According to a 2021 study published in BMC Psychiatry, emotional abuse is the most prevalent form of child mistreatment. 36% of adults report having experienced emotional abuse as children from parents or caregivers in a 2020 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Emotional abuse can be challenging to detect because it is often a consequence of what the parent or caregiver is not doing rather than what they are doing to the child. However, knowing about the signs of emotional abuse from parents helps in the identification of emotional abuse.
This article discusses emotional abuse, its examples, signs of emotional abuse, and what you can do about it.
What Is Emotional Abuse From Parents?
The term Emotional Abuse is a pattern of behavior that an abusive parent perpetuates leading to emotional distress, damage to the sense of self-worth, and hindrance to emotional development in children. Emotional neglect, threats, name-calling, bullying, hostility, and constant criticism are just a few examples of emotionally abusive behavioral patterns.
Emotional abuse may not result in cuts and bruises, making it harder to detect, it can leave life-long emotional scars that can be just as harmful as physical or sexual abuse.
Federal Child Abuse and Prevention Act recognize emotional abuse of children under 18 years of age from parents or legal guardians as a punishable offense.
Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Parents
When you suspect a child to be a victim of emotional abuse, these are the signs you should look out for:
They prioritize themselves.
Parents must take care of themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically before they are capable of supporting their children. But when they constantly place their needs above their child’s, it can become abuse especially when the child is too young to fulfill their needs. An emotionally abusive parent may display behaviors like:
- Leaving their child home alone without a babysitter before going on dates or hanging out with their friends.
- Manipulating their child to stay home with them instead of letting them hang out with their friends.
Young parents and parents with narcissistic personality disorder are prone to emotionally abuse their children. People with autism may have a hard time perceiving their children’s needs and fulfilling them.
They withhold love.
An emotionally abusive parent may purposefully hold back on affection from their children to affect their behavior. For instance, they may ignore their kid after he or she tells them they won’t be returning for the holidays or when they voice a different viewpoint than their parent’s. This type of passive-aggressive behavior implies that their love is conditional; they will only show their affection to children when they make them happy.
Such parents may also have grown up with emotionally abusive parents, and this behavior must have been modeled for them.
They isolate their child.
Emotionally abusive parents may sever their child’s contact with other family members, friends, and loved ones to gain control over them. It prevents the child from reaching out for help.
An emotionally abusive parent may keep their child from meeting with their relatives, come up with excuses as to why their child cannot hang out with their friends, and lock their children in their room for indefinite periods.
They utilize intimidation tactics.
Intimidation is a severe form of emotional abuse. A victim may feel powerless, hopeless, or frightened as a result of intimidation. This behavior can manifest in various ways. When a child tries to confront their parent about something, they might have erratic emotional outbursts, making them feel uneasy about expressing their feelings and worries. When their child disagrees with them, they might yell, scream, swear at them, call them names, or even throw objects at them.
Lack of empathy, poor emotional regulation, and a need to control are some of the reasons for the behavior. People with a borderline personality disorder may use intimidation to prevent their kids from deserting them. They threaten to never speak to their children if they leave the house or hang up the phone.
They are negligent.
Neglect is one of the most commonly observed signs in children with emotionally abusive parents. Such parents fail to fulfill the necessities of their children, such as food, clothing, hygiene, medical attention, etc.
Their negligent behavior may look like: letting their children consume alcohol and drugs, failing to support the psychological needs of their child, and failing to respond with compassion or love when a child needs support or ignoring them when they ask for their help.
Neglect is not only damaging to the mental, physical, or emotional well-being of a child, but it also slows down brain development in a child leading to psychological issues and high-risk behaviors. This explains why people who have been abused as children are at higher risk of becoming involved in criminal activities.
Parents with substance use disorder or mood disorder have a higher propensity to neglect their children.
They criticize relentlessly.
Unrelenting criticism or placing blame on the child is also a form of emotional abuse.
Emotionally abusive parents constantly berate or blame their children and never accept responsibility for themselves. They blame their child for everything and generally abdicate responsibility for their actions.
They compare their child.
Humans are naturally inclined to compare themselves with others. However, abusive parents may constantly compare their children to others and cause them distress.
They may compare one of their child with their sibling. This behavior can damage the self-esteem of the child, make them resentful of their sibling, and damage their relationship with their sibling. They may also compare their child with their cousins or friends, demanding them to behave like other kids.
Though some parents compare their children not to hurt them, but to encourage specific behaviors, comparison can still render short-term and long-term effects on their child’s emotional well-being. Children may feel anger and embarrassment and may have low self-esteem and a lack of trust in themselves as adults.
Personality disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders are all associated with emotional abuse.
They gaslight their child.
Emotionally abusive parents frequently resort to gaslighting as a way to assert control over their children. Gaslighting involves psychologically manipulating a person to question their sanity, reality, and experiences of events to control someone.
They gaslight their children for self-preservation, and to keep their children from abandoning them and asking others for help.
They are inconsistent.
Inconsistency is a less obvious but equally pervasive indicator of emotionally abusive parents. Inconsistent parenting that depends on the parent’s mood at any given time, i.e., when something is OK today but gets the child severely punished tomorrow, can rob a child of their sense of direction and control. This unpredictability also makes kids feel uncomfortable in their own homes.
It is also called covet incest where a parent uses their child to meet their emotional needs. They force their child to act as a confidante or emotional spouse to support them.
While emotional incest does not involve direct sexual contact, the parent’s overtly sexualized interest in the child’s physical growth and sexual characteristics, and their betrayal of the child’s boundaries through invasions of privacy, sexualized conversations, and other means, are characteristics of these emotional enmeshing relationships.
How Does Emotional Abuse From Parents Affect A Child?
Children who have abusive parents may not be able to identify the abuse because it is all they have ever known. They may grow up believing they are unworthy of love or respect because they hold themselves responsible for their parent’s behavior. Children who experience emotional abuse can suffer severe consequences for the rest of their lives, even after the abuse has ended.
These are some of the damaging consequences that emotional abuse on children may have:
- cognitive issues, such as problems learning, remembering, and paying attention.
- academic problems, such as decreased school attendance, subpar academic performance, and behavioral problems.
- mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and low self-esteem.
- emotional difficulties, such as trouble understanding, expressing, processing, and controlling emotions.
- early initiation of substance use, such as drinking, smoking, or using drugs.
- behavioral problems, like acting out, acting strangely, or making a lot of effort to please others.
- changes in appetite and weight that may lead to malnutrition, nutritional deficiencies, and eating disorders.
- issues with sleep, such as nightmares or insomnia.
- aches and pains in the body unrelated to any other apparent cause and don’t appear to improve with treatment.
- issues with their careers due to their lower level of education, their lack of employment options, and their higher risk of delinquency.
- relationship problems due to witnessing unhealthy relationship dynamics in their parent’s relationship.
What To Do About Emotional Abuse From Parents?
Children prefer to talk to adults they trust, such as a guidance counselor or a teacher, about their experiences at home. To ensure the child’s safety and well-being, a trained staff member, such as a child or family psychologist might be able to secure additional support services.
Remember that you are not alone if you believe your parents have emotionally abused you and that there are many resources available to you for assistance.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: To get free, confidential support around the clock, call 1-800-799-SAFE, text “START” to 88788, or use the online chat feature.
- Love Is Respect: Teens and young adults can contact advocates at 1-866-331-9474, by texting “loveis” to 22522, or by using the online chat feature.
- National Child Abuse Hotline: Call or text 1-800-422-4453 to report child abuse or for help locating local resources for free support and assistance.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hotline: To speak with a trained crisis counselor, dial 1-800-950-NAMI, text “NAMI” to 741-741, or use the online chat feature on the NAMI website.
If you are independent, consider seeking therapy to work through the trauma that resulted from emotional abuse. You might find out how your trauma from your past relationships affects your current relationships.
The Ending Note
Remember that the emotional abuse you went through is not your fault, especially by a parent who is meant to care for you, protect you, and give you a secure space where you can express your needs. Emotional abuse from parents can severely damage your mental and physical health, both in the short and long term.
A parent may use emotional abuse for various reasons, such as when they are struggling with mental health issues, drug or alcohol abuse issues, or when they are not emotionally prepared to be parents. It is not your fault no matter what’s the reason.
Consider asking for help if any of the signs of emotional abuse from parents apply to you or if you have any reason to believe your parent is abusing you. While teenagers and adults can contact a therapist, a domestic violence hotline, or a crisis hotline, children should speak with a trusted adult at school.
What do emotionally abusive parents look like?
Some of the behaviors that emotionally abusive parents display look like this:
- rarely showing affection.
- mentioning their dislike for the child.
- calling their child a burden.
- neglecting the child and refusing assistance from others.
- demanding performance standards for a child’s athletic and academic endeavors.
- criticizing their child in front of their peers, teachers, or neighbors.
- denying the existence of any issues at home or in the classroom.
- instructing teachers and other adults to punish a child severely if they misbehave.
What are the 5 signs of emotional abuse?
When a child has faced emotional abuse, there are more than five tell-tale signs:
- abrupt, unexpected changes in behavior or academic performance.
- overly observant behavior, as if anticipating a negative outcome.
- apprehension around particular people.
- a propensity to avoid being in the presence of certain people.
- a distant or unresponsive attitude.
- excessively submissive or obedient conduct.
- arriving early and leaving late from work or other commitments.
- refusal to return home.
- absence of parental supervision.
- emotional agitation or distress.
- anger or hostility.
What’s the most psychologically damaging thing you can say to a child?
According to psychologists, the most damaging thing you can say to a child is that you don’t love them.