Everyone is raised in different types of households, from single-parent ones to blended families. While you may think you had a healthy upbringing, you may actually have had an emotionally abusive parent but didn’t know it at the time. Perhaps there were some signs your mom, dad, and/or primary caregiver were not as unconditionally nice as they could have been, but you brushed off their behavior or made excuses for it — “They were just having a bad day.”
However, now that you’re an adult and learn about the upbringings your friends had — without emotionally abusive parents — the more you realize that the way your parent(s) treated you was definitely different. Or, perhaps your romantic relationships have clued you in that you had an emotionally abusive parent — because you subconsciously behave in a way that mirrors how you were raised and/or you choose partners who are emotionally abusive like your parent was.
“Emotional abuse is often used interchangeably with the term psychological abuse,” Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC, tells Bustle. “Although the term ‘abuse’ often makes one think of physical abuse, emotional abuse is abusing someone in ways that can be seen as traumatic.” Cole says this may include gaslighting, bullying, and/or being condescending. “It is making someone feel like they are less-than, worthless, or not good enough. This can be incredibly painful when a parent does this to a child, as a child trusts that a parent is going to love them unconditionally.”
Cole adds that if you had an emotionally abusive parent, it could have an impact on your interpersonal and romantic relationships. “Attachment styles in relationships as an adult are often based on experiences someone has while growing up,” she says. “As a therapist, I often will explore the relationship a person had with their parents to understand where this way of relating to others or a romantic partner might stem from if I’m picking up on a particular attachment style.”
Cole says that once someone is able to understand what they experienced — if and how their parent was emotionally abusive — they can become aware of how this experience impacts them as an adult. Then, they can work with a therapist to make changes in the way they interact with others. If you’re curious about signs that you had an emotionally abusive parent, below, experts weigh in.
1. They Were Overly Moody
Although everyone gets moody from time to time, it’s important to recognize how moody your parent was while you were growing up. Christi Garner, LMFT, Psychotherapist Online, who spent 10 years as a therapist for domestic abuse survivors and sexually abused children, agrees. “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,” she tells Bustle.
She says that children who were always waiting for the other shoe to drop or always anxious they’d make a mistake and cause something bad to happen also show higher levels of health problems later in life. “This higher level of stress while growing up causes changes in the body and brain, and can have long-term effects on health,” Garner says.
2. They Were Overly Critical & Negative Toward You
Although receiving constructive criticism can be, well, constructive, when growing up, did you feel your parent was *super* critical — and not in a healthy way? “Were they overly critical?” Cole says. “Often in these situations, did you feel as though nothing you did was right or good enough?”
Garner, too, feels that an overly critical parent who focused on the negative things about you counts as emotional abuse. “Determine if your parent was always talking negative to 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,” she says. “If you still can hear their negative comments in your mind, and you can trace them back to your parent, or they still say these things to you daily, you know they are taking their negative feelings about themselves out on you, which can lead to self-esteem issues and insecurity.”
As a result, as an adult, you may find that it’s hard to turn off the negative self-talk, according to Tom Bruett, MS, LMFT, and founder of Tom Bruett Therapy. “Notice if you are extremely hard on yourself,” he tells Bustle. “Whose voice is it that you hear being critical or toxic? Typically, it can be the voice of a critical or abusive parent that we have internalized.”
3. They Invalidated Or Dismissed Your Emotions
Just as you’d like a romantic partner to be emotionally available, think back to whether your parent was, too. “Did they invalidate or dismiss your emotions?” Cole says. “One example might be a child being told they are too sensitive,” she says. “Another is a child saying they felt like they wanted to harm themselves and being told they are just trying to get attention.”
4. They Were Passive-Aggressive
When someone’s passive-aggressive, they don’t tell you what’s really bothering them. “If you had a parent who was passive-aggressive, pleasant on the surface, but cold underneath, it’s likely a sign of emotional abuse,” Tina B. Tessina, PhD (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist, and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, tells Bustle.
5. They Were Overly Anxious
When determining if your parent was emotionally abusive, you can ask yourself if they were usually calm or anxious toward you. “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,” Garner says. She says this can manifest by your parent calling you constantly, always messaging you, and filling you with their issues all day. “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,” Garner says. “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.”
6. They Guilted You
You can probably recognize when someone guilts you into doing something, and it’s critical to think back to whether your parent did this, too. “An emotionally abusive parent guilts you,” Cole says. “They may say something like, ‘I gave up so much to have you and you treat me like this.’”
7. They Gave You The Silent Treatment
Isn’t it frustrating when you want to discuss a problem with somebody and they choose to ignore you instead? Well, such is the case with an emotionally abusive parent, too. “They gave you the silent treatment,” Cole says. “If you upset them, they shut down and ignored you until you apologized to them.”
8. They Were Physically Present, But Emotionally Absent
When you were growing up, was your parent there, but not really there? “Another indicator of emotional abuse is if you had a parent who was physically present, but otherwise absent — working on the computer, phone, or locked in a home office, talking to everyone but you, or lost in a drug- or alcohol-induced haze,” Dr. Tessina says. “Now, as an adult, you may not know how to interact with people in a healthy way, or you may feel disconnected and lost. Plus, you could be disconnected from yourself, having no sense of being with yourself.”
9. They Were Over-Involved In Your Life
Just as a parent can be MIA and under-involved in your life, they can also be the opposite, which can be another indicator of emotional abuse. “If your parent was over-involved, to the point of constantly looking through your journals, social media accounts, watching your emails, and always dropping in on your conversations, they might have been emotionally abusive,” Garner says. “Being overly involved in everything you did and not giving you appropriate space (physical, mental, and emotional) could be a sign of enmeshment.”
She says that when this happens, a parent overshadows the needs, wants, and desires of their children with their own. “As a result, their inability to let the child develop their own personality can lead to mental health issues later in life, and certainly in relationships,” Garner says.
10. You Blame Yourself For Other People’s Bad Behavior
When someone mistreats you and you blame yourself, not them, it may be another sign your parent was emotionally abusive. “If someone hurts you or treats you badly, that’s on them,” Bruett says. “However, sometimes as children, we learn that we have to put up with people treating us badly in order to survive. As adults, we can recreate these dynamics in other relationships.”
11. You Exhibit Self-Destructive Behavior(s)
If you’re demonstrating self-destructive behavior, it may be another sign that a parent was emotionally abusive. “Self-destructive behaviors, like addiction, risky sex, or self-harm, can be coping skills for handling big feelings,” Bruett says. “Of course, not all people who exhibit these behaviors have had abusive childhoods, but there is often a higher chance that this is the case.”
12. Deep Down, You Feel Anger Toward Your Parent(s)
To this day, if you still feel indescribable anger toward your parent, it may be because of how they acted toward you in the past — in an emotionally abusive manner. “The parent in question may be nice to you now, they may treat you reasonably well, but you have an anger, a rage, or an angst when you think about them,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. “The sight of them makes you frustrated and stressed, and you may actually not be able to explain why, as you may have blocked out the abusive actions.” He adds that if you have ill feelings toward or even loathe your parent now, it is possible they were not the kind person then that they seem to be now.
13. You Still Fear How Your Parent Will React To Most Of Your Decisions
Even though you’re now an adult and may even live across the country from your parent, if you still fear how they’ll react to most of your life decisions, your parent may have been emotionally abusive. “In other words, you make decisions on your own, but with the thought and anxiety that your parent won’t approve,” Dr. Klapow says. “Your decision-making is dominated by the thought ‘Will my parent approve?’” He says this is because a parent who was hypercritical of their children’s choices, decisions, and actions set up a situation where kids become fearful of making decisions on their own — they fear the consequences that their parent lays on.
“If every action or choice a child makes is followed by a critique, a criticism, or yelling or belittling, then what can follow into adulthood is an irrational fear that one’s parent will impose consequences on adult decisions,” Dr. Klapow says. “This doesn’t assure that abuse was present, but it’s a sign that the parenting style was harmful.”
14. You Try To Manage Your Partner’s Emotions
Relationship specialist Jen Elmquist, MA, LMFT, and author of Relationship Reset: Secrets from a Couples Therapist That Will Revolutionize Your Love for a Lifetime, believes that a clear indicator that you had an emotionally abusive parent can be found in how you act toward your partner and if you seek to manage their emotions. “When parents struggle to regulate their own emotions, children learn to take care of their feelings for them,” she tells Bustle. “This is a result of being parentified, a role reversal where a child adopts the responsibility of the parent because the parent isn’t capable of managing on their own.”
Elmquist says this may present itself in various ways in your current romantic relationship, including: mind-reading to prevent problems; saying ‘I’m sorry’ when you don’t mean it, but you’re trying to stop your partner from getting upset; and feeling guilty without reason, when you haven’t done anything.
15. You’re In A Toxic Relationship
If you find you often pick romantic partners that have traits like your parent(s), both good and bad, it’s something to be mindful of, Bruett says. “Oftentimes, we pick partners that make us feel familiar,” he says. “If we came from an abusive or neglectful household, we tend to attract people who will treat us the same way. Of course, you can break the cycle, but the first step is noticing it.”
As you can see, there are several signs that may indicate you had an emotionally abusive parent. The question now is: What do you do about it? “Sometimes, people have no idea their parents were emotionally abusive until they get older and learn more about their friends’ or partners’ families,” Cole says. “That’s when they realize that what they experienced wasn’t healthy.”
If you feel some of the signs resonate and that the way you were raised affects your relationships — interpersonal and/or romantic ones — it’s best to seek help via a therapist.