as to what’s available to you in terms of support for your parenting,” she said.

“Some parents say to me they worry that if they ask for help, their children will be removed. These are realities that we need to be considering.”

‘I was in a spiral’

Artist Jet James with his works
Jet at his Yeppoon gallery.()

When Jet went to live with family in Queensland, there was no support to help him cope with the trauma of losing both his parents or what he witnessed in their care.

Jet James on a horse
Jet was sent to a remote station to live with relatives.()

“I realised I wasn’t really dealing with the things that had happened,” he said.

As a teen he suffered bullying and for a time he fell in with the wrong crowd, turned to drugs and had minor runs in with the law.

“I was in a spiralling sort of mess,” he said.

Jet finds his saviour

Jet James with a painting
Jet discovered his love of painting while living on an isolated station in Far North Queensland()
A young Jet James
Jet as a young artist()

For Jet the isolation of life on a remote station gave him time to hone his art.

He’s now an award-winning artist who runs his own gallery in Yeppoon in Queensland.

Jet James is optimistic about the future.
Jet James is now a successful artist but says the grief of losing his parents will stay wife him for life.()

“Art became my way of channelling all that grief and all that trauma.”

Jet said over time he found a way to forgive his father who had his own mental health issues.

“I want to pull my socks up a little bit and make them both proud.”

Work by artist Jet James
Jet is now an award-winning artist.()
Jet James artworks
Jet’s artwork channels his childhood trauma.()
Artist Jet James portrait of a woman
Artist Jet James work helps him process the death of his mother at the hands of his father.()

“I feel like art’s a great way for me of honouring Mum and having a way of showing all that unexpressed love that I have for her,” he said.

*Name has been changed for legal reasons.

Mental health disorders among young people have soared by nearly 50 per cent in 15 years. The ABC is talking to youth, parents, and researchers about what’s driving this pattern, and what can be done to turn things around.

Credits

  • Reporter and digital production: Alison Branley
  • Photos: Russel Talbot and Billy Cooper



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