That awkward moment when you’re telling a funny story from your childhood and no one laughs? It’s even more uncomfortable when your best friend leans forward, puts their hand on your knee, and says, “Oh honey, that sounds really traumatic. You alright?”
The signs and symptoms of emotional abuse from parents 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 notice them.
Emotional abuse is when someone uses consistent patterns of behaviors and words to damage another person’s self-esteem and impact their mental health,” says mental health counselor Lawrence Lovell, L.M.H.C. “Emotional abuse is used to control someone by leveraging their emotions by excessively criticizing, embarrassing, shaming, blaming, or other manipulative approaches.” He explains that these tactics leave kids in denial of what they’ve experienced.
“Nah, it wasn’t
that bad.” “Other kids had it worse.” “They’re just words from a long time ago, I’m being too sensitive.” These are all common responses to emotional abuse from parents, Lovell says. But he explains that emotional abuse tends to make people minimize their own emotions to avoid inconveniencing other people — that’s one of the big reasons why folks who grew up with emotional abuse may tend to dismiss their pain as “not a big deal,” even though it is.
Emotional abuse is damaging because it negatively impacts self-esteem and confidence,” Lovell explains. “This can last in the short and long term. Instead, that person can often feel shame, hopelessness, worthlessness, fear, anger, confusion, anxiety, issues with trust, challenges processing their feelings, and more.”
The power imbalance involved in being the child in an emotionally abusive family relationship can make a person even less likely to recognize unacceptable treatment when it’s happening — much less years later, as an adult. Here are seven signs of emotional abuse in a parent-child relationship, according to experts.
The Child's Emotions Are Invalidated
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.
Emotionally abusive parents often
won’t acknowledge their kids’ emotions without criticizing them, Ezelle tells Bustle. And Lovell says that parents may cause big emotional displays over normal, everyday things — for example, calling a kid stupid because they tripped over the carpet — while accusing their kids of overreacting if they cry or get angry in response to the parents’ rage. Because of that dynamic, kids can grow up with a distinct sense that their emotions aren’t real or valid, Lovell explains.
In emotionally abusive situations, 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. For adults, this might show up constantly putting their feelings to the side to prioritize their partners’ needs, or in being
extremely anxious about boundaries in friendships, Exelle explains. The Parent Uses Putdowns Frequently
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, M.A., tells Bustle. Examples of abusive phrases, she says, could be, "I wish you weren't born", 'I wish you were more like your sister", or "You are a lost cause."
Insulting the kids themselves isn't the only way parents can be abusive. Insulting others counts, too, says
Dean Tong, MSc., an expert on child abuse allegations. "The easiest way to detect if a parent is emotionally abusing a child is listening to their chastisement of [them] and hearing words that are tantamount to denigration, and vilification of the child's other parent in front of said child,” Tong explains. “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
A lot of adults are familiar with
emotionally abusive romantic partners saying things like, “You’ll never find someone like me” or “No one will put up with you or love you like I do.” Sherese Ezelle, L.M.H.C., a licensed behavioral therapist at One Medical, tells Bustle that parents can have a similar emotional impact on their kids when they say things like, “You’re lucky you have us” or “Those other kids have it so much worse.”
With parents who try to control their kids’ emotions and actions, "Why don't you love me?" is a frequent cry. It might be peppered into passive-aggressive sighs, withdrawals, threats, or "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.
Experts note that children of these kinds of emotionally manipulative parents 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." Emotionally abusive parents may view their children as accessories to impress others, and will manipulate their emotions in order to produce a good impression in public.
Ezelle adds that
secrecy is paramount for these parents — they’re likely to gaslight their children with statements like “I never said that” or “You’re misinterpreting,” in order to keep family secrets and cover up their abuse. 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 abilities. This is part of the spectrum of emotional abuse that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children calls "inappropriate expectations": ideas about children's behavior, ideas, and lives that run contrary to the way kids actually function. Expecting a child to be capable of mastering piano three weeks after they'd started, demanding that they contribute to the family income at the age of 12, expecting perfect adult behavior at all times: all are unrealistic and can't possibly be maintained.
Ezelle tells Bustle that this dynamic shows up in parents expecting kids to shoulder responsibility for the adults’ emotional realities and life circumstances. "Parents that keep setting higher standards and make [the child] feel that their current accomplishments aren't good enough are abusive," Battle explains. 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 has a
negative self-perception and thoughts that reinforce their unworthiness of being loved, valuable, and respected." The Parent Doesn’t Apologize
Pretty much every parent will snap at their kids occasionally. But emotionally abusive parents consistently refuse to apologize or recognize that their actions were harmful, Lovell says. Instead of “Oof, I was angry and shouldn’t have yelled like that, I’m sorry,” emotionally abusive parents are more likely to tell their kids that they’re being ridiculous for crying, their reactions are dramatic, or they’re oversensitive.
It’s tempting to sit there and say, “Well, my
parents apologized all the time after something bad happened — so it must not have been abusive.” But Lovell says that it’s not that simple. Emotionally abusive parents “lack the willingness to acknowledge their actions and/or the impact of their actions,” he explains. This means that even though they might apologize with words, they don’t follow up by changing their behavior. This dynamic isn’t exclusive to parents: remember the when your best friend told you they were really sorry for telling everyone you had a crush on that girl in gym class? Their apology probably tracked much better if they never did it again, versus if they did the same thing the next day. The Parent Isolates The Child
"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, Ph.D., L.M.F.T. previously told Bustle. Isolation is a key part of an emotionally abusive parent's arsenal, whether it's done as a way of "shielding" the child (what 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." Ezelle says that
enforcing silence and secrecy about what goes on in the home might look like restricting extracurricular activities; not allowing time on the phone; and severely restricting social media. Sure, most parents have some types of rules limiting their kids’ interactions on social media, but Ezelle says that in abusive situations, these forms of isolation are all about “ protecting others’ views of the family.” That way, the parents won’t be held accountable and the status quo can stay the same. The Parent Is Just Plain Terrifying
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.
“Threats to tell others things they have shared in confidence” is a huge violation of a child’s trust in a parent, Ezelle says, and can be really frightening. She tells Bustle that parents who are “instilling fear through shouting, throwing things, and an inability to keep themselves physically safe” will also set up a scary
home life for kids.
This often has a very distinct result for adult survivors of this kind of abuse, parenthood counselor
Elly Taylor tells Bustle. "From a counseling perspective, 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,” she explains. “This is the adult version of the parent/child dynamic that occurs when as a child, the caregiver is also a scary person." Experts: Lawrence Lovell, L.M.H.C., mental health counselor Shannon Battle, M.A., relationship and childhood counselor Dean Tong, MSc., expert on child abuse allegations. Sherese Ezelle, L.M.H.C., licensed behavioral therapist at One Medical Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., psychotherapist Elly Taylor, parenthood counselor