Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse, is a pattern of behavior perpetuated by a parent that causes a child to experience emotional distress, harms their sense of self-worth, and affects their emotional development.It can include rejection, constant criticism, threats, or emotional neglect.
Emotional abuse describes a pattern of behavior that damages your self-worth or sense of emotional safety, including constant criticism, threats, rejection, name-calling, or withholding of love and support.
However, there’s a big difference between having a normal argument with a parent and emotional abuse, says Lauren Kerwin, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice.
In a healthy argument, your parent can disagree with you while still allowing you to feel heard and respected. The situation can become abusive if your parent invalidates or discounts your feelings.
“When a parent is chronically emotionally invalidating — by shaming, criticizing, insulting, or mocking their child — the child feels constantly judged and inadequate and ends up developing a whole host of negative beliefs about themselves,” adds Kerwin. “Their shame can easily turn into borderline personality disorder (BPD), substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and other worrisome mental health issues.”
Types of Emotional Abuse by Parents
These are some of the types of emotional abuse children may experience from their parents:
- Constantly criticizing the child
- Blaming the child for adult problems
- Rejecting the child repeatedly
- Dismissing the child’s feelings
- Deliberately causing the child emotional pain
- Ridiculing the child or mocking them
- Humiliating or publicly shaming the child
- Talking down to the child
- Calling the child names
- Getting angry at the child often
- Yelling or swearing at the child
- Threatening to abandon the child
- Threatening to harm the child or their family members, friends, or pets
- Intimidating or scaring the child
- Coercing or manipulating the child
- Gaslighting the child
- Frequently harassing or picking on the child
- Ignoring the child or using silence to control their behavior
- Withholding love, support, and guidance
- Neglecting to care for the child and their needs
- Allowing the child to witness domestic violence and abuse
Emotional abuse can be perpetuated in person or online, through text messages, emails, social media, and other digital apps or platforms.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
These are some common signs that a child might be experiencing abuse:
- Sudden changes in behavior or academic performance
- Watchful demeanor, as though waiting for something bad to happen
- Nervousness around certain people
- A tendency to avoid being around certain people
- Withdrawn or unresponsive demeanor
- Overly passive or compliant behavior
- Early arrival and late departure from school or other activities
- Reluctance to go home
- Lack of adult supervision
- Emotional distress or agitation
- Aggression or rage
These are some of the signs of emotionally abusive parents:
- Rarely touching the child or showing affection
- Stating that they do not like the child
- Describing the child as a burden
- Showing little concern for the child and refusing others’ help
- Demanding academic results and sporting performances the child cannot achieve
- Berating the child in front of their friends, teachers, or neighbors
- Denying that there are any problems at home or at school
- Telling teachers and other caregivers to discipline the child harshly if they misbehave
Note: Most perpetrators of emotional abuse are parents: about 53.7% are women, and 45.3% are men. Boys and girls experience similar rates of childhood abuse. Kerwin notes that emotional abuse tends to happen more in households where at least one parent has a mental health disorder or substance abuse issues.
Remember: Emotional abuse doesn’t only happen during childhood. People can experience it at any age and in the context of any kind of relationship, including with romantic partners. Regardless, the important thing to emphasize is that it’s not your fault, and you don’t deserve to be treated this way.
Impact of Emotional Abuse By Parents
Emotional abuse can make a child feel unwanted, unloved, worthless, and flawed, according to a 2014 study.
Children who grow up with abusive parents may not be able to recognize the abuse, since that’s all they know.They may blame themselves for their parents’ actions and grow up believing that they are not worthy of love or respect.
Emotional abuse can be deeply damaging to children and have lifelong consequences that persist well after the abuse stops.These are some of the negative effects a child may experience as a result of emotional abuse:
- Cognitive difficulties, such as difficulty paying attention, learning, and remembering
- Academic issues, such as lower attendance in school, poor academic performance, and disciplinary issues
- Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and low self-esteem
- Emotional difficulties, including difficulty interpreting, communicating, processing, and regulating emotions
- Substance use, such as doing alcohol, nicotine, or drugs at an early age
- Behavioral issues, such as acting out, behaving bizarrely, or trying hard to please others
- Changes in weight and appetite, which could result in eating disorders, nutrition deficiencies, and malnourishment
- Sleep issues, such as insomnia or nightmares
- Physical aches and pains, that have no other discernible cause and don’t seem to get better with treatment
- Career issues, as a result of lower educational attainment, limited employment opportunities, and an increased risk of delinquency
- Relationship issues, due to mostly unhealthy dynamics being modeled
Below, experts share some signs of parental emotional abuse to look out for, plus some guidance on how to cope.
1. They always come first
It’s important for parents to take care of themselves — after all, they can only properly care for their children if their own physical, mental, and emotional needs are met.
Still, when a parent constantly prioritizes their needs above a child’s, that can manifest into abuse over time, especially when the child is too young to have the resources to take care of themselves, says Tara Krueger, PsyD, national director of Family Therapy Services, Newport Healthcare.
Some examples of this parental behavior include:
- Frequently leaving young children at home without a caretaker in order to go on dates.
- Guilt-tripping a child or teen into staying home with them instead of seeing friends because they’re lonely.
Ideally, a parent would make sure they have a babysitter in place before scheduling social plans or find another healthy way to deal with their loneliness like calling a friend rather than relying solely on their child for emotional support.
People who have children at a young age may not be emotionally equipped for parenting and therefore may be more prone to emotionally abusing them. However, it could also be a sign of a personality disorder like narcissistic personality disorder, says Krueger.
Kerwin also notes that a parent with autism can have trouble perceiving their child’s needs and putting them first, and not even realize they’re neglecting them in some way.
Children who have been emotionally abused are more likely to be abusive to others or to seek out people who are abusive, because this is the relationship dynamic they grew up with.Therefore, they may become victims or perpetrators of abuse in the future.This is known as the intergenerational cycle of violence.
2. They isolate you
Isolation is a form of emotional abuse often used to gain control by severing ties to other friends, family members, and loved ones, according to Krueger.
“By cutting children off from others, it could prevent them from developing social skills and from reaching out for help,” she says.
According to Kerwin, some common signs your parent is trying to isolate you are:
- They actively try to discourage you from having relationships with other family members.
- They constantly come up with excuses as for why you can’t see friends.
- They take direct actions to restrict your communication with other people.
- They arbitrarily and frequently lock you in your room for unpredictable amounts of time.
Kerwin notes that abusive isolation is different from, say, grounding a teenager for a week as a consequence for engaging in harmful behavior like abusing substances at a party.
Note: Kerwin says younger children — especially under the age of 3 — are more vulnerable to emotional abuse than older teens and adults — but anyone can experience it, including adults.
3. They intimidate you
“Intimidation can be an extreme form of emotional abuse, as it causes the victim to feel powerless, hopeless, and scared,” says Krueger.
This behavior can take many different forms. A parent might have unpredictable emotional outbursts when you try to confront them about something, leaving you feeling unsafe to express your feelings and concerns. They might yell, scream, and swear at you, call you names, or even throw things when you disagree with them.
According to Krueger, poor emotional regulation, a lack of empathy, and a high need for control can cause a parent to resort to intimidation. She adds that people with borderline personality disorder may use intimidation as a desperate attempt to keep their children from abandoning them — for example, by threatening to never speak to you again if you hang up the phone or leave the house.
Emotional abuse like this can have ever-lasting effects on the child. For example, a 2021 study of university students found that of all the possible types of mistreatment, emotional abuse was associated with the highest incidence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
4. They withhold affection
Emotional abuse can be harder to identify than physical abuse. Like, in some cases, it isn’t marked by what a parent is doing but rather by what they’re not doing.
They may intentionally withhold affection as a means of influencing your behavior. According to Krueger, this can mean purposefully avoiding hugs, saying “I love you”, and offering verbal praise.
For example, when a parent gives you the cold shoulder after you tell them you can’t come home for the holidays, or after you express an opinion that opposes theirs. This form of passive aggressive behavior sends the message that their love is conditional: only when you please them will they express their affection for you.
Krueger says this kind of abuse can lead you to constantly seek out their approval in order to get the affection you need.
“Adults who withhold affection may also have experienced abuse as a child,” says Krueger. “This behavior may have been modeled for them and become a template for how to parent their own children.”
5. They neglect you
Neglect is one of the most common forms of child emotional abuse. When a parent fails to meet a child’s basic needs — like food, clothing, sleep, hygiene, and medical attention — that’s considered neglect, says Krueger.
Important: The CDC estimates children living in poverty are five times more likely to experience abuse. However, just because a child is living in poverty doesn’t mean the parents are guilty of neglect. Neglect occurs when the parent doesn’t use the resources available to them to care for their child, and therefore jeopardizes their health or safety.
Emotional neglect may entail:
- Failing to give caring or loving responses when a child is suffering or ignoring them and reaches out for support.
- Failing to provide psychological care for the child.
- Allowing the child to use alcohol and drugs.
Neglect can be incredibly detrimental to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A 2015 review found that emotional abuse during childhood is linked to poor immune system response and overall health in adulthood.
This abuse can also stunt the development of a child’s brain, thus leading to psychological problems and potentially triggering to high-risk behaviors. That may help explain why children and teens who are abused by caregivers are also more likely to become involved in criminal activity.
Very often, Krueger says parental neglect is a sign of a serious mental illness, like a mood disorder or substance use disorder, which compromises the parent’s judgment or ability to meet their child’s needs. In other words, a parent may simply be physically or psychologically unable to care for a child.
6. They compare you to others
Comparison is a natural human instinct — in the same way that a child may notice how their parents are a lot stricter than their friends, a parent may notice that another couple’s child is far more well-behaved.
However, as soon as your parent begins verbalizing these comparisons out loud to you, it can soon become abusive.
For example, they might say: “Why can’t you be more like [friend’s name]?” or “Your cousin doesn’t have any trouble finishing their homework, I don’t know why it’s so hard for you.”
Or in households with more than one child, a parent may compare you to a sibling, says Kerwin. This can leave you feeling inferior to and even resentful of your brother or sister, increasing rivalry and damaging that relationship, as well.
There’s a good chance your parent isn’t comparing you to others to deliberately hurt you, but rather, in an attempt to motivate you to behave in a particular way that’s more pleasing to them.
Regardless of the intention, though, it can, “create short-term impacts such as anger and embarrassment, and even long-term impacts including diminished self-esteem and lack of trust in others,” says Krueger.
A 2016 study found that emotional abuse is linked to a higher risk of many different kinds of mental disorders including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and substance use disorders.
A healthier way to motivate you would be to simply express whatever change they’d like to see without measuring you against someone else.
How to get help
If you think you’ve been emotionally abused by your parents, remember that you are not alone — and there are a number of resources you can use to get help.
Kerwin recommends that minors consider talking to a trusted adult — like a guidance counselor or teacher — about what they’re experiencing at home. A trained staff member may be able to get the child additional support services, like a child or family psychologist, to ensure their safety and well-being.
Krueger notes that crisis text lines can be a great option for adolescents, teens, and adults who have their own cell phones. Some hotlines you can reach out to include:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788, or use the online chat feature for free and confidential support 24/7.
- Love Is Respect: Teens and young adults can call 1-866-331-9474, text “LOVEIS” to 22522, or use the online chat feature to seek advice and support from advocates.
- National Child Abuse Hotline: Call or text 1-800-422-4453 to report abuse and/or get assistance finding free help and support in your area.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hotline: Call 1-800-950-NAMI, text “NAMI” to 741-741, or utilize the online chat feature on the NAMI website to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
Also, if you’re independent and able, Krueger highly recommends seeking a licensed therapist, who can help you work through any trauma caused by the abuse.
“For adults who are still suffering the effects, therapy can assist in working through resentments and understanding how their current relationships may be impacted by unresolved pain from their past,” she says.
Remember: There’s nothing you could ever do to deserve being emotionally abused — especially by a parent, who’s supposed to protect you, nurture you, and provide a safe environment for you to express your needs.
There are many potential reasons why a parent might resort to emotional abuse, including if they’re dealing with mental health conditions, substance use problems, or they’re not emotionally ready to be a parent.
Regardless of the reason or what they’re going through, this mistreatment is never your fault and can be extremely dangerous for your short and long-term mental and physical health.
If any of the above signs sound familiar or you suspect that a parent may be abusing you, consider reaching out for help. Children might try talking with a trusted adult at school, while teens and adults can contact a therapist or domestic violence or crisis hotline.
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U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Children’s Bureau. Definitions of child abuse and neglect.
Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Types and signs of abuse.
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