How to tell if you have emotionally abusive parents: 15 signs

Do you feel like you are struggling with your relationship with your parents?

Does it feel like a toxic encounter and draining every time you interact?

It is very possible to have emotionally abusive parents? But how can you tell if your parents have mentally abused you?

It’s difficult to identify emotionally abusive parents. But at its core, emotional and psychological abuse diminishes a child’s sense of self-worth or identity.

Because we naturally look to our parents for love and support, it can be hard to look deeper into this reality.

So I’ve put together the key signs to understand if your parents push past your boundaries of comfort and wellbeing, and are indeed bordering the line of being emotionally abusive. Let’s jump right in.

15 signs you have emotionally abusive parents

We’ll go through the classic signs that you have emotionally abusive parents. Then we’ll explain what you can do about it.

1) Your parents are narcissists

A classic sign that your parents are emotionally abusive, is that they exhibit narcissistic characteristics.

They will go out of their way to emotionally manipulate you. They love exercising control over their children.

It’s either to make themselves look good, or they feel loving their children is a waste of time.

This can be displayed either of two ways:

Passive-aggressiveness, withdrawal, neglect, threats;


The need for control, over-protectiveness, extremely high expectations.

Both types of emotional manipulation leave the child confused. It also causes anxiety because they don’t know what their parent is going to do next.

2) They have a pattern of verbal abuse

If your parents verbally abuse you, this is a clear sign they are also impacting your emotional wellbeing.

Parenting is a hard and oftentimes frustrating thing. That’s why you can’t really blame parents for occasionally being hard on their children.

However, one sure way to recognize emotional abuse is if it has become a pattern. Specifically, a pattern of verbal abuse.

According to Dean Tong, an expert on child abuse allegations:

“The easiest way to detect if a parent is emotionally abusing a child is listening to their chastisement of him/her and hearing words that are tantamount to denigration, and vilification of the child’s other parent in front of said child.

“It’s a form of brainwashing and poisoning of the child convincing the child the other parent is the bad guy.”

3) They experience mood swings

Everyone has mood swings. Emotionally abusive parents tend to take these moods out on their children.

And in a family dynamic, massive mood swings can determinately affect a child psychologically.

Domestic abuse expert Christi Garner of Psychotherapist Online, says:

“If a parent’s mood swings made you feel like you were always walking on eggshells and you were always nervous or scared of what would happen when they were around (even if nothing ‘bad’ ever happened), that’s emotionally abusive behavior.”

Severe mood swings tend to leave a child in an anxious state of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

4) They withhold compliments

Do your parents ever offer you compliments? If not, this can be a sign of emotional abuse.

What child has never wanted to please their parent? And what parent doesn’t like to brag about their children?

Well, emotionally abusive parents don’t like giving their children credit, especially when they deserve it.

In fact, they choose to be critical instead.

Garner explains:

“Determine if your parent was always talking negatively with you, repeatedly stating negative comments about the way you dressed, how you looked, your abilities to accomplish anything, your intelligence, or who you were as a person.”

If you’ve felt like you were never enough for your parents growing up, you might have been emotionally abused.

5) Withholding basic needs

If a parent withholds providing basic needs for their child, they are exhibiting abusive behavior.

Perhaps the worst of crimes, emotionally abusive parents may also have a tendency of depriving their children of their basic needs.

It is a parent’s job to provide food and shelter to their children. But some emotionally abusive parents don’t take up this responsibility.

For whatever reason, they just don’t feel the need to give their children even the most basic of necessities.

6) Enmeshment or parentification

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If a parent is way too involved in their child’s life, or overly providing, this can be a sign of emotional abuse.

Sometimes, parents can give too much—too much love, too much affection, too much material needs.

This kind of emotional abuse is extremely hard to detect. But one thing is certain, it creates a family dynamic where boundaries are almost non-existent.

According to psychologist Dr. Margaret Rutherford:

“There’s too much sharing or too much neediness. Children get the message that it’s not okay to be themselves—they need to stay highly involved with their parents. It can appear from the outside that everybody is very happy, but on the inside, there’s an expectation of loyalty that doesn’t celebrate individual achievement or identity, but demands control.”

7) They always expect you to put them first

If a parent puts their needs before their child’s they are fundamentally neglecting their child.

This point takes some careful consideration. You have to be clear about what you expect from your parents and how they actually are.

Rudá Iandê, the world-renowned shaman, argues that one of the most important tasks is to understand the expectations of your parents so you can choose your own path.

We can’t just detach from our parents to find our way. But we can distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable demands from our parents.

Often, emotionally abusive parents display their selfishness by forcing you to meet their expectations and needs before your own. They focus more on having their needs satisfied.

Rudá Iandê shared his story of being a father in his free video on turning frustrations in life into personal power.

He explained that he arrived at a point in his relationship with his son where he had to let him go his own way:

“There was a moment when I understood that being tough was the best I could do to my son, and trust him to follow his own path and assume his own responsibilities, instead of me supporting his weaknesses.”

So what can you do to improve your relationship with your parents?

Begin with yourself. Stop searching for external fixes to sort out your life, deep down, you know this isn’t working.

And that’s because until you look within and unleash your personal power, you’ll never find the satisfaction and fulfillment you’re searching for.

In his excellent free video, Rudá explains effective methods for forging a strong connection of real love with your children. 

So if you want to build a better relationship with your parents and yourself, unlock your endless potential, and put passion at the heart of everything you do, start now by checking out his genuine advice. 

Here’s a link to the free video again

8) They invalidate your emotions

When parents fail to recognize and validate your emotions, they are neglecting your emotional needs.

Emotional abuse is a one-way street. Abusive parents control or exercise power over their child’s emotions, but it ends there.

Have you felt like your parents always disregarded your feelings?

As if you have no right to be hurt or offended?

Did they always call you names like “crybaby” or a “weakling?”

That’s definitely a pattern of emotional abuse.

Good parents ensure their children have a healthy view of emotions.

Psychologist Carrie Disney explains:

“In a good enough upbringing, we learn that feelings can be managed, they may sometimes be scary but they can be thought through.”

Having your emotions undercut is a painful feeling. It can cause you to enter into a cycle of self-doubt and mental confusion.

9) They deliberately isolate you

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If your parents kept you away from your friends, neighbors, and family, they certainly impacted your emotional health.

Deliberately isolating you from everyone and everything is another form of emotional manipulation. It’s another way to control you.

Abusive parents will restrict their child’s social activities on the pretense of “knowing what’s good for the child.”

This can mean choosing who the child can be friends with or isolating the child from other family members.

10) They’re just simply terrifying

If you found your parents to be psychologically terrifying and were afraid to approach them, then you may have experienced emotional abuse growing up.

Your parents may not have hurt you physically, but they always terrified you enough to think that they could, if they wanted to.

Threatening to hurt, screaming, or physical intimidation are also emotionally abusive behaviors.

If they were approachable and instilled a sense of fear in you, they were not helping you to feel safe and secure around them. This type of behavior is classic abuse.

11) They tease you all the time

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If your parents teased and made fun of you growing up, they were negatively impacting your emotional health.

Yes, humor is a necessity in a healthy family environment. But never mistake excessive teasing for humor or loving behavior.

You may be being emotionally abused if you’re being teased all the time.

But here’s the key point:

If you’re worried about being teased, you need to become a much stronger person. The best way to do this is by getting angry about being teased.

Check out the short video below about dealing with your anger:

YouTube video

If you are tired of feeling frustrated and angry, it’s time to learn how to embrace your inner beast.

In this free video, you’ll learn how to take hold of your anger and turn it into personal power.

Learn more about embracing your inner beast here.

According to psychotherapist Mayra Mendez: “Individuals exposed to repeated experiences of mockery, humiliation, and demoralizing interactions learn to interact with others in the same way.”

Don’t let the cycle of emotional abuse continue in how you treat others. Take a stand and create a different life for yourself.

12) Neglect

It might not seem like outright emotional abuse, but neglect is also a classic sign of abusive parenting.

The effects of attention deprivation have immense negative impacts.

As a child, you may have felt as if you never mattered. And asking for more attention only resulted in even more neglect.

Mental Health Professional Holly Brown adds:

“This is when you express a need or a viewpoint that’s not endorsed by your parents and you feel discarded as a result. They let you know, through exclusion, that it’s not OK. This can cause you to feel that you are not OK.”

13) Constant comparison to others

Have you always been compared to your other siblings or family members, even other children? This can be a clear sign of emotional abuse.

Comparing you to others and making you feel as if you never quite measured up is not healthy parenting.

Some parents may think that it makes a child more competitive, but the effects are just the opposite.

Brown adds:

“Instead of your parent highlighting your strengths, your weaknesses were brought to the forefront in relation to the supposed virtues of your siblings.

“This is not only painful in terms of self-esteem, but it can also hinder the relationship you could have had with your siblings because it turns it into a rivalry.”

14) Invasion of privacy

If your parents went through your things, phone, or personal writing, they were impacting your emotional wellbeing.

Parents occasionally tend to snoop around their kid’s things or restrict them from locking their doors. But it’s also important to allow children to have their own privacy.

According to licensed marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar:

“A parent may ‘snoop’ at computers or cell phones or check journals or calendars to find information of the child being ‘sneaky’ or ‘suspicious.'”

“The parent will accuse a child of being sneaky, projecting on the child their own behavior.”

Invasion of privacy is a seriously painful thing to experience. If done constantly, it certainly counts as emotional abuse.

15) Anxious state

Any parent is bound to experience anxiety from time to time. Parenting is a huge and intimidating responsibility. But constantly being in a nervous and fearful state can wreak havoc on a child’s mental health.

If your parents were always in an anxious state with you, it counts as emotional abuse.

Garner explains:

“If the parent was not able to control their anxiety and leaned on their child to take care of them, they take up space that the child uses for creative play and connection.

“The heightened level of anxiety can also lead to increased levels of cortisol in the child, which has been shown to cause health-related problems later in life.”

After all, it’s a parent’s main responsibility to provide emotional security for their child as well.

How to break free from toxic family relationships

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Do your parents help you to grow and evolve in life? Or do they want you to be a sheep, subservient to their wishes and desires?

I know the pain of having negative and abusive relationships.

However, if there are people trying to manipulate you — even if they don’t intend to — it’s essential to learn how to stand up for yourself.

Because you do have a choice to end this cycle of pain and misery.

When it comes to relationships with family and toxic patterns, you might be surprised to hear that there’s one very important connection you’ve probably been overlooking:

The relationship you have with yourself. 

I learned about this from the shaman Rudá Iandê. In his incredible video on cultivating healthy relationships, he gives you the tools to plant yourself at the center of your world.

And once you start doing that, there’s no telling how much happiness and fulfillment you can find within yourself and in your relationships with your family.

He uses techniques derived from ancient shamanic teachings, but he puts his own modern-day twist on them. He may be a shaman, but he’s experienced the same problems in love and family relationships as you and I have.

His conclusion?

Healing and real change needs to start within. Only then can we improve the relationships we have with others, and avoid passing down the abuse we’ve experienced in the past.

So if you’re tired of your relationships never working out, of feeling undervalued, unappreciated, or unloved by your parents, make the change today and cultivate the love and respect you know you deserve.

Click here to watch the free video.

The impact of an emotionally abusive parent

Emotional and psychological abuse can have a lasting effect on children.

The American Psychological Associate reports that:

“Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused, yet psychological abuse is rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims.”

So what exactly are the impacts of emotional abuse from parents? Read below.

1) Adult anxiety

Uncertain environments like this cause stress and anxiety in children, which tend to stay with them well into adulthood.

Garner says:

“If your parent was overly anxious and always asking for you to help them or take care of them or their needs, the child inherits a piece of that anxiety.

“This higher level of stress while growing up causes changes in the body and brain, and can have long-term effects on health.”

If anxiety is something that you think manifests in your adult life, there are ways in which you can work to combat it. Not cure it, but get to a point where it doesn’t plague your everyday existence.

Obviously, extreme anxiety should be supervised by a medical professional.

However, as an anxious adult myself, I’ve found incorporating daily meditation practices immensely helpful in learning how to self-regulate my emotional state.

This free 20 minute guided Self-Healing Meditation is one of my current go-tos for when my anxiety starts to overwhelm me.

Whilst it’s true that you can’t unlearn the lessons of the past, you can work to learn new techniques which help you manage your emotions in the present.

Self-development is a continuous journey in which tools like mindfulness and meditation will come in immensely helpful. These help you to build a resilient frame of mind and to learn more about the relationship with yourself, and with your parents.

Click here to access the free meditation.

2) Co-dependency

Dr. Mai Stafford, of the Medical Research Council at UCL, says that while good parenting can give you a sense of security, bad parenting can result in being too dependent:

She explains:

“Parents also give us a stable base from which to explore the world while warmth and responsiveness have been shown to promote social and emotional development.

“By contrast, psychological control can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behavior.”

3) Introversion

Being restricted since childhood can lead to introversion as you grow older. A lack of social experience can lead someone to be scared of social interactions.

As such, children of emotionally abusive children tend to prefer being by themselves. They have few friends if any. And they have trouble forming new relationships.

4) Inability to develop healthy and loving relationships

Our formative years are important because they shape the social and emotional skills we require in adulthood.

For victims of emotional abuse, a lack of a loving influence, especially a parent, makes a distorted sense of love.

According to parenthood counselor Elly Taylore:

“From a counseling perspective, the way emotional abuse would show up between couples was when one partner would seek comfort from the other, but not be able to trust it, so instead of the comfort being soothing when they got it, it would actually increase the person’s anxiety and they would then push the partner away… and then seek comfort again.

“This is the adult version of the parent/child dynamic that occurs when as a child, a caregiver is also a scary person.”

5) Attention-seeking behavior

Being ignored throughout your whole childhood can lead you to become an attention-seeker. This is a result of emotional deprivation.

According to research from the University of Toronto:

“Emotions are often expressed as physical symptoms in order to justify suffering or to seek attention.”

“Emotional deprivation is the deprivation suffered by children when their parents fail to provide the normal experiences that would produce feelings of being loved, wanted, secure, and worthy.”

Breaking the cycle of emotional abuse

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Because psychological abuse typically centers on discrediting, isolating, and/or silencing the victim, many victims end up feeling trapped in a vicious cycle.

Generally, that cycle looks like this:

The victim feels too wounded to pursue the relationship any longer while being too afraid to do anything about it, so the abuser continues or worsens the abuse until something breaks.

Unfortunately, that’s usually the child’s heart.

They say, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you,” and that’s totally wrong.

Words do hurt, and their weight can leave a lasting imprint on our psyche.

Whether short-term or otherwise, the damage caused by parental emotional abuse is something most never fully recover from.

It’s natural to hope you’re wrong and to try to see your parents as flawless people.

After all, they made you so they can’t be all that bad, right? True, but living in denial can wreak havoc on your life and relationships in the future. Adults who are abused or neglected by their parents as children feel just as heartbroken.

A lot of people assume that abused kids will grow up to be abusive adults but that’s not always the case, especially when treatment is sought in time.

However, children who experience emotional mistreatment from their parents usually end up in toxic relationships or situations as grownups. The cycle seldom ends well, and for some, it can even lead to major health problems such as:

  • Obesity
  • Substance abuse
  • Heart disease
  • Migraines
  • Mental health issues

In rare cases, psychological abuse can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition is curable with therapy but it’s so severe that it interferes with your day-to-day life and has its own unique side effects, including but not limited to the following:

  • Outbursts
  • Rage
  • Contempt
  • Jumpiness
  • Negativity
  • Clinginess or isolation
  • Flashbacks

If you or someone you love is suffering from the short-term or long-term side effects of prolonged emotional abuse, seek professional help as soon as possible to prevent further psychological damage.

You should never feel ashamed of seeking therapy.

Had your parents sought help for themselves, we’d be talking about something else right now.

Dealing with denial

Knowing what emotional abuse really means and being able to see the signs is a great way to stop the cycle, but it’s impossible to get to that point when you’re in denial about your parent(s).

I get it; nobody wants to think of their mom or dad as an abusive monster.

It’s perfectly normal to see only the good in those you love. However, long-term denial of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can lead to some awfully bad things, including but not always limited to:

  • Co-dependency 

Psychological control significantly limits a person’s ability to recognize, evaluate, or regulate their own emotions.

  • Introversion 

The lack of appropriate social interaction can lead to unnatural fears and problems with making friends and/or maintaining relationships.

  • Intimacy problems 

Victims of emotional abuse have a hard time believing in or accepting genuine affection because of their distorted view of what love is (and isn’t).

  • Attention-seeking behavior 

Being ignored by a caretaker can lead to emotional debt which causes more intense expressions of self in order to get needed validation.

Denial can be an ugly thing. It will have you getting abused for years without even batting an eye. It will make you move mountains in an effort to be good enough but you will never get to the top.

But permissiveness of bad habits is the quickest way to make things worse. Whether dealing with denial of parental abuse or marital problems, it’s important to confront the problem head-on before they get out of control.

Common reasons parents emotionally abuse their children

Abuse of any kind is never okay. But sometimes, understanding why our parents act the way they do helps us heal. I know that when I started seeing my mother and father as flawed people, I was able to forgive them for some of their mistakes. Basically, it came down to poor parenting skills and both of my folks had that problem.

In 2018, it was reported that more than 55,000 American children were victims of emotional cruelty. The reasons for the abuse vary about as widely as the severity of each case, but here are the most common factors that contribute:

  • Parental depression
  • Mental illness
  • Aging
  • Substance abuse
  • Relationship drama
  • Absent co-parent
  • Domestic violence
  • Disability
  • Poverty
  • No support
  • Inadequate legislation
  • Poor childcare options

Emotionally abusive parents may have their own reasons for being cruel but that doesn’t justify their terrifying behavior. Nobody should ever experience that type of trauma because it leaves scars that nobody can see.

The truth is: your folks won’t change unless they’re ready to and you can’t heal until you’ve processed the pain.

As Laura Endicott Thomas, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists, says:

“A lot of parents abuse their children physically and emotionally because they have poor parenting skills. They do not know how to get children to behave, and they resort to aggression out of frustration.”

Step towards healing

Emotional abuse is something anyone should never experience, especially from a parent. Parents are supposed to love you and care for you.

Emotional abuse coming from such an important person in our lives will never be right and can never be justified.

The truth is, if they want to change, they will seek help. No one can convince them otherwise. And there is nothing you can do to change them if they don’t want to take the steps themselves.

If you are a victim of emotionally abusive parents, it’s important to take a step towards healing.

On top of incorporating regular meditation sessions (consider it like brushing your teeth), and the free Self-Healing Meditation I mentioned earlier, I also recommend the Love and Intimacy video by Rudá Iandê. For healing to begin, believe it or not, you need to start with yourself first.

This way, no matter whether you get closure from your parents or not, you’ll have the inner strength and self-love to overcome your painful childhood.

You can never change the past and it will always stay with you. But you can choose to do better for yourself, build a better life, and forge loving relationships.

Click here to watch the free video.

Remember: your parents do not define you. You have the complete power to create a good life for yourself.


Picture of Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.

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