You might think of your upbringing as healthy, but perhaps there were some signs your mom or dad were not as unconditionally nice as they could have been. Maybe you consistently brushed off their behavior or made excuses for it —
“They were just having a bad day.” Or maybe now, as an adult, a friend tells you about their emotionally abusive mother — and their experiences feel eerily familiar. Growing up with an emotionally abusive parent can be confusing. When this realization hits, it can change the way you interpret all your memories of childhood.
Emotional abuse is often used interchangeably with the term psychological abuse,” Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC, tells Bustle. "Emotional abuse is abusing someone in ways that can be seen as traumatic. 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 says that once someone is able to understand what they experienced, they can become aware of how it 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
It’s important to recognize how moody your parent was while you were growing up. “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,” Christi Garner, LMFT, tells Bustle. “This higher level of stress while growing up causes changes in the body and brain, and can have long-term effects on health." 2 They Were Overly Critical & Negative Toward You
Garner feels that an
overly critical parent who focused on the negative things about you counts as emotional abuse. “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," she says.
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. “Notice if you are extremely hard on yourself,” he tells Bustle. “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. “One example might be
a child being told they are too sensitive,” Cole 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 5 They Were Overly Anxious 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
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,” 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.” 9 They Were Over-Involved In Your Life
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.” 10 You Blame Yourself For Other People’s Bad Behavior
When someone mistreats you and
you blame 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.” yourself, not them, 11 You Exhibit Self-Destructive Behavior(s)
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
anger toward your parent, it may be because of how they acted toward you in the past. “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,” clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle. “You may actually not be able to explain why, as you may have blocked out the abusive actions." 13 You Still Fear How Your Parent Will React To Most Of Your Decisions
still fear how they’ll react to most of your life decisions, you may have had an emotionally abusive mother or father. “You make decisions on your own, but with the thought and anxiety that your parent won’t approve,” Klapow says. He says this is because a parent who was hypercritical of their children set up a situation where kids become afraid of making choices. “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
Jen Elmquist, MA, LMFT, believes that a clear indicator that you had an emotionally abusive parent can be found in how you act toward your partner. “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 saying "I'm sorry" when you don't mean it, and feeling guilty for no reason. 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.”
“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.
Experts: Tom Bruett, MS, LMFT. Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC Jen Elmquist, MA, LMFT Christi Garner, LMFT Joshua Klapow, Ph.D Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.