9 Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Parents + What To Do About It, From Therapists
Emotional abuse can come from anyone in our lives, including parents. But because abuse exists on a wide spectrum, it can be difficult to spot. We asked therapists which signs of emotionally abusive parents to watch out for—plus what to do if you realize you're experiencing or have experienced it. Here's what to know.
What is emotional abuse?
"Emotional abuse is any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear," intimate partner violence experts Günnur Karakurt, Ph.D., LMFT, and Kristin E. Silver write in the Violence and Victims1 journal. "It targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim, and it is often a precursor to physical abuse."
Emotional abuse can look like a lot of things, but according to relationship therapist Ken Page, LCSW, it can be defined as anything devaluing, demeaning, or neglectful to another person's feelings or experiences, "which leaves them feeling less-than, ashamed, incapable, and not valuable."
And as psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D., previously explained to mbg, emotional abuse often goes hand in hand with verbal abuse, which encompasses the use of words in an attempt to control, manipulate, or harm another.
Signs of emotionally abusive parents:
Neglect is defined as a failure to care for something properly, and according to Page, it's one of the main signs of an emotionally abusive parent. Neglect makes the child feel their parent doesn't really care about them, whether it's neglecting their emotional needs (i.e., when they're upset), physical needs (i.e., when they're sick or hungry), or simply disregarding them more often than not.
Constant criticism or blaming
Constant criticism or blaming can be a form of emotional abuse, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT. As Nuñez previously explained to mbg, having a parent who's always criticizing or blaming you, and never taking accountability for themselves, is emotionally abusive. This can look like the parents playing the victim, saying everything is always the child's fault, and generally avoiding responsibility for their actions.
Another subtle sign of emotionally abusive parents that's harder to spot is inconsistency. As Page notes, inconsistency based on how the parent is feeling any given time (aka something is OK today, but the same thing gets the child terribly punished tomorrow) can leave a child without any sense of clarity or control.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Zar, LMFT, CST, that unpredictable behavior also leads children to feel like they're walking on eggshells in their own home. "Everything can be fine and everyone's got a smile on their face, and then you hit one land mine and everything blows up," she explains.
Unchecked mental health and/or substance abuse problems
According to Page, any unstable psychiatric disorder, or an active substance addiction, can often result in emotional abuse in significant ways. "You can not have an active substance abuse problem or an untreated serious or unstable serious psychiatric disorder and not cause harm and pain in profound ways to your child," he tells mbg.
Parents who frequently compare their children to siblings, peers, or even themselves, can easily cause harm to their children, Page explains. This can sound like, "Why can't you be more like your brother?" or even, "When I was your age, I would never leave the house looking like that," which can make the child feel they're not lovable or enough just as they are.
This one might seem obvious, but it's worth calling out. Verbal abuse exists on a spectrum, with subtler forms to overt ones, says Page. "On the extreme end of the spectrum would be verbal cruelty—screaming, yelling, demeaning the person's character, demeaning who they are and demeaning their values—and doing it in an abusive and cruel way."
Missing children's bids
Page says a parent consistently ignoring their child's bids for attention can be another subtle form of emotional abuse. The idea of "bidding for attention," in this case, would be a child trying to get their parents' recognition, attention, and/or validation.
To have bids ignored constantly, Page says, causes a lot of pain over time. As psychologist and micro-trauma expert Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg, "By shortening or postponing contact, spreading it out, or minimizing its original importance, the one stepping back from contact inflicts micro-trauma by undercutting the other person psychologically."
Gaslighting is a telltale sign of emotional abuse. It involves psychologically manipulating someone to question their own reality, feelings, and experiences of events, in order to maintain control over that person. It can sound like, "I never said that—you're making it up," or "You're being dramatic about this."
Parents are certainly not immune to gaslighting their children, and as therapist Aki Rosenberg, LMFT, previously told mbg, "Gaslighting at its core is always about self-preservation and the maintenance of power/control—namely, the power/control to construct a narrative that keeps the gaslighter in the 'right' and [the other person] in the 'wrong.'"
(Here's our full guide to gaslighting parents.)
Lastly, emotional incest, also sometimes called covert incest, is another form of emotional abuse and involves a parent using their child for emotional fulfillment. As clinical sexologist and psychotherapist Robert Weiss, Ph.D., MSW, previously wrote for mbg, "The child is forced to support the abusive adult by serving as a trusted confidante or an 'emotional spouse.'"
Although emotional incest does not involve direct sexual touch, he explains, "these emotional enmeshment relationships have a sexualized undertone, with the parent expressing overly graphic interest in the child's physical development and sexual characteristics or betraying the child's boundaries through invasions of privacy, sexualized conversations, and the like."
What effects do emotionally abusive parents have?
Just as emotional abuse exists on a spectrum, so, too, do its effects, which can range from mild to severe, depending on how much abuse a child endured.
Taking a look at the research, one paper published in the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences2 concluded that psychological abuse is tied to a variety of problems, including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, low self-esteem, aggression, emotional unresponsiveness, and neuroticism.
As Page explains, children with emotionally abusive parents may suppress themselves, or alternatively, act out on their feelings and impulses. He also notes that as humans, we mirror what was done to us if we haven't processed it. "And that's why the Buddhists say when you heal a family lineage wound like this, you heal seven generations past and seven generations future," he says.
And when children replicate these behaviors, either in the form of negative self-talk or lashing out at others in the way their parents lashed out at them, they're carrying on that family chain. "It keeps the experience of emotional abuse alive in your body, in your heart—because when you talk to yourself that way, your body takes it as truth. And so you are actually replicating the pain of the abuse you experienced in your childhood," Page explains.
Then, of course, we have to consider that these children grow up into adults with their own relationships to tend to. And if the emotional abuse they endured hasn't been dealt with, according to Page, this is when we see things like anxious attachment or avoidant attachment styles, problems with trust and intimacy, and so forth. Adults with emotionally abusive parents may even go on to mirror those same patterns with their own children, as well.
A note on the inevitably of emotional wounding.
Before we get into how to handle emotional abuse from a parent, it's worth noting that no parent gets away without some behavior that causes pain to their child, according to Page. "If you were a perfect parent, you would be cursing your child because they would never be able to free themselves from your perfection, to rebel and break away," he says, adding, "Your child needs to see your brokenness so they can dis-identify with that and say, 'I want to be different.'"
It's inevitable that at one point or another, parents are going to unintentionally harm their children emotionally, he explains. They key, however, is parents recognizing when it's happening, listening to their children, and making adjustments.
"Your child is going to tell you ways you're hurting them, and if it doesn't happen, that's actually really bad," Page explains. "Our job as parents is to turn ourselves inside out and shift character traits that we know are hurting our child. This takes tremendous bravery, but it's also tremendously empowering to the child when they tell you what you're doing is hurting them. And you listen, and you really try to change—that's the concept of 'rupture and repair.' There will be rupture, so what are you willing to do to repair?"
How to get support.
The first step to healing from growing up with emotionally abusive parents is recognizing that it happened (or is still happening) in the first place, which can be tough.
Once you've pinpointed the behaviors that need to be worked on, and if you think your parents will be open enough to hearing you, you can try having an honest dialogue about the way you've been hurt. Page says family therapy can be a really helpful tool in this case.
If family therapy doesn't seem like a real possibility, individual therapy (such as cognitive and/or dialectical behavior therapy, EMDR, or brain spotting) can also be useful. In fact, it may even be beneficial to see a family therapist and a one-on-one therapist, if possible.
And because emotional abuse can wind up bleeding into our other relationships, Page explains, it's also so necessary to find friends who you feel genuinely supported by and safe with. "People who don't replicate that kind of abuse to you are so important because if this is being replicated, you won't be able to heal it," he notes.
If you do all these things and feel like the dynamic in your family isn't changing, from there, it may be time to put some boundaries up. As licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., previously told mbg, "Really think about the ways you can set boundaries and give yourself permission," adding that if you want to skip a family gathering, keep your distance, and/or stand up for yourself, you have every right to do so.
Emotional abuse can happen to anyone, at the hands of anyone. No one is immune, and in the case of children with emotionally abusive parents, the ramifications can be extremely harmful. But by identifying how your parents may have abused you emotionally, whether in childhood or still today, you'll be more equipped to heal that trauma within yourself and potentially even your relationship with your parents.
Sleep Like Before You Had Kids.
Receive your FREE Parents' Guide to Getting a Good Night's Sleep
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.