‘It was sort of like a globe of abuse’: A psychosocial exploration of child protection social work with emotional abuse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


This article draws on research findings from an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded PhD psychosocial exploration of child protection social work with emotional abuse. Intrafamilial harm occurs predominantly within the relationship between a parent and their child in the context of this research. Emotional abuse is a complex concept, comprising of many cumulative elements, which may include restricting a child’s psychological autonomy. Emotional abuse is not so clearly observed as other forms of parental harm, but it causes the most significant impairment. The dual overarching goals of this research was to make the less tangible aspects of work with this form of child abuse more visible, and to improve professional understandings of how to work with it more effectively. The focus of this article is to exemplify how the critical realist methodological framework and psychosocial research approach were developed to underpin the data collection and analysis processes. Psychosocial methods incorporate researcher and research participant’s use of self to explore the often deeply subjective, and undocumented process of identifying the presence of emotionally abusive behaviour. The research sought to elicit responses that enabled social workers to share their unconscious thought processes to get under the surface of everyday decision making. Sharing their ‘workings out’. This article draws on one social worker’s narrative of encountering emotional abuse to illuminate some of the professional and personal challenges the work can present. This research provides a methodological template for further research into supporting social workers in effective interventions into intrafamilial emotional abuse.
Original languageEnglish
JournalQualitative Social Work
Publication statusPublished - 19 May 2018



  • Child protection
  • critical realism
  • emotional abuse
  • professional practice
  • psychosocial

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