Withholding is a common form of emotional abuse that takes place when a parent or caretaker withholds something valuable that the child needs-such as warmth, love, affection, attention, praise, etc. - and uses this withholding as a means of emotional control. Abuse specialist David R. Walters elaborates with an example: "probably the greatest emotionally abusive parents are middle-class Americans who withhold love or use the contingency of love to manage either children. If John brings home a report card with five As and one C the typical response of middle-class parents is not, 'How well you have done!' but, 'Why did you get the C?' This constitutes emotional abuse. ...Their children experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness." (Walters, 1975, pp. 36-37)
Having high expectations for your kids and pushing them to succeed is not emotional abuse. Nor is that what Walters was referring to. The-problem is that many parents have the tendency to keep children on a perpetual treadmill, trapped in a never-ending cycle in which the praise, affection, or love they so much desire is always held just out of reach. The other problem is that they do this in ways that imply to the child that their love is conditional: I love you when you're good, but not when you're bad. Your worth to me is dependant upon what you do and how you act. This isn't a healthy message for children, who need to know that they are unconditionally loved and that you'll still love them if they fail, or even if they do something for which you don't approve. Contrary to the beliefs of many parents, it is this environment that children thrive in anyhow. Positive motivation is always more effective than negative motivation, especially where kids are concerned.
There are also cases where this withholding is very conscious and intentional If I can withhold something from you that you so desperately want and need, then I can feel more powerful. Henceforth, certain abusive parents may purposefully withhold love or praise from their child in order to manipulate them or to get a cheap boost to their own self-esteem.
The most common form of withholding is seen by parents who make love or affection conditional. Its close cousin involves caretakers who withhold any sort of approval or praise for the child. Any approval that the child does receive is often tainted with a disqualifying negative: