15 Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Parents And How To Deal With Them

Image: Shutterstock


Emotionally abusive parents could leave invisible mental scars that can sometimes last lifelong. Emotional abuse is the psychological pressure they use on children to get their work done. It could be isolation, humiliation, and intimidation (1). Some examples of abusing a child mentally are calling them names, inflicting severe punishments, constantly picking on them, making them feel worthless, neglecting, and ignoring them.

Such behavior could impact their growing minds and bring drastic changes in their personality. However, it’s pretty difficult to identify it and work over it. But our post will help you understand the signs of emotionally abusive parents, its side effects, and how to deal with such a situation.

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 them for minor mistakes
  • Threatening them with dire consequences if they fail to do something
  • Exposing them to first hand or second-hand violence
Emotionally abusive parents expose children to violence

Image: iStock

  • Refraining from physical contact such as hugging, 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 their child 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 that is not the actual case. For example, they call their children derogatory names. When a child speaks against it, the abusive parents will make necessities, such as food and clothing, appear as enormous favors bestowed on the children.

4. They serve destructive criticism

Constructive criticism is essential to children’s growth and development. Some parents, however, use criticism as a weapon to destroy their child’s confidence and self-worth. They are difficult to please and see only flaws in their child. Even if the child performs well in an activity, they highlight the smallest error in their performance and overlook the fact that the child did well.

5. They pay no heed to emotions

Parents do not value the emotions of their child

Image: iStock

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 being 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 shunned. This causes resentment among children and 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, teasing, and using sarcasm to make the child an object of ridicule. 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 need and seek it. The bewildered 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 their children becomes a chore for them. They ignore the child’s needs and regard their presence 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 if required 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

parent present physically, but not emotionally

Image: iStock

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 is living with her new spouse, the father will encourage the child to foster mistrust between the mother and her new partner. He may manipulate and ask the child to spy on the mother and get information about her. Some parents even poison their children’s impressionable 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 their child’s privacy or deny them the ability to make their 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 their child’s decisions.

15. They force their children to be what they want

Abusive parents see their children as an extension of themselves and not as individuals in their own right. 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 could not achieve. They do not take their child’s desires, preferences, and temperament into consideration and coerce them to bend to their will. They live vicariously through their children.

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 developmental 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 their teens.
  • 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
Child having phobias

Image: Shutterstock

  • 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

"Try to talk to your parents "

Image: iStock

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can abusive parents cause PTSD?

Family conflicts and parental abuse could cause PTSD in children. The nature of the incident and the amount of stress it puts a child under during their childhood could impact the degree of PTSD a child has experienced (5).

2. What emotional abuse does to the brain?

Emotional abuse may cause thinning of certain parts of the brain. Childhood abuse might have an adverse impact on the amygdala, the structure in the brain that responds to threats. Abuse at an early age might also thin the brain’s gray matter (6).

It is difficult to identify that you are being raised by emotionally abusive parents, especially when you are a single child. Once you identify it, do not wait or hesitate to seek help or protect yourself. Know that it is not your fault, so don’t accuse yourself at any point in life. Try to figure out the root cause or triggering factors of emotional abuse. It is not okay to tolerate it under any scenario. Reach out to people you feel safe around and seek help.

Key Pointers

  • Emotionally abusive relationships with parents can leave several adverse effects on a child’s mental health.
  • Frequent criticism, scolding for no reason, using violence to discipline the children, etc., are some examples.
  • Seeking help from other family members or professionals can help you deal with parental emotional abuse.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. What is child abuse?; NSPCC
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
5. Gayla Margolin and Katrina A. Vickerman; Post-traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents Exposed to Family Violence: I. Overview and Issues; The National Library of Medicine.
6. J. Douglas Bremner; Traumatic Stress: Effects On The Brain; The National Library of Medicine.
Was this article helpful?
The following two tabs change content below.

Ratika Pai

Ratika has experience writing in various fields including finance, education, lifestyle, and entertainment. After her masters degree in Commerce, she acquired a PG Diploma in Communication and Journalism from Mumbai University. She is inquisitive about human relationships and likes to study people and how they manage their relationships, during her freetime. At MomJunction, Ratika writes insightful and informative articles on... more

Sadhvi Nishtha Om

Monk Sadhvi Nishtha Om is a practicing psychologist and psychotherapist in India. She has worked with children, adolescents and adults using tools such as Therapeutic Meditation, Inner Child Healing, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Emotional Empowerment Technique (EET) in a career spanning more than a decade. She holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Delhi, India.... more