Emotional abuse refers to the use of psychological pressure tactics such as intimidation, humiliation, and isolation (1). When parents emotionally abuse their children, it may not leave physical scars, but it can leave invisible and permanent mental scars.
Making a child feel worthless, calling them names, constantly picking on them, neglecting them, inflicting severe punishments for minor mistakes, ignoring them, etc., are examples of child mental abuse. Such behavior can majorly impact a child’s developing mind and even alter their personality.
Emotional abuse is difficult to identify and detect. However, here are some examples and indicators of emotionally abusive parents. We also look at the consequences of emotional abuse and ways to deal with an emotionally abusive parent.
Examples Of Emotional Abuse
To identify emotionally abusive parents, you first need to understand what emotional abuse entails. The following are a few examples of emotional abuse.
- Undermining a child’s success or achievement
- Frequent criticism, humiliation, and shaming
- Belittling a child by comparing them with others
- Calling them demeaning names
- Saying they are ‘good for nothing’ or ‘useless’ or calling them a mistake
- Scolding you for minor mistakes
- Threatening of consequences when they fail to do something
- Exposing them to first hand or second-hand violence
- Refraining from physical contacts such as hugging and kissing, or any other way of showing affection
- Blaming them for anything that goes wrong
- Pushing them too hard to achieve forcefully imposed aims and targets
- Ignoring them and their needs
- Not appreciating their efforts or hard work
15 Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Parents
Let’s have a look at some of the most common signs of emotional abuse by parents to understand such behavior.
1. They are moody
Emotionally abusive parents can be unpredictable and moody. They may appear calm and loving one day and angry and cold the next day. Their constant mood swings can make a child feel like they are walking on eggshells because they do not know what might trigger their parents. This stress can cause anxiety in children at a young age.
2. They blame you for their problems
When they don’t get a promotion at work, they blame their child for being a distraction. If they have an accident, they blame the child, claiming that they were rushing to pick them up from school. Abusive parents rarely accept responsibility for their shortcomings. They always blame it on someone else. It happens so frequently that the child begins to believe that they have indeed ruined their parent’s good life.
3. They treat necessities as privileges
Some abusive parents make their children believe they are better off than other children when it is not the case. For example, they would call their children derogatory names. When a child speaks against it, the abusive parents will make necessities such as food and clothing appear to be an enormous favor bestowed on the children.
4. They serve destructive criticism
Constructive criticism is essential to children’s growth and development. Some parents, however, take criticism more seriously and use it to destroy their child’s confidence and self-worth. They are difficult to please and only see flaws in their child. Even if the child performs well in an activity, they highlight the smallest errors in their performance and not the fact that the child did well.
5. They pay no heed to emotions
Abusive parents do not value the emotions of their children. For example, if they mention an embarrassing habit of their child to their friends and the child becomes irritated or begins to sulk, they dismiss them as overly sensitive. They make fun of the child for being weak and unable to laugh at a joke.
6. They compare their child with other children
It makes no difference if their child graduates with honors. If their cousins were valedictorians, the abusive parents would not recognize their child’s achievements. If not cousins and siblings, they will compare their children with their neighbors’ and friends’ children. They will dismiss and belittle the child’s best efforts. Even the best may not be enough for the abusive parents.
7. They encourage sibling rivalry
Abusive parents tend to foster sibling rivalry in large families with many children. They make their children compete for their love and affection. As a punishment for losing, the child is frequently isolated and left alone. This not only causes resentment among children but also impacts their perception of family bonding.
8. They tease and call you names
If a child is easily startled, their abusive parents call them ‘scaredy-cat.’ If the child is short, the parents make fun of them in front of others. Abusive parents don’t think twice before bullying and teasing their children. They do it for fun and expect their children to put up with it. Abusive parents believe it is harmless to indulge in name-calling and teasing.
9. They are passive-aggressive
Passive-aggressive behavior occurs when a person appears fine on the outside but radiates cold energy from within. They try to avoid conflict. An emotionally abusive parent acts as though everything is fine and relaxed but will refuse to help or guide their children when they seek it. The child will be left wondering if they did something wrong, and the abusive parents will not give any explanation for their behavior.
10. They neglect their children
Parenting can be difficult, especially for parents who have multiple responsibilities. However, emotionally abusive parents neglect their children even if there is no plausible reason. They are often so preoccupied with their adult lives that caring for children becomes a chore for them. They not only ignore the child’s needs, but also regard them as unimportant in the family.
11. They guilt trip children too often
Most emotionally abused children have probably heard their parents say, “I gave up so much for you, and this is what I get in return.” Making a child feel guilty is a common tactic used by abusive parents. It is parents’ responsibility to provide the best possible care and make sacrifices for their children.
However, using it as a tool to get the child to follow the rules is incorrect.
12. They are present physically, not emotionally
Parents may be at home or around their children most of the time, but somehow they are not always available. It means that such parents are ignoring their children and are preoccupied with their daily chores and duties. They are either on the phone or working. They do not interact with their child and are not available for them emotionally.
13. They use their child to take revenge on the ex-spouse
If a couple is separated, their children become a commodity to be used against the former spouse. For instance, if the mother lives with a new spouse, the father will ask the child to foster mistrust between the mother and the new partner. He may ask the child to spy on the mother and get information about her. Some parents even poison their children’s minds to cause trouble for their ex-spouse. This may seriously damage the child’s perception of love and family.
14. They deny privacy
Abusive parents may intrude on your privacy or deny you the ability to make your own decisions. When parents become overly involved to the point where the child feels suffocated, it becomes emotional abuse. Such parents disregard personal boundaries and are highly critical of your decisions.
15. They force their children to be what they want
Abusive parents see their child as an extension of themselves, and they want their child to succeed in fulfilling their unfulfilled dreams. Such parents are more likely to want their children to achieve goals that they have not achieved. They do not consider what the child wants as an individual and instead force them to do what they couldn’t do for themselves.
Effects Of Emotional Abuse By Parents
According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, children subjected to emotional abuse are likely to battle mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and lack of empathy (2). The following are some health problems they are likely to develop as they grow older (3).
- Children: As children, their development process will be affected because they cannot adjust emotionally and psychologically.
- Teenagers: As teenagers, it is difficult for children who are emotionally abused to establish interpersonal relationships. They cannot trust others, nor can they deal with the complex emotions experienced in childhood.
- Adults: As adults, they cannot cultivate empathy and cannot recognize the needs and feelings of others, and thus, they might emotionally abuse their children.
The following are some emotional, psychological, and physical problems that emotionally abused children are likely to develop (4).
- Resorting to harmful coping strategies such as self-harm and nail-biting
- Suffering from mental and physical health disorders
- Battling different phobias
- Exhibiting destructive, aggressive, or anti-social behaviors
- Indulging in substance abuse
- Experiencing sleep or eating disorders
- Finding difficulty in self-expression
- Developing learning or speech disorders
- Engaging in risky sexual behavior
- Having suicidal thoughts
- Lacking self-confidence
- Showing anger issues
How To Deal With Emotional Abuse From Parents
If you notice the signs mentioned above, here are some ways you can deal with the situation.
1. Identify the pattern of abuse
First, recognize your parents’ problematic attitude or behavior as emotional abuse. Then, determine their pattern of abuse. For instance, if they are running low on finances at the end of the month, they may lash out at you in frustration. In such cases, keep your interactions with them to a minimum. If they initiate a conversation, keep your responses brief and try to leave the room when you suspect that they will start abusing you.
2. Change your reaction
As emotional abuse can harm your mental health, it is best to distract yourself. When you are yelled at for no reason, you may want to retaliate or cry but desist from doing so. Responding negatively to it can have an adverse impact on your health. Instead, leave the room and try to relax by focusing on your breathing. Take a deep breath and visualize yourself in a peaceful setting.
3. Remember it is not your fault
Even if your parents repeatedly blame you for their misfortunes in life, remember that it is not your fault. You are not responsible for their actions, regardless of what they say or how they act. It is their inner battles with themselves that manifest as abuse, and it has nothing to do with you.
4. Try to talk to them
If you have the opportunity, and your parents are in a good mood, try to speak to them. Tell them how the abuse or passive-aggressive behavior makes you feel and how you cannot deal with it. Explain to them how their actions affect your physical and mental health and ask them to change for your sake. This conversation may not be easy, but you have to do it to safeguard yourself.
5. Keep some distance from them
If they do not change even after having a dialogue, it is best to limit your interaction with them and maintain distance. Try to keep yourself busy with enjoyable activities that will keep you away from your parents.
6. Talk to an elder or a professional
If nothing else seems to be working, try talking to an elder or a teacher or seek professional assistance. They may or may not be able to change the situation for you, but they may be able to assist you in finding healthy coping mechanisms or guide you in taking care of your mental and physical health.
Emotional abuse by parents is difficult to detect, especially when you are entirely alone. Do not feel guilty for taking measures to protect yourself. If possible, try to figure out the root cause of their abusive behavior. Abuse is never justified, but try to put yourself in their shoes and consider how you would have handled the situation differently, and learn from their mistakes. And if you feel nothing works, reach out to a relative or teacher.
2. Childhood Psychological Abuse as Harmful as Sexual or Physical Abuse; American Psychological Association
3. Fact Sheet: Emotional Child Abuse; Prevent Child Abuse America
4. Understanding child emotional abuse; Kids Helpline