11 Signs You Had An Emotionally Abusive Parent & It Still Affects You Now
We all hope that our parents are the ideal role models and treat us with respect, but unfortunately, that's not always the case. Some kids grow up with mothers and fathers that can cause their children harm with the way they behave. There are some distinct signs you had an emotionally abusive parent, and although you can't go back in time and change the way they acted, you can use this information to help not only gain back your confidence and self-esteem, but to learn from their mistakes so you don't treat the other people in your life the same way.
"Emotional abuse is 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," psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, tells Bustle. "Emotional abuse results in injury to a child's self-esteem and damages a child’s emotional or psychological well-being."
All parents are human, which means they have their flaws, but some have deeper psychological issues that end up affecting how they treat their children. If you have a strained relationship with your parents and think it may be a result of their actions, look out for these 11 signs that you had an emotionally abusive parent, according to experts.
1. You Have Unhealthy Relationships With Others
It is extremely difficult to have healthy emotional relationships when the example your parents set seemed to be the opposite. If you were taught to relate to others by being passive-aggressive, manipulative, or to not get too close because you may get hurt, this can all stem from childhood. Relationships with parents are the first relationship you will form, and it can have a ripple effect later in life.
"The ability to engage in healthy relationship patterns is informed by strength in social emotional competence," Mendez says. "When children experience emotionally abusive caregiving, trust is compromised, and the ability to engage in and maintain healthy relationships is impaired."
2. You Have Low Self-Esteem
Dealing with verbal abuse growing up is not easy. If you were constantly criticized, or told you don't measure up, that is something you may definitely carry with you. But it's important to remember that what you were told when you were younger isn't necessarily the truth, and your self-esteem can be rebuilt as an adult.
"Persistent exposure to belittling, berating, name calling and verbal punishment breaks down a child’s sense of competence and forms a foundation of self-doubt, self-hatred, and worthlessness," Mendez says. "Emotional abuse shatters hope, pride, and motivation. There is considerable risk of mental health challenges such as depression or poor capacity for functional emotional regulation."
And if this is the case for you, speaking with other loved ones or a mental health professional may help you to undo some of these notions that were put in your head from a young age.
3. You Are Very Pessimistic
When you were growing up, if all you heard was a negative outlook on things, it can be hard to see the positives. Parents who only showed you the bleak aspects of life were once again leading by example, and it's something that may still impact you as an adult. "Long-term exposure to negativity and personal attacks damages the foundation of hope," Mendez says. "A negative self-perception is created and solidified over time."
But this doesn't have to be the case for you. By speaking with a mental health professional, you may be able to see the positives in situations.
4. You Repress Your Emotions
Emotional repression is a coping mechanism you may have developed in childhood to deal with the emotional abuse from your parents — if you ignore a feeling, you don't have to feel it, and you can make life more manageable under the extreme circumstances. But this coping mechanism can present difficulties later in life, as it can make it hard to relate to others.
"Children learn to repress emotions to survive the pain of the emotional attacks," Mendez says. "Shutting down feelings is necessary for psychological survival."
If you find yourself having difficulties coping with emotions you have suppressed, or relating to others, it may be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional.
5. You Sought Out Attention
If you were neglected as a child, or only received negative attention, it may be natural to search for emotional validation and attention in other ways. Even if you have positive reinforcement in your life now, you may find yourself actively seeking it out because you were deprived of it as a child.
"A child who does not receive praise, acknowledgement or acceptance, grows up longing for connections and seeking positive attention," Mendez says. "Emotional abuse starves a child of necessary love and affection, often resulting in over-reaching for validation from others and excessive approval-seeking behaviors."
6. Your Parent Excessively Teased You
It's OK to joke around sometimes, but teasing can cross the line very easily. If it often felt like you were being left out of a joke, or teased about your insecurities, that can be emotional abuse, especially if this teasing was a form of manipulation to keep your self-esteem low. If you were outright being made fun of, that can definitely have a way of making you look at yourself negatively.
"Individuals exposed to repeated experiences of mockery, humiliation, and demoralizing interactions learn to interact with others in the same way," Mendez says.
If you find you are pushing others away because you are teasing them now too, or you have a negative perception of yourself, therapy can definitely help.
7. You Were Ignored
Verbal abuse is the most obvious form of emotional abuse, but less obvious is being ignored or ostracized. If you constantly felt left out as a child, or were intentionally excluded by your parents, this can lead to negative patterns as you get older. And they are not your fault.
"This is when you express a need or a viewpoint that's not endorsed by your parents and you feel discarded as a result," Holly Brown, MFT, tells Bustle. "They let you know, through exclusion, that it's not OK. This can cause you to feel that you are not OK"
8. You Were Frequently Compared To Your Siblings
Another tactic of emotional abusers is comparison. By constantly measuring you up to your siblings, your parents may have been able to keep you at odds, and questioning your own worth. And that's not OK.
"Instead of your parent highlighting your strengths, your weaknesses were brought to the forefront in relation to the supposed virtues of your siblings," Brown says. "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."
9. You Were Put Under Pressure & Scrutiny
Sometimes, emotional abuse is just love that's made to feel like it' has conditions. If your parents' affection was ever determined by how you performed in school, sports, etc., that has a way of leaving a mark. But it's important to remember that others will love you unconditionally — even if you didn't get that promotion, or you still haven't published your book.
"You were under intense pressure and scrutiny, and constantly felt that you had to measure up or risk losing your parents' love," Brown says. "This leads to great insecurity and sense that relationships are always conditional."
10. You Were Made To Feel Guilty
An emotionally abusive parent will make a child (no matter what age) feel guilt for having relationships outside of them. They may also make you feel guilty for other things that have nothing to do with you, just to have the satisfaction of your emotional reaction. While it can be hard to remember in the moment, know it is likely not your fault.
"The parent, for example, will make statements such as 'You are dropping me,' 'I feel you are pulling away from me,' or 'Why do you want to be with them versus me," Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC, tells Bustle.
11. Your Privacy Was Violated
Boundaries are important in any relationship, especially a relationship with your parents. If your parent constantly invaded your privacy, in an unnecessary way, they may not have listened to or respected the boundaries you had in place. Even so, it's important to still understand what your boundaries are now, and let other friends and family know they can't be crossed.
"A parent may 'snoop' at computers or cell phones or check journals or calendars to find information of the child being 'sneaky' or 'suspicious,'" Bahar says. "The parent will accuse a child of being sneaky, projecting on the child their own behavior."
Having emotionally abusive parents can make childhood and even adulthood exceedingly difficult, but you don't have to suffer alone. Seeking help from loved ones or a mental health professional can start the healing process for you, and you can move forward.
This post was originally published on June 8, 2017. It was updated on June 4, 2019.