30+ Signs of Emotionally Abusive Parents (According to 10 Experts)

Have you ever wondered if your parents are emotionally abusive? It can be tough to tell, especially if you’ve grown up with them your entire life and become used to it.

According to experts, here are the signs of emotionally abusive parents:

Stephani Jahn, PhD

Stephani Jahn

Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor | Owner and Therapist, A Pathway to You – Online Counseling in Florida

Emotional abuse can happen in many contexts, including romantic relationships, at work, and between parents and children — both while the children are young and when they are grown up. 

While on the surface, emotional abuse may sound less harmful than physical abuse, its effects can be deeply painful, long-lasting, and difficult to heal. 

Emotional abuse can injure a person’s sense of self-worth, ability to engage in healthy relationships, and emotional regulation. Emotional abuse often happens as a series of many minor incidents over time, but there may also be bigger instances.

In parent-child relationships, the abusive dynamic is especially significant because of the power parents have over their children physically, emotionally, and in other ways. 

It is also important to consider that trauma during childhood can impact brain development, meaning this kind of trauma can be “stickier” and requires deeper healing.

Here are seven ways that emotional abuse might look between parents and their children, whether adults or young children:

They might be holding grudges

Emotional abuse can involve someone holding your actions over your head, such as frequently bringing up your mistakes or missteps in a shaming way. Emotionally abusive parents might “never let you live it down” when you do something they don’t like. 

Some parents might hold a grudge for things their adult children did when they were young, years ago, when in fact, at that time, the parent had responsibility as the adult in the situation. 

While sometimes caring relationships may need to revisit the past, emotional abuse can be avoided through respectful, mutual conversation aimed at finding a way forward instead of resentful rehashing.

They have a biased way of looking at events

Emotionally abusive parents can have a biased way of looking at events so that they confidently place blame and accusations on others in ways that an outsider would see as unfair. 

When young children experience this, they may come to believe what they are told about being at fault for bad things happening. This can develop into an implicit belief that they, the child, are bad as a person. 

Adults who experienced or are experiencing this abusive behavior may feel torn about whether the accusations and blame were/are fair. Even when they have some awareness of the unfairness, an emotional injury can still take place.

They use withholding affection as punishment

Emotional abuse can include withholding affection as punishment, including giving “the silent treatment.” There is a reason that various cultures throughout history have reserved ex-communication, exile, and isolated imprisonment as severe punishments. 

Even adults suffer greatly when disconnected because human well-being draws from interpersonal connection, especially those who are part of our “tribe,” like family members. 

This kind of emotional abuse is existentially threatening to a child because the child depends on their parent’s attention for their literal survival. 

Withholding affection and related forms of abuse quietly teach children that they are unseen, unheard, unimportant, and unwanted, and children can internalize these beliefs. 

They criticize and use hurtful language

Examples of this include slursname-calling, and criticism of personal qualities, like your personality, body, or self-expression. Children’s self-concept develops with a strong influence from parents. 

Children internalize when parents teach children to see themselves as bad, disgusting, or worthless. In a child’s mind, it makes more “sense” to see themselves as bad in order to see their parents as correct and good. 

Children have a deep need to see their parents as right in order to have the mental sense of safety their parent’s competence provides. 

Even adult children can feel hurt by their parent’s criticisms when they are operating from the child-like part of their mind that looks to the parent for acceptance. 

Related: How to Deal With Critical Parents in Adulthood

When adult children are able to connect with their adult mindset, they may have more resilience to a parent’s critiques and may be more able to set boundaries to prevent them from being so hurtful.

They are dismissing their child’s experience

Dismissive behaviors can include: 

  • Harsh teasing 
  • Biting sarcasm
  • Unfriendly practical jokes
  • Minimizing the importance of your thoughts and feelings 

These actions demonstrate a lack of regard for the child’s perspective. Many parents may want to receive respect as authority figures. 

However, these ways of acting demonstrate an inability to give the basic human respect that every person deserves, including children.

Gaslighting is a recurring part of the parent-child relationship

Gaslighting includes behaviors like denying another person’s experiences or rewriting history in the abuser’s favor. This can cause the target to doubt the accuracy of their own perceptions. 

Related: 20+ Examples of Gaslighting

Particularly in emotionally abusive parenting, this effect is not limited to just the instances in which the gaslighting happens. 

When gaslighting is a recurring part of the parent-child relationship, it can lead the child to doubt their perceptions about almost anything they experience, even to the point that they may doubt many of their memories, thoughts, and feelings. 

Related: How to Respond to Gaslighting

This can be an isolating and destabilizing experience but may be subtle at the same time.

They lean on their child for emotional support or venting

Parentification takes many forms and essentially places adult responsibilities on a child’s shoulders. 

This can include when a parent leans on you for emotional support or venting, especially when they do not offer you emotional support or cross your boundaries. 

Related: How to Respond to Someone Venting

Even for adults, the parent-child dynamic still holds power, even if only in the parts of the mind that are still child-like (sometimes called inner child parts). 

They hold their children responsible for their feelings or actions

Emotionally abusive parents may also hold their children responsible for their feelings or actions, such as saying, “if you hadn’t made me angry, I wouldn’t have acted that way.” 

In reality, adults are responsible for their own feelings, thoughts, and actions. Children are never responsible for adults’ behavior. In any relationship between adults and children, the adult is responsible for the quality of that relationship. 

Even between parents and their adult children, each adult is responsible for their own feelings and actions, but not for the other person’s.

Emilia Moskal

Emilia Moskal

Parenting Content Specialist, HiJunior

Many of us had to deal with emotionally abusive parents in our childhood. Until today, some of us don’t realize it. The word “abuse” is often associated with the physical type. 

However, most people experience emotional abuse from a family member or friend at some point in their life. 

What is emotional abuse?

The definition states that it involves behavior intended to belittle another person, make them feel ashamed, or put them down. It typically leads to mental health issues, e.g., depressionanxietylow self-esteemchronic painsubstance abuse, etc. 

Long-term emotional abuse causes prolonged adverse effects on our health, so the earlier we recognize our parents are emotionally abusive and understand how to deal with it, the better. 

What are the common signs of emotional abuse?

They use emotional manipulation when they want to achieve something 

Abusive parents use emotional manipulation by causing a child to feel shame, guilt, or pressure in situations when they want to achieve a specific outcome. 

Related: What Is the Difference Between Shame, Guilt, and Remorse?

They can trick, influence, or pressure their kid into doing something they don’t feel like doing. Children with manipulative parents usually grow into angry or lost adults with low self-esteem.

They might feel like they are doing their child a favor by criticizing

Some parents might feel like they are doing their child a favor by criticizing, so they can make relevant changes and, as a result – get better at something. 

Although, constant critique about how your children act, what decisions they make, or even how they look will make them feel overly self-conscious, question their personality, or become obsessive in the future.

They think their child deserves the silent treatment

Instead of having an open conversation to explain the problem to children, an abusive parent stops talking to them. 

Experiencing this kind of behavior in childhood often results in anxious adults being unable to communicate freely with their partners and other people. 

Usually, kids perceive this behavior as a parent having a bad day or thinking they deserved the silent treatment. Consequently, they are often afraid to speak their mind in social settings. 

They act in a way that makes their child question their sanity or reality

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that happens when a parent acts in a way that makes a child question their sanity or reality. 

Often results in a kid or young adult feeling constantly anxious and unsure. They feel like they are unable to trust their judgment. Gaslighting can cause anxiety disordersneurosis, or even depression.

They invalidate their child’s emotions 

Some mentally abusive adults let their children believe their feelings are not as important as adults’ emotions. They are being belittled for expressing weakness, and their feelings are seen as irrelevant. 

People who go through this kind of treatment as children have issues saying how they feel. These individuals avoid asking for professional help because of the stigma they have carried since childhood.

They set excessively high expectations 

Setting unrealistic expectations happens when parents expect children to achieve unbelievably complicated or time-consuming things in a short amount of time. 

They make them feel like what they have already achieved is not good enough. This abuse can result in low self-esteemperfectionism, or social anxiety in adulthood.

They put the blame on their children

Blaming your child for all the shortcomings in your life can seriously harm their mental health. 

Sometimes it can seem harmless, but in reality, it can be pretty damaging to express to your kids that you had to give up your whole life to take care of them. Instead of gratefulness, you will make them feel responsible for your unhappiness.

Sameera Sullivan

Sameera Sullivan

Relationship Expert, Sameera Sullivan Matchmakers

They frequently use abusive language

If your parents are verbally abusive, it is evident they also affect your emotional health. Being a parent is challenging and frequently frustrating. You can’t blame parents for occasionally being harsh with their kids because of this. 

However, if it has developed into a pattern, that is one surefire approach to identifying emotional abuse. A pattern of verbal abuse, precisely.

They display narcissistic traits

A well-known indicator that your parents are emotionally abusive is when they display narcissistic traits. They will make every effort to control your emotions. They enjoy having authority over their kids. Either they want to seem beautiful or believe that caring for their kids wastes time.

Related: How a Narcissistic Parent Affects a Child

They go through mood swings

We all experience mood swings. Parents who abuse their children emotionally often vent their feelings on the kids. And in a family setting, extreme mood swings can undoubtedly have a negative psychological impact on a child. 

Emotionally abusive parenting is when a parent’s mood swings make you feel like you are always on edgeanxious, or afraid of what will happen when they are present (even if nothing “bad” ever happens).

Tiffany Homan

Tiffany Homan

Relationship Expert, Texas Divorce Laws

There’s a reason so many children are dealing with anxiety and depression these days. 

Apart from dealing with toxic societal standards and trying to fit in, they sometimes have to deal with emotionally abusive parents, which further deters their growth and results in mental health issues.

They frequently insult their children

The fact that emotional abuse frequently follows a pattern is a key feature. People make mistakes; thus, one-off instances in which a parent gets angry or is nasty to their children are not indicative of an emotionally abusive environment. 

But persistent emotional abuse might result from insults and slurs. Parents can blatantly abuse their children’s emotions by abandoning them or using terrible language that breaks their hearts, assigns blame, and causes them to doubt their own value.

Related: How to Deal With Insults From Family

They don’t validate their children’s emotions

The first rule in emotionally abusive households is that there is only one way to express emotions. Children’s feelings are either dismissed as unimportant or perceived as competing with the abusive parent’s. 

Emotionally abusive parents ignore their children’s feelings without recognizing them. 

While criticizing their children for overreacting if they cry or become upset in response to their parents’ wrath, parents may have major emotional outbursts over ordinary, everyday occurrences, such as calling a child stupid because they stumbled over the rug. 

This dynamic can cause children to firmly believe their feelings aren’t accurate or legitimate.

Ketan Parmar, MD, MBBS, DPM

Ketan Parmar

Counseling Psychologist | Psychiatrist and Mental Health Expert, ClinicSpots

There are several signs that may indicate that a parent is emotionally abusive. 

These can include: 

  • Belittling or demeaning comments.
  • Regularly putting the child down.
  • Making them feel worthless or unloved.
  • Controlling or manipulating them.
  • Making them feel scared or threatened.
  • Excluding them from family activities.

Each of these behaviors can profoundly affect a child’s emotional well-being and development. Belittling comments can erode self-esteem and make children doubt their own worth. Being regularly put down can lead to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity

Making a child feel scared or threatened can cause them to become anxious and withdrawn. Exclusion from family activities can make children feel isolated and lonely.

They are saying belittling or demeaning comments

Parents who are emotionally abusive often use belittling or demeaning comments in an attempt to make their children feel inadequate. This can make children feel insecure about themselves and their abilities. 

Related: Why Are People Insecure?

It can also cause them to doubt their own self-worth, which can have a lasting impact on their future relationships. Parents who use belittling or demeaning comments to put their children down often criticize their academic achievements and/or their choice of career path. 

This can lead to children questioning their abilities and putting their academic or professional future in doubt. Making a child feel bad about their academic achievements and/or choice of career path can also make them feel inadequate and cause them to question their own abilities. 

It can also affect their self-esteem and self-confidence. This can make it difficult for children to feel confident enough to pursue the careers they want to pursue when they grow up.

They regularly put their child down

Parents who regularly put their children down often tend to criticize and belittle them. This can make children feel insecure about themselves and their achievements. It can also make them feel that they are never good enough. 

Children who are regularly put down often question their own abilities. They may also believe they are not good enough to achieve their dreams and goals. This can make it difficult for them to pursue the careers they want to pursue when they grow up. 

Regularly putting the child down can also make them feel insecure about their appearance. It can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and make them feel as though they are not good enough to be accepted or liked by others. 

This can make it difficult for children to approach others confidently and make friends.

Related: How to Stop Being Insecure About Yourself?

They make their child feel scared or threatened

Parents who make their children feel scared or threatened often do so in an attempt to control and manipulate them. This can make children feel anxious and withdrawn. It can also lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation

Related: How to Deal with Controlling People?

Making children feel scared or threatened can also cause them to lose confidence in their own abilities. This can make it difficult for them to pursue the careers they want to pursue when they grow up. 

Making children feel scared or threatened profoundly affects their mental health. It can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. It can also make it difficult for children to make friends at school and build positive relationships with their peers.

They exclude their children from family activities

Parents who regularly exclude children from family activities often do so in an attempt to isolate them and make them feel alone. This can make children feel lonely and excluded. It can also cause them to feel insecure about themselves and their relationships with others. 

Excluding children from family activities can also profoundly affect self-esteem and self-confidence. It can make a child feel like they do not belong anywhere and are alone in the world. This can make it difficult for children to form positive relationships with their peers and make friends.

Britt Frank, MSW, LSCSW, SEP

Britt Frank, MSW, LSCSW, SEP

Speaker and Licensed Psychotherapist, The Science of Stuck | Author, “The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward

Not all abuse leaves physical scars. Emotional abuse can have severe consequences — mainly since many forms of emotional abuse go under the radar. 

Signs of emotionally abusive parents include:

They do triangulation on a child

This is when parents gossip about a sibling with one of their other children.

Emotional incest

This is when a parent uses a child for emotional support. Another word for this is “parentification” or “surrogate spouse.”

They intentionally try to talk a child out of their reality

The term gets tossed around haphazardly in modern-day culture, but gaslighting is a very real and serious form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is when a parent intentionally tries to talk a child out of their own reality. 

For example, if a parent comes home intoxicated and a child notices something is wrong, a gaslighting parent would say, “You imagine things. I’m just the same as I always am.”

Infantilization

This is when a parent tries to keep a developing child in a younger state to meet the parent’s needs. Withholding of appropriate sexual information, overly rigid rules that do not match the child’s developmental age.

They do not give their child privacy

This is a very covert form of emotional abuse such as:

  • Not having locks on bathroom doors.
  • Not giving a child permission to undress privately.
  • Not letting a child know about their right to privacy with their own bodies.

Dr. Elizabeth Barlow, LICSW (MA,WV, & USVI)

Elizabeth Barlow

Chief Clinical Officer, Barlow Counseling Group

Two-way communication doesn’t exist

When communicating with an emotionally abusive parent, there is no place for your thoughtsfeelings, or beliefs

When you attempt to communicate these things with your parent, you are frequently “shut down” with accusations of being disrespectfulungrateful, or turning everything into an argument. 

Emotionally abusive parents cannot engage in healthy two-way communications because to do so requires that they relinquish their primary need and motivator; power and control. 

Related: Effective Communication: How to Improve Your Communication Skills

Growing up with an emotionally abusive parent can be incredibly damaging for your developing core-belief system. Your core belief system is something that starts to form from the time you’re born and adapts and changes over time through new lived experiences and environments. 

Distinguishing what you truly believe about the world vs. what your abusive parent thinks or wants you to think can be really difficult. 

It can be challenging to know if that opinion you have or that voice in your head is your own or if it is what you have been taught to believe.

How can I find myself?

Lacking self-identity is one of the primary negative consequences associated with growing up with an emotionally abusive parent, followed by insecure attachmentcodependencypeople pleasing (or a lack of boundaries), or the complete opposite. 

Taking on the behaviors of your abusive parent and perpetuating the power and control over your relationships with others. 

Re-write your core belief system

Re-writing your core belief system, developing a self-identity, and learning what healthy communication and a mutually loving relationship look like are all positive goals that can be achieved to find “you” through working with an experienced, supportive therapist.

Nancy Ryan

Nancy Ryan

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, The Relationship Therapy Center

They ferry you around for things you weren’t passionate about

It’s tricky to draw a line in the sand delineating emotional abuse. Physical abuse is clearer and easily visible. There’s an intent behind it. 

A parent may be unintentionally emotionally abusive. They may have struggles of their own that prevent them from being present, consistent and providing their child with a feeling of safety that is so important for development. 

Here are some signs that you may have had an emotionally abusive parent:

  • You grew up highly attuned to their moods and became proficient at walking on eggshells when needed.
  • You felt love was conditional: good grades and doing things that pleased them, equal love.
  • They were overly involved in your life, to the point where they invaded your privacy and violated boundaries.
  • They used you as a vessel to realize dreams, relentlessly ferrying you around to pageantsgames, or auditions for things you weren’t passionate about.
  • You were made to feel inferior or made fun of.
  • They were passive-aggressive.
  • They were inconsistent; you were never sure what would happen or how they would react.
  • You were yelled at and called names.

Lynell Ross

Lynell Ross

Health & Wellness Coach | Behavior Change Specialist | Relationship Coach | Resource Director, Sleep Family

They often tell their children what to think

Parents who tell their children what to think or what they want are emotionally abusing them — children who are told what to think to grow up confused. 

For example, if a child asks for a vanilla ice cream cone, and the parent tells them to order the strawberry because they like it better, the child begins to question themselves. 

Children who are told what they like and don’t like — don’t learn to think for themselves. They grow up being unable to make decisions

They hurt children’s sense of self 

A parent who is constantly criticizing their child does damage to their self-image. A child wants nothing more than to be loved and approved of by their parent. 

When the parent always tells them they can do better, picks at what they did wrong, or judges their appearance; the child begins to feel that they aren’t good enough.  

It is okay to guide their child and tell them when they are off track or need help, but parents who redo a child’s work or are too hard on them can create a perfectionist who grows up never feeling like they are enough.  

Steve Sacona

Steve Sacona

Legal Writer, Top10lawyers

Living with emotionally abusive parents can be very harmful in terms of mental health and the maturing process. Impassivity and negligence are the two most common traits of emotionally abused parents. 

They never encourage and always downplay their child’s achievements

Children living under the shadow of emotionally abusive parents feel depressed and unworthy of being themselves. Such parents never encourage their children and always downplay their achievements, regardless of their emotions and happiness. 

I can still recall the day when my father refused to come to my graduation ceremony as he had some official work to do. 

They show negative feelings effortlessly and always care only about the final outcome or result rather than appreciating the child’s hard work. 

The child must accept reality and find an alternate comfort zone

The only solution to this problem is that the child must accept reality and find an alternate comfort zone. Try to connect with other beings and consult with your family members about the circumstances. 

For example, if the child wants to go deeper in order to improve the situation, you can try to unravel the underlining cause of the situation. After finding the reason, you might understand the complexity of the given situation.

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