There ought to be a word for when a person causes emotional damage to someone else without having any intent to harm them. Unless we have such a word, how can we account for the widespread trauma that's been caused by parents who honestly believe that they love their children, but who are ill-equipped to raise them, or are broken people themselves? Or, how can we account for teachers who believe that publicly shaming a student for falling short of the mark is truly the best way to help them learn? Or, what should we make of a person who tells someone who's struggling with having lived in a war zone to "Stop living in the past!" or "Just get over it!", believing this is the most helpful thing for them to hear?
It's true that a lot of emotional and physical trauma is the result of overt cruelty and violence. It is done "with malice aforethought." But there is a whole, more elusive world of emotional traumatization that is hard to talk about, precisely because it is not done out of overt cruelty or violence. There are as many (if not more) cases in which there is no malice behind the actions that caused the harm. Rather than acting out of cruelty or violence, the perpetrator is acting out of ignorance or even, in very misguided ways, out of care, concern, affection, or love.
Is this abuse? Or is it something else?
This kind of emotional traumatization is so difficult to talk about, because we don't have a sufficient vocabulary for it. How can we talk about something or put issues to rest unless we can name it in the first place? We have certain words like "abuse" and "neglect," but there seems to be a very important one missing. It's not exactly abuse, because there's no cruel intent. It's not neglect, because what I'm talking about is an action, not a failure to act.
Lacking such a word, we are left with only two ways to consider the causers of the trauma: as abusers, or as not-abusers. This makes it too easy to let them off the hook. Since we cannot ascribe cruel intent, it's difficult to call them abusers. And how often we hear: "Oh, they were just doing the best they could." "They just didn't know better." "That's the only way they knew to show that they cared."
For the person on the receiving end—the traumatized one—this is crazy-making. It minimizes their experience and denies their scars. It gives them no way to name what happened, to put their finger on why they feel so screwed up, and that makes them question themselves at some fundamental level: "Was it really that bad?" "Am I blowing this out of proportion?" "Am I making this up?" It can leave them feeling angry, and then mystified as to exactly why. And it leaves them with no way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of knowing that their parent or teacher or loved one cared, and yet they caused them such harm.
With a word for it, we would have a concept for it. And with a concept, we can begin to talk about it, examine it, deal with it, hopefully even start to resolve it. We have a word for the damage that is caused by it, and that word is "trauma." But "traumatization," as a word for the action, seems to be loaded with intent, in the same way as the word "abuse" is. We need something that clearly removes malicious intent from the picture.
In the legal arena, there is the term "manslaughter," which is the criminal act of killing a person that does not quite meet the criteria for "murder," because there is no malice aforethought—no intention prior to the killing—but there is still culpability for the act. The absence of intent is acknowledged, but the person in question did, by their actions, take a life. They are still held responsible for what they have done.
There ought to be a word for when a person causes emotional damage to someone else without having any intent to harm them. Let's call it "emotional manslaughter."