What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is any type of abuse that involves the continual emotional mistreatment of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare, humiliate, isolate or ignore a child.

Emotional abuse is often a part of other kinds of abuse, which means it can be difficult to spot the signs or tell the difference, though it can also happen on its own.

Emotional abuse from parents

Examples of Emotional abuse from parents

humiliating or constantly criticising a child

threatening, shouting at a child or calling them names

making the child the subject of jokes, or using sarcasm to hurt a child

blaming and scapegoating
making a child perform degrading acts

not recognising a child’s own individuality or trying to control their lives

pushing a child too hard or not recognising their limitations

Exposing a child to upsetting events or situations, like domestic abuse or drug taking

failing to promote a child’s social development

Not allowing them to have friends,
persistently ignoring them

being absent,
manipulating a child.

Never saying anything kind, expressing positive feelings or congratulating a child on successes

Never showing any emotions in interactions with a child, also known as emotional neglect.

Emotionally Abusive Parents

Physical abuse — what many of us think of when we hear the word “abuse” — is sometimes easier to recognize or understand, as many signs of emotional or psychological abuse can fly under the radar and may be dismissed as circumstantial or as a particular parenting type. However, this is not the case; emotional abuse can leave significant lasting damage, and it is more than worth addressing.

While it can be difficult or even painful to recognize that you may have emotionally abusive parents, it’s important to learn some of the signs to potentially move forward with your life or to develop an increased awareness of the patterns your parents may have instilled in you earlier on in life.

Why Emotional abuse not Easy to Recognize

Your abusive parent might even think they’re doing the right thing or believe that their behavior is “tough love.” Some people might excuse abusive behavior based on what that parent has been through, implying that being a single parent or having been abused themselves might be why they perpetuate abusive behaviors.

As with other abusive behaviors, the cycle of abuse is also part of what can make emotional abuse so difficult to recognize in your own life. Your mother might act loving and kind in one moment, and the next time you talk to her might be completely different. She may even apologize for her hurtful behavior. This can be especially confusing and hurtful — you may want to believe that she’s sorry and forgive her. But without taking real steps towards changing her behavior or seeking professional help, these good patches are just antecedents to continued abusive behavior.

If you try to confront her about her behavior, she may do a great job of explaining it away or even making you feel like you’re the one that has a problem. She could be so convincing that you end up feeling like maybe it is your problem and not hers. This is emotional abuse. Being able to recognize it and spot it in your own life is the first step to getting the help you need. This can be especially difficult if you have lived like this for years.

READ ALSO: EMOTIONAL ABUSE FROM PARENTS, WAYS TO DEAL WITH EMOTIONAL ABUSIVE PARENTS

Signs of abusive parents

The parent-child relationship is typically considered one of the most naturally and unconditionally loving bonds in our day-to-day lives, so abuse from a parent is not only unexpected but extremely harmful. From childhood well into adulthood, we expect that our mothers will always have our best interests at heart, that she will act to guide us, or that she will know the appropriate emotional boundaries to maintain. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is not always the case, and sometimes it can take time for children of emotionally abusive parents to realize what ways exactly in which they were abused.

1* The Parent Doesn’t Apologize

Pretty much every parent will snap at their kids occasionally. But emotionally abusive parents consistently refuse to apologize or recognize that their actions were harmful, Lovell says. Instead of “Oof, I was angry and shouldn’t have yelled like that, I’m sorry,” emotionally abusive parents are more likely to tell their kids that they’re being ridiculous for crying, their reactions are dramatic, or they’re oversensitive.

It’s tempting to sit there and say, “Well, my parents apologized all the time after something bad happened — so it must not have been abusive.” But Lovell says that it’s not that simple. Emotionally abusive parents “lack the willingness to acknowledge their actions and/or the impact of their actions,” he explains. This means that even though they might apologize with words, they don’t follow up by changing their behavior. This dynamic isn’t exclusive to parents: remember the when your best friend told you they were really sorry for telling everyone you had a crush on that girl in gym class? Their apology probably tracked much better if they never did it again, versus if they did the same thing the next day.

Example of emotional abuse from parents

2* The Child’s Emotions Are Invalidated

The first rule of emotionally abusive households is often that emotional exchange is one-way. Children’s own emotions are not relevant or are seen as competitive to the emotions of the parent who’s abusive.

Emotionally abusive parents often won’t acknowledge their kids’ emotions without criticizing them, parents may cause big emotional displays over normal, everyday things — for example, calling a kid stupid because they tripped over the carpet — while accusing their kids of overreacting if they cry or get angry in response to the parents’ rage. Because of that dynamic, kids can grow up with a distinct sense that their emotions aren’t real or valid.

In emotionally abusive situations, children are faced both by the overwhelming and problematic emotions of others, and by the sensation that their own feelings and thoughts don’t necessarily matter — and so they don’t develop the capability to deal with or recognize their own emotional life in details.

3* The Parent Isolates The Child

“Emotional abuse includes behaviors by caregivers that includes verbal and emotional assault such as continually criticizing, humiliating, belittling or berating a child, as well as isolating, ignoring, or rejecting a child,” Isolation is a key part of an emotionally abusive parent’s arsenal, whether it’s done as a way of “shielding” the child (what Battle refers to as “being overly protective”) or as an attempt to prevent the rest of the world from witnessing what happens within the parent-child relationship.

A child who’s restricted from interacting with others is often suffering from their parents’ excessive control, even if it’s stated as “for their own good. Enforcing silence and secrecy about what goes on in the home might look like restricting extracurricular activities; not allowing time on the phone; and severely restricting social media. Sure, most parents have some types of rules limiting their kids’ interactions on social media, in abusive situations, these forms of isolation are all about “protecting others’ views of the family.” That way, the parents won’t be held accountable and the status quo can stay the same.

Signs your parents are abusing you emotionally

Signs of emotional abuse
There might not be any obvious physical signs of emotional abuse or neglect. And a child might not tell anyone what’s happening until they reach a ‘crisis point’. That’s why it’s important to look out for signs in how a child is acting.

As children grow up, their emotions change. This means it can be difficult to tell if they’re being emotionally abused. But children who are being emotionally abused might:

seem unconfident or lack self-assurance
struggle to control their emotions
have difficulty making or maintaining relationships
act in a way that’s inappropriate for their age.
The signs of emotional abuse can also be different for children at different ages.

1* She Won’t Allow You To be Yourself

Emotionally abusive parents often prioritize having control over their children over nurturing their growth, including the growth of their individuality. This means that they will not only demand that their kids behave in ways that reflect their interests and priorities as parents, but that they may also harshly punish their children for behaving in a way that seems foreign, unique, or otherwise distinct from what they’re used to.

For many narcissistic parents, their children are an extension of themselves rather than their unique being. Your mother may have forced you to do activities that she liked, dress the way she did, or behave exactly as she did.

READ ALSO: EFFECTS OF EMOTIONAL ABUSE, LONG AND SHORT TERMS EFFECTS, HOW TO COPE WITH EMOTIONAL ABUSE

2* Her Responses Are Erratic and Inconsistent

When your mother never responds to the same behaviors, it can be extremely hard to know what to expect out of her or to know how you should behave. If you make a small mistake, she might be kind and forgiving, or she might be angry and spiteful. These mood swings can make it hard to know what to expect from your relationship or even know what footing you’re on.

Erratic responses to a child’s behavior can signify emotional instability in an emotionally abusive parent. They can leave the child feeling that their parent could blow up at any moment — as though they’re walking on eggshells in their own home. The anxiety can have long-term effects and lead to mental health problems later in the child’s life.

Signs of abusive parents

3* She Gives You The Silent Treatment

Another sign that your mother is emotionally abusive is if she gives you the silent treatment. If she doesn’t like your behavior, something you said to her, or is in any other way unhappy with you, she stops talking to you.

The silent treatment is another way to make you feel guilty, and it compels you, her child, to make the first move in reaching out to make things right (even if you didn’t do anything wrong). Not only is it completely maddening to deal with — after all, who wants to have to guess why someone else is angry? It can also lead to problems as young adults, with romantic partners as we learn that passive-aggressive communication styles are acceptable ways to talk to our partners or for them to talk to us.

READ ALSO: VERBAL ABUSE IN A RELATIONSHIP

4* She Uses Guilt To Manipulate You

Emotionally abusive mothers are particularly adept at putting guilt trips on their children. Their passive-aggressive language can make their tactics harder to spot and give them plausible deniability about the way they’re attempting to make you feel, which can make this behavior hard to spot.

She might say things like, “Well, if you stopped by more often…” or “My friend’s daughter calls her every morning to check in on her.” She might have a way of making comments that appear to be harmless on their face, but which might leave you feeling guilty like you’re doing something wrong. These comments may be a type of emotional manipulation.

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