15 Signs You Had An Emotionally Abusive Parent

#7: You apologize too much.

by Carina Wolff and Kaitlyn Wylde
Originally Published: 
Young millennial woman sitting at the dining table, thinking about the signs her parents were emotio...
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In a perfect world, all parents are role models who treat their children, as kids and adults, with respect. That’s unfortunately not always the case. Some kids grow up with mothers and fathers whose behavior can cause their children harm to the point of emotional abuse. And as an adult, there are some distinct signs you had an emotionally abusive parent. While you can't go back in time and change the dynamic that was present in childhood, you can use this information to help gain back your confidence and self-esteem as an adult, as well as 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, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., tells Bustle. "Emotional abuse results in injury to a child's self-esteem and damages a child’s emotional or psychological well-being."

These damages can linger later in life, too. A small 2014 study of 300 teenagers in Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences found that emotional abuse from parents in childhood was linked to mental health problems in adolescence, with the degree of mental health issues increasing the more abusive the children perceived their parents. A similarly sized study published in 2015 in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect found a link between childhood emotional abuse, and alcohol use and impulsive behaviors in young adulthood.

Parents are human, and therefore flawed, but some have deeper issues that end up affecting how they treat their children. Not all children of emotionally abusive parents will exhibit the same signs in adulthood, and relating to these signs isn’t proof that your parents were emotionally abusive. But if you have a strained relationship with your parents and think it may be a result of emotional abuse, look out for these 15 signs.


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 stem from childhood emotional abuse. 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."


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, you might carry those messages with you into adulthood.

"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."


You Tend To Have A Pessimistic View Of Things

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."


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."


You Seek 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."


You Are An Overachiever

While being a hard worker isn’t always linked to a negative formative experience, family therapist Dawn Friedman, M.S.E.d tells Bustle that sometimes children of emotionally abusive parents “chase approval and acclaim by striving academically or professionally.” While the praise they get for performing well might make them feel better temporarily, it’s fleeting, and so they end up chasing something that’s “forever out of reach — the parental approval they crave.” Realizing that, Friedman says, can help you to give yourself a break and start making more “realistic decisions” about where to focus your energies.


You Apologize Too Much

If you find yourself apologizing for expressing your basic needs, it could be a sign that you had a parent that made you feel like an imposition. If you say sorry for asking for a glass of water, or to use the bathroom, Friedman says it could indicate your parent instilled the message that “those basic needs were inconvenient or unreasonable.” Friedman adds that if this is the case, it’s “awfully hard to assert them as an adult,” meaning you likely still apologize when you don’t need to.


You’re Drained After Interacting With Your Parents

If you’re an introvert, or have parents with big personalities, it could be perfectly normal to feel a little beat after spending time with them or hanging up the phone. But according to Friedman, if your tension is high or you start feeling depressed after interacting with the parent, it could mean your parents are emotionally abusive. “It’s a cultural norm that relationships with families of origin are burdensome but they shouldn’t be,” Friedman says. “Sure, the people we’re related to may be annoying or ridiculous but if you find that your functioning dips when you spend time with them (and that includes phone calls), that’s a sign that those relationships are toxic.”


You Gossip With Your Parent

A little familial tea-spilling can be harmless. But if you find that you have a pattern of talking about your siblings or your other parent behind their backs, it could be a red flag that there’s a toxic dynamic. Friedman says that “loyalty tests” are often indications that an emotionally abusive parent is present, as “relationships are weaponized so members are expected to bad-mouth each other to keep everyone on their toes.”


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.

"Individuals exposed to repeated experiences of mockery, humiliation, and demoralizing interactions learn to interact with others in the same way," Mendez says.


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.

"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, M.F.T., tells Bustle. "They let you know, through exclusion, that it's not OK. This can cause you to feel that you are not OK.”


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.

"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."


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."


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.

"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, L.M.F.T., L.P.C.C., tells Bustle.


Your Privacy Was Violated

Boundaries are important in any relationship, especially a relationship with your parents. If your parent constantly invaded your privacy, they may not have listened to or respected the boundaries you had in place. It's important to 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, in order to move forward.


Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., L.M.F.T, psychotherapist

Dawn Friedman, M.S.E.d, family therapist

Holly Brown, M.F.T., therapist

Lisa Bahar, L.M.F.T., L.P.C.C, counselor

Studies Referenced:

Iram Rizvi, S. F., & Najam, N. (2014). Parental Psychological Abuse toward children and Mental Health Problems in adolescence. Pakistan journal of medical sciences, 30(2), 256–260.

Shin, S. H., Lee, S., Jeon, S. M., & Wills, T. A. (2015). Childhood emotional abuse, negative emotion-driven impulsivity, and alcohol use in young adulthood. Child abuse & neglect, 50, 94–103.

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