Silent Bystander Parents (SBP) do not intend to allow their children to be harmed by coaches. Research tells us that many families are not even aware that abuse is occurring. The emotional abuse happens right in front of them, and they often do not realize the emotional and mental damage it is having on their children, sadly. In pt.2, I write about what types of behavior are most prevalent in coaches when they are emotionally abusive.

“Emotional abuse refers to a pattern of deliberate non-contact behaviors by a person within a critical relationship role that has the potential to be harmful to an individual’s well-being” (Stirling & Kerr, 2008, p.178). Non-contact, in this definition, is challenging to communicate with parents. The concept of emotional abuse for many parents suggests behavior that involves the coach contacting their players. The violence only occurs when a coach grabs the athlete after she gave up a home run. The fact is, however, even side comments made by a coach can change the emotional health of that athlete. Stirling et al. (2008) also point out that silence from coaches displays emotional abuse. The attention and nurture that a child requires are far greater. The dehumanization in youth sport must stop.

For a relationship between a coach and her athlete to be referred to as emotionally abusive, the following criteria must be met (Stirling & Kerr, 2008, p.178).

  • Behavior from a coach that resembles spurning, terrorizing, belittling, exploiting, humiliating, or denying emotional responsiveness suggests a child experienced emotional harm.
  • The pattern of emotional abuse occurs frequently.
  • The behaviors occur within a critical relationship in which the coach has great influence over the athlete’s safety, trust, and fulfillment of needs.
  • This relationship is like the parent-athlete relationship, in nurture and respect.
  • The behaviors are deliberate: the behaviors are intentionally directed at the athlete.
  • And the harmful behavior is non-contact in nature.

Coaches, first off, manipulate the coach-athlete relationship in order to gain the trust of the athlete and family. I have seen instances where coaches create a nurturing environment for the athlete and the family to ensure the family fully trusts the coach. In an instance, access continues to grow to the athlete because the SBP understands the coach-athlete relationship to be healthy and safe. If the coach goes out of his way to ensure a close connection with the family, a high level of alertness should be evoked around the nature of the relationship between the coach and the athlete. At some point, the SBP perceives the coach-athlete relationship to be private enough where they are not able to voice opinions about the nature of the behavior from the coach. SPB, therefore, be alert for warning signals given to you by your children. They may not speak much, but their silence is also a response.

Stirling et al. (2008) conducted a study where they interviewed a group of parents to look into their experience after watching their children emotionally abused. The findings are moving. In short, many parents voiced their pain and suffering after retelling their stories about the state their children were in after being emotionally abused by a coach. The parents, Stirling et al. point out, felt powerless to do anything because the coach possessed the power in the relationship; the fear the parents also had was potentially causing their child to lose their spot on the team if they did speak out against the coach. These coaches use their past success to manipulate SBPs to ensure they get complete compliance from them. The target is the child, not the parent, in the end. 

From a different angle, the child is susceptible to peer pressure. Let me explain. The child, between the ages of 6-12 (Erikson, 1958), begins to desire social acceptance from peers and non-parent adults. This is what we refer to as a critical time for relationship building. In this time, coaches begin to learn with intent that children desire acceptance from coaches and peers more than from their parents. Sadly, coaches intently take advantage of this developmental stage in children. Trust comes at a price for our kids in sport, tragically. SBP, trust yourself to make sure you know your child well enough, so she comes to you when she is hurt.

SBP, you have the complete right to pull your child out of the elite sports culture you allowed them into. Despite the pressure and negativity, you are in control of your child’s life, not their coaches. You are never to feel like you are wrong for questioning the authority of any coach, regardless of their prestigious past career success. You are never wrong for defending your child’s well-being, even though you may be wrong sometimes. Make mistakes by trying to do something rather than experiencing the pain of knowing you could have done something, in the end.

Be the voice that your children desperately need during these oppressive times in youth sport.

Guest Post Disclaimer: Any and all information shared in this guest blog post is intended for educational and informational purposes only. Nothing in this blog post, nor any content on, is a supplement for or supersedes the relationship and direction of your medical or mental health providers. Thoughts, ideas, or opinions expressed by the writer of this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of CPTSD Foundation. For more information, see our Privacy Policy and Full Disclaimer.