How Can You Tell If Your Parents Are Emotionally Abusive? These Are The Signs Of Emotional Abuse, According To Experts

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Most of us hope that we know what physical child abuse looks like, and how we could detect it. But emotional abuse of children by parents is a problem too, and the signs and symptoms can be a lot more difficult to detect by an outside observer — even though the consequences are just as damaging for the kids as they grow to adulthood. Children often lack the perspective to be able to identify the abusive elements of their emotional relationship with their parents, and it's only in adulthood that they're more able to detect them. Bustle spoke with experts on emotionally abusive relationships to learn how you can tell if your parents are emotionally abusive, and how it affects people into their adulthood.

Why is emotional abuse such a big deal? One of the most widely disseminated definitions of emotional abuse, by psychotherapist Beverley Engel in her book The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, gives us some clues:  

The power imbalance involved in being the child in an emotionally abusive family relationship can make these consequences even worse. So how can someone detect that a parent or parents may still be using various tools to emotionally abuse and manipulate them? Here are six signs of emotional abuse in a parent-child relationship, according to experts.

The Parent Uses Putdowns Frequently

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The key part of emotional abuse is that it's usually a pattern. One-off situations where a parent snaps or is rude to their offspring are not characteristic of an emotionally abusive environment. People aren't perfect. But repetitive insults and putdowns can turn into emotional abuse. "Parents have overt ways of emotionally abusing their children such as desertion or speaking hurtful words that break their hearts, cast blame, and make them lose their self-worth," relationship and childhood counselor Shannon Battle tells Bustle. Examples of abusive phrases, she says, are "I wish you weren't born", 'I wish you were more like your sister", or "You are a lost cause."

Parents might have a lot of reasons for insulting their kids — hoping to "toughen them up," for instance. But the underlying message of calling a child dumb, weird, or useless is the production of the feeing that they're unloved and unloveable. The NSPCC's definition of emotional abuse highlights that it "may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person." However, it's important to remember that parents who don't do this can also be emotionally abusive; it's just one of the signs.

But insulting them isn't the only way parents can be abusive. Insulting others counts, too. "The easiest way to detect if a parent is emotionally abusing a child," Dean Tong, Msc, an expert on child abuse allegations, tells Bustle, "is listening to their chastisement of him/her and hearing words that are tantamount to denigration, and vilification of the child's other parent in front of said child. It's a form of brainwashing and poisoning of the child convincing the child the other parent is the bad guy."

The Parent Is Emotionally Manipulative

This is a phenomenon that's particularly common in narcissistic or abnormally self-centered parents: they like to manipulate the feelings of others, including their own children. "Why don't you love me?" is a frequent cry, even if it's manifest in passive-aggressive sighs, withdrawals, threats, and "look how much I gave up for you" rants. The experience of growing up with one of these parents is dominated by the feeling that the emotional process is controlled by others. "Some parents abuse their children because of pathological narcissism," Laura Endicott Thomas, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists, tells Bustle. "They are commanding an unreasonable amount of worshipful behavior from their children."

Children of these kinds of emotionally manipulative parents, note experts, are expected to constantly pander to their emotional needs and will be punished if they show emotional self-sufficiency, or make the parent "look bad." Narcissistic parents often view their children as accessories to impress others, and will manipulate their emotions in order to produce a good impression in public. They're particularly prone, as psychotherapist Amanda Perl writes for Counseling Directory, to the practice of "gaslighting," in which they deny the child's emotional reality and make them question their sanity ("I never said that").

The Child's Own Emotions Are Invalidated

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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. If you're scared, angry, upset or have any other emotional response, it's sneered at, misunderstood or ignored. Being "deliberately silenced" is seen as a pretty characteristic sign of an emotionally abusive environment.

The psychologist Carrie Disney, writing in The Guardian, notes that children from emotionally abusive homes often "learned that emotions are dangerous."

"In a good enough upbringing," she writes, "we learn that feelings can be managed, they may sometimes be scary but they can be thought through." In emotionally abusive situations, however, 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 detail.

The Parent Places Inappropriate Expectations On The Kid

"What would I do without you?" can also be an emotionally abusive refrain. Situations in which children are forced to become parental figures — in the case of parental substance use disorder, for instance — count as abusive; the child faces emotional obstacles and requirements (taking care of a grown person) that are far outside their own emotional needs and comfort zone, or even their abilities. This is part of the spectrum of emotional abuse that the NSPCC calls "inappropriate expectations": ideas about children's behavior, ideas and lives that is deeply contrary to the way kids should actually function. Expecting them to be capable of mastering piano three weeks after they'd started, demanding that they contribute to the family income at the age of 10, expecting perfect adult behavior at all times: all are unrealistic and can't possibly be maintained.  

These elements of emotional abuse are known as "covert" abuse — things that aren't as obvious to exterior observers. "Parents that keep setting higher standards and make [the child] feel that their current accomplishments aren't good enough," Battle says, "are abusive." This behavior, she tells Bustle, "raises the likeliness of their child having increased self-doubt, fear, insecurity, self-criticism, distrust, guilt, anxiety, and self-hatred.  As a result, the child have a negative self perception and thoughts that reinforce their unworthiness of being loved, valuable, and respected."

The Parent Isolates The Child

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"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," psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT told Bustle earlier this year. Isolation is a key part of an emotionally abusive parent's arsenal, whether it's done as a way of "shielding" the child (what Shannon 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." "Isolation behavior on the part of emotionally abusive parents," notes the organization Emotional Abuse Answers, "begins with mistrust. They’re suspicious of most people outside the family, sometimes assigning strange motives for their behaviors or suspecting some hidden agenda... Isolation is an effective way for emotionally abusive parents to control their children’s environment, which makes it easier to control their beliefs and behaviors."

To be kept childlike far beneath their proper maturity level is another, connected aspect of emotional abuse. People may want to keep their children as "babies forever," but enforcing this excessively is terrible for the kid, and another aspect of emotional control.

The Parent Is Just Plain Terrifying

Feeling constantly threatened and afraid as a child because of the environment created by a parent is emotional abuse, even if it never gets physical. Parents who scream, threaten, deliberately physically impose and use their child's fear as a method of control are behaving in an emotionally abusive manner. "A lot of parents abuse their children physically and emotionally because they have poor parenting skills," Endicott Thomas tells Bustle. "They do not know how to get children to behave, and they resort to aggression out of frustration." However, narcissists and parents who lack empathy can also resort to terrifying threats for the sake of control or their own amusement.

This often has a very distinct result for adult survivors of this kind of abuse. "From a counseling perspective," parenthood counselor Elly Taylor tells Bustle, "the way parental emotional abuse would show up between couples was when one partner would seek comfort from the other, but not be able to trust it, so instead of the comfort being soothing when they got it, it would actually increase the person's anxiety and they would then push the partner away... and then seek comfort again. This is the adult version of the parent/child dynamic that occurs when as a child, the caregiver is also a scary person."

If this sounds like you, you're not alone, and it is possible to get help. Emotional abuse as a child, or continued emotional abuse by a parent as an adult, may have left lingering affects in your adult life that have rippled through everything from friendships to intimacy. Finding a support group, seeing a therapist, or just talking to a supportive friend who can help you seek professional aid are all good steps to help you figure out how to recognize and heal the damage.