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

Parenting is no easy task. Raising a child in this day and age is both challenging and intimidating.

Experiencing the occasional mishap and lapse of judgment is normal. Every parent, after all, makes mistakes.

However, to a good parent, one thing is infallible—to love and care for your child as best as you can.

It is only when you regularly and deliberately fail to do so, that it becomes abuse.

Parental abuse is a prevalent thing in the United States. According to statistics,1 in 8 U.S. children experiences 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?

Read ahead to know more.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is extremely hard to detect. However, it is similar to physical abuse in the sense that it involves control.

According to bullying prevention advocate and author Shelly Gordon:

“Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize. It can be subtle and insidious or overt and manipulative. Either way, it chips away at the victim’s self-esteem and they begin to doubt their perceptions and reality.

“The underlying goal in emotional abuse is to control the victim by discrediting, isolating, and silencing.

“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

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 with 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.

Do your parents continue to make unreasonable demands from you?

Emotionally abusive parents can display their selfishness by forcing you to meet their expectations and needs first. Even if means disregarding your health or priorities.

They may ask you to drop everything just to satisfy their own needs. They have no regard over your well-being if it means it’s going to hinder their own whims and needs.

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.

If you were always the butt of your parent’s joke, you’ve been emotionally abused. They probably made jokes on your expense just to make themselves feel and look better. And they never apologized for it. In fact, they seem to take pleasure in making fun of you.

But here’s another sign you should watch out for: you’re acting the same.

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.”

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.

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.”

Reasons behind child emotional abuse

According to 2018 statistics, approximately 55,196 children in America were officially counted as victims of child emotional abuse.

And while there is no single definite reason as to why emotionally abusive parents are the way they are, there may be several factors at play:

  • parents struggling with depression
  • substance abuse
  • caring for a child with a disability
  • partner violence in the household
  • an absent co-parent
  • poverty
  • lack of community support
  • inadequate legislation and policies supporting childcare

Emotionally abusive parents have their own reason for the way they are. However, it doesn’t justify their behavior.

Mainly, it just comes down to poor parenting skills.

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.

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.

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. 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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