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

What does it mean to have emotionally abusive parents? And how can you tell if your parents have mentally abused you?

Parental abuse is a prevalent in the United States. According to statistics, 1 in 8 U.S. children experience neglect, emotional, or physical abuse.

In this article, we’ll discuss one form of child maltreatment—emotional abuse.

What is it? What are the implications of emotional abuse? And what are the signs of an emotionally abusive parent?

After we explain what emotional abuse is and the signs of being emotionally abused, we will explain what you can do about it.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional, or psychological, abuse is any nonphysical behavior that aims to diminish another person’s sense of self-worth or identity.

Emotional abuse is difficult to identify. It can be subtle, overt, insidious, and manipulative.

The key point is that emotional abuse chips away at the victim’s sense of self-worth. Over time, the victim may even doubt their perceptions and reality.

According to bullying prevention advocate and author Shelly Gordon: “In the end, the victim feels trapped. They are often too wounded to endure the relationship any longer, but also too afraid to leave. So the cycle just repeats itself until something is done.”

Even psychologists confirm that emotional abuse is a real threat to childhood safety.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association suggests: “Given the prevalence of childhood psychological abuse and the severity of harm to young victims, it should be at the forefront of mental health.”

Bruises and scars are one thing. But the permanent damage of broken trust, hurtful words, neglect and being unloved is something you never fully heal from.

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. Narcissism

A classic sign of a narcissistic type of parent is emotional manipulation. 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;

or

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. A pattern of verbal abuse

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. Mood swings

Everyone has mood swings. But it’s a different thing altogether when it affects children 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.”

This leaves the child in an anxious state of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

4. They withhold compliments

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 to your parents growing up, you might have been emotionally abused.

5. Withholding basic needs

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

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 expect you to choose them first

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 masterclass 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.”

In this free masterclass, Rudá Iandê offers some valuable advice on facing up to the expectations of family so you can also find your own way. This is particularly useful for people who worry about having emotionally abusive parents.

==> Check out the free masterclass on personal power here.

8. They invalidate your emotions

Emotional abuse is a one-way street. Abusive parents control or exercise power on 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.”

9. They deliberately isolate you

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

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.

11. They tease you all the time

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:

Register for our free masterclass on embracing your inner beast. 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.

Register for our free masterclass on embracing your inner beast and live a much more authentic life.

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?

Comparing you to others and making you feel as if you never quite measured up is not good 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

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.

However, 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

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.

Ideapod has recently created an extremely powerful free masterclass on love and intimacy. In it, world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê helps you distinguish between the kind of relationships that are healthy and the ones that have toxic elements so you can be empowered to make a change.

Rudá Iandê isn’t your typical shaman.

It’s true that he has spent a lot of time with indigenous tribes in the Amazon. He even sings shamanic songs and bangs his drums on occasion.

But he’s different in an important way. Rudá Iandê has made shamanism relevant for modern-day society. He has interpreted and communicated it for people like me and you.

People living regular lives.

In this masterclass, Rudá will teach you a powerful framework to free yourself from toxic relationships.

Thousands of Ideapod readers have let us know that this masterclass has had a deep impact on their personal relationships. They have learned to break free from toxic relationships by focusing on the most important relationship of all — the one they have with themselves.

Here’s a link to the free masterclass again.

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 to 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.”

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 stable base from which to explore the world while warmth and responsiveness has 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 behaviour.”

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

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 PTSD. 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 done that, 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. One thing I learned from watching Ruda Iande’s Masterclass on Love and Intimacy is that 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.

One way to break the cycle: Get angry

Do you feel guilty for being angry about your emotionally abusive parents? Do you try to repress your anger so it goes away?

If you’re like most people, then you probably do.

And it’s understandable. We’ve been conditioned to hide our anger for our entire lives. In fact, the whole personal development industry is built around not being angry and instead to always “think positively”.

Yet I think this way of approaching anger is dead wrong.

Being angry about toxic family members can actually be a powerful force for good in your life — as long as you harness it properly.

The best way to do this is to watch our free masterclass on turning anger into your ally.

Hosted by world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê, you’ll learn how to build a powerful relationship with your inner beast.

The result:

Your natural feelings of anger will become a powerful force that enhances your personal power, rather than making you feel weak in life.

You can view the free masterclass here.

Rudá Iandê’s breakthrough teachings will support you turning your anger into personal power. He’ll help you identify what you should be angry about in your own life and how to make this anger a productive force for good.

As Rudá shows us, being angry isn’t about blaming others or becoming a victim. It’s about using the energy of anger to build constructive solutions to your problems and making positive changes to your own life.

Here’s a link to the masterclass again.

If this resonates with you, then I strongly encourage you to check out this masterclass. It’s 100% free and there are no strings attached.

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.”

Takeaway

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 make the steps themselves.

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

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.

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

Notable replies

  1. Whoever wrote this article and all who believe it and use it to bash their parents needs to become a loving parent. Only then will they realize that the perfection they demand is inhuman and impossible, and they will wish their children will grant them the grace and mercy their “emotionally abusive” parents freely gave them even during the years they emotionally abused their parents with bogus accusations.

  2. Avatar for Meep Meep says:

    Your children should not be terrified of you, i get parenting is hard but the fact that basically any interaction with my parents leaves me feeling subhuman is what i hope to be a sign of bad parenting. Finding this article has made me feel a little less crazy in my house, helped me to realize that what im struggling with might not be normal and has helped me to validate some of the things that i am feeling. Im happy Susanna that you have not had to deal with or experience this, but it does not give you the right to tell others who do that they are wrong, and that their experiences and emotions are invalid. This is a real thing, some parents do suck, and mistreat their children, who “hey” are growing people with feelings, emotions, and opinions too. So snorry to burst your bubble.

  3. ^^ Thank you meep. As this article has definitely hit home for me as well. In fact, it was hard for me to even think my parents could’ve been emotionally abusive. Yet all aforementioned here were happening with me and I had no idea and that sucked. it still sucks. why I felt so much more less than everyone. why i couldn’t contain or control my emotions. Your comment Sue is clearly just based upon your experience, and good for you. Being that your defenses were up so high maybe you felt like you depict some of these characteristics (i counted 5) as a parent. to me seems like you are very easily aggravated :no_good_woman:t2:

  4. I suspect Susanna has been triggered over her parenting hence her defensive reply. No one should feel scared of their parents. I was terrified of my Mum growing up and am still codependent at 45. I felt she was only ever nice to me when I was poorly. I didn’t want children because I was afraid of divorce (my parents divorce affected me badly) and I was afraid I wouldn’t love them; only realising recently that this fear probably came from me feeling unloved. I was never told I was loved. I was never hugged by my Mum and she expected high standards of good behaviour. She was generally a very angry person who would berate and scream at you to the point of tears or ignore you to punish you. How anyone can do that to a small child is beyond me. As a teen and adult I was compared to my brother and other people who my mum felt were achieving more than me. I stayed in a job I hated because I thought it would please her and I generally put up with barbed comments and insults regarding my appearance and lifestyle choices in general as to answer back would bring even more grief. She hated my older boyfriend and I felt stuck in the middle. I believe I had my first breakdown in my early twenties due to this pressure. When my parents divorced I was scared of losing my dad’s love. He was an emotionally absent parent. My Mum married a man with anger problems and their arguing and fighting dominated our lives. I grew up knowing nothing but anxiety for one reason or another. My parents choices and behaviour have impacted me my whole life. Last year I had a suicidal breakdown after my Mum was diagnosed with cancer and I couldn’t cope with her behaviour and the truths/half truths that came out that shook my previously held perception of events that had happened during my childhood to the core. Anything I tried to discuss was met with dismissal or turned back around on me. When you choose to bring a child into the world you are responsible for their wellbeing. I wouldn’t treat an animal how I feel I’ve been treated. The sad thing is is that you still love your parents and want their love in return. It’s a terrible bind.

  5. I don’t know if you’ll see this but I think your response is very hurtful. Responding like this is okay with lighter subject matter but given the seriousness of the matter I find it out of line. I believe expressing your discomfort because you believe that the bar may be too high and that some offenses do not seem sufficient to you is fine but the way in which you did was very accusatory. I personally have had a difficult relationship with my parents and while my mother was primarily emotionally abusive my life was threatened. These signs mentioned in the article are very reflective of my experience and I hope you can be more understanding in the future and aware that a response like this is hurtful to the victims.

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Participants

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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