Emotionally Abusive Parents: Signs, Effects and How to Cope 

Published May 23, 2022
Frustrated mother talking to with her upset son sitting on the couch

Emotional abuse can be a difficult topic for people to discuss. This is especially true when it relates to emotionally abusive parents, because of the vulnerability and self-doubt that are associated with it. Unlike with physical abuse, there are no outer markings that prove to yourself, or to others, that you did experience a form of abuse. This can lead to others not validating your experiences, and may even cause you to question your reality and maintain an unhealthy relationship with an abuser. Knowing the signs of emotionally abusive parents may give you the insight and closure you need to move forward with your life and improve your mental health.

Understanding Emotional Abuse

According to an article by Psychology Today, emotional abuse is defined as "a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them." People who are victims of emotional abuse can lose their sense of reality and internalize the abuse, which can make them start to believe all of the damaging things they are told.

Emotional Abuse Is Prevalent

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least one in seven children has experienced some form of abuse in the past year in the United States alone. In addition, research from The British Journal of Psychiatry found that about 36% of adults have reported that they experienced emotional abuse at some point during their childhood. The actual rates of emotional abuse are believed to be even higher, since many do not report it or know that they are experiencing a form of abuse. Both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have found that emotional abuse can negatively impact one's health and overall well-being.

Types of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can be thought of as an umbrella term that includes any type of abuse that maintains a pattern of behavior that is meant to instill fear or gain control over a person. There are a couple of different types of emotional abuse, as noted by the CDC.

Neglect

The CDC defines neglect as "the failure to meet a child's basic physical and emotional needs." Neglect can include:

  • Not providing housing for a child
  • Restricting a child's access to education
  • Withholding food from a child, or leaving a child malnourished
  • Not providing access to medical care
  • Inability to create a safe environment for a child to live in
  • Not providing access to clean water
  • Not maintaining a child's personal hygiene

Verbal Abuse

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), verbal abuse is defined as "extremely critical, threatening, or insulting words delivered in oral or written form and intended to demean, belittle, or frighten the recipient." Some examples of verbal abuse are:

  • A parent threatening to physically harm their child if they do not comply with demands
  • Constantly teasing a child about the way they look, their weight, intelligence, etc.
  • Referring to a child by insulting slurs or 'nicknames' they have been given
  • Leaving notes with rude/demeaning messages on their door
  • Constantly telling a child they are not enough or will not succeed
  • Consistently belittling a child's accomplishments
  • Suggesting that there will be punishment or retaliation against a child

Signs of Emotionally Abusive Parents

Mature mother scolding her young daughter

People often think of intimate partner relationships when they hear emotional abuse, but emotional abuse can occur in any type of relationship, including one involving emotionally abusive parents. The same article by Psychology Today notes that emotional abuse revolves around four main aspects: control, manipulation, isolation, and demeaning/threatening. If these elements were/are present in your relationship with your caregivers, then they may be signs that you experienced emotionally abusive parents. Although it can look different depending on the relationship, you most likely experienced emotional abuse if:

  • Your parent tried to control your actions, choices, or life in any way, especially when meant to cause you harm.
  • Your parent tried to manipulate you through gaslighting, lies, threats, criticism, or different tactics to get their way.
  • Your parent attempted to/did isolate you from other friends, family members, caregivers, or opportunities that may have helped you.
  • Your parent consistently criticized you, belittled your accomplishments, or made you feel worthless/hopeless.

Examples of Emotional Abuse

Now that you know the elements that emotional abuse centers around, you may be wondering what those look like in a real-life relationship where that kind of abuse is taking place. These are specific examples that may or may not resonate with you. Some examples of emotionally abusive parents include:

  • Giving constant criticism in order to make a person weak.
    • You're never going to get a good job.
  • Controlling who their child is friends with.
    • You can't hang out with them anymore.
  • Gaslighting their child and making them question reality.
    • That's not what I said and you know it.
  • Holding finances over their child's head in order to control them.
    • I pay for this house, so you follow my rules.
  • Threatening their child and instilling fear.
    • If you don't do what I say, I'll kick you out.
  • Making their child feel worthless or 'not enough.'
    • You can't do anything right.
  • Controlling how a child spends/saves their money.
    • I'm not going to let you keep that money.
  • Cutting off social connections to friends/family in order to isolate their child.
    • After school, you come right back home.
  • Providing conditional love only if the child complies with their demands.
    • If you listened to me, then I would be able to love you.
  • Restricting their child's educational, financial, or professional opportunities.
    • There are more important things than you going to school.

Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can have both long-term and short-term effects for people that experience it, and they can vary from person to person. According to the previously mentioned Psychology Today article and the National Library of Medicine, some effects of emotional abuse include:

  • Confusion
  • Fear
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nightmares
  • Aches
  • Racing heart
  • Insomnia
  • Social withdrawal
  • Decreased satisfaction with life
  • Changes in stress response
  • Increased risk of developing psychological disorders

Difference Between Emotional Abuse and Mistreatment

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior, which means that it has to happen repeatedly over a period of time. In addition, the actions associated with it must be meant to cause fear and gain control over a person. There may be single instances that come to mind for you where there was conflict, insults, and maybe even fear, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it was emotional abuse. It's important to know that just because the behavior wasn't repeated, and can't specifically be labeled emotional abuse, it doesn't mean that you weren't mistreated.

How to Respond to Emotionally Abusive Parents

Very upset parents scolding their daughter

You may have experienced emotional abuse as a child and are just now understanding and feeling the effects of it. Or, you may still be experiencing ongoing emotional abuse from a parent. Either of these situations can feel overwhelming and emotionally exhausting to manage and confront, and it's important to make sure that you are in a safe situation to do so. There are ways to respond to emotionally abusive parents that may help you regain confidence and control in your life and relationship.

Involve Another Adult

If you are a child who believes you are experiencing emotional abuse by your parents, then contact another adult as soon as possible. This can be a different family member, teacher, or any adult that you feel comfortable with. Explain the situation to them in as much detail as you can, let them know how you are feeling, and ask for help. They will be able to provide more insight into what to do moving forward.

Explain and Listen

This may be best for adults who are confronting their parents about the past. If you feel safe enough to talk to your parents about their emotional abuse, then it can be beneficial to bring your experiences and feelings to their attention. You may want to have a supportive loved one there with you to help you feel more secure in the moment. Talk about their actions and how they have taken a toll on you both mentally and emotionally, and make it clear that their behavior has been damaging and unacceptable. Listen to their response, and be prepared for them to become defensive. Express your needs moving forward.

Set Boundaries

Depending on how your conversation goes with your parents, you may want to set additional boundaries. This can look like limiting or stopping family visits with grandchildren, asking for space, or establishing topics that you do not want to discuss with them. Although it can be extremely difficult to part with family, you may decide that you need to step away from the relationship for your own well-being, especially if they do not follow through with behavior changes, overstep boundaries, or continue the emotional abuse.

Leave the Relationship

Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship may be easier for adults that have financial independence, and can provide you with enough space in order to heal. If you do not wish to mend the relationship you had with your abuser, you are not required to. Children and teens may also be able to leave the abusive situation with the help of adults and other caregivers, especially if the emotional abuse is severe. After speaking to an adult you trust about your situation, ask about leaving the environment, and it is likely they can help you find a safer space.

Emergency Hotlines

If you feel as though you need to talk to someone immediately about your situation, then you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline by texting "START" to 88788, or calling 1-800-799-7233 to talk to a trained professional. If the emotional abuse you are experiencing needs immediate attention, then call and alert your local authorities.

Ways of Coping With Emotionally Abusive Parents

Whether you experienced emotional abuse at the hands of your parents when you were a child or an adult, it can negatively affect your mental health and overall well-being. Although the painful events of the past cannot be changed, there are ways to take action in the present to help yourself cope with your experiences.

Seek Professional Help

It can be beneficial for victims of emotional abuse to seek professional help, such as through therapy, when coping with their emotions and events of the past/present. Your mental health professional will be able to work with you on a variety of different coping strategies, validate your experiences, and, at the very least, be a person you can speak to without fear of judgment.

Find a Support Group

Finding a support group with others who have had similar experiences throughout their lifetimes is another way of helping yourself cope. Speaking with others who have shared experiences can create a sense of community and comfort. Search for local support group chapters in your area, or join one online. Some online support groups include:

Turn to Loved Ones

If you feel more comfortable reaching out to those already in your inner circle, then turning to loved ones for comfort and support is a good coping strategy. Maybe you have siblings or family members who witnessed or experienced the emotional abuse themselves, and you can find validation in talking about your shared experiences. Opening up to a loved one may help reduce the weight of the burden you are carrying, and help you move forward.

How to Deal with Emotionally Abusive Parents

Emotional abuse is prevalent in the world today and is extremely damaging to the mental and emotional well-being of those experiencing it. Whether you are reflecting on the effects of being raised by emotionally abusive parents or experiencing that abuse in the present, know that it is not okay and that you are not alone. Knowing the signs of emotionally abusive parents is the first step in responding to, ending, and coping with their behavior in order for you to heal and move forward with your life.

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Emotionally Abusive Parents: Signs, Effects and How to Cope