Parental abuse can come in many forms, including physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. Certain types of abuse, like physical abuse, are easier to recognize.1 Emotionally abusive parents fail to meet their child’s needs for love and support. All forms of abuse are harmful and can have negative effects on a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Approximately one in seven children experience abuse.2
There is often a cycle of abuse that occurs where there is a period of building tension, followed by an abusive act, and then a “honeymoon” period.3 During the honeymoon period, the abuser may be especially nice to the child in an effort to make up for what happened. Abusive parents often threaten their children to keep the abuse secret, preventing other people from stepping in.
Here are fifteen signs of abusive parents:
1. The Parent Physically Injures a Child
Parents who commit physical abuse are unable to control their anger and turn to violence, including hitting, kicking, or choking. Children may develop broken bones or bruises. Abusive parents often tell their children that they would lie if their injuries were ever questioned. Teachers, coaches, and pediatricians all play an important role in detecting physical abuse, since they may be the first ones to notice the signs.
2. The Parent Uses Violence as a Form of Punishment
The use of violence to punish a child is called corporal punishment. When a child displays negative behavior, these parents turn to physical action to show their disapproval. Studies on corporal punishment show that it is not an effective form of punishment and can be detrimental to children’s physical and emotional health.4
3. The Parent Consistently Makes Critical or Hurtful Comments Toward the Child
Emotional and verbal abuse are much harder to detect than physical abuse, but it can be just as harmful. An emotionally abusive parent may put down a child on a regular basis. For example, they may call the child “stupid” for getting a poor grade. In abusive families, these types of comments happen on a regular basis and leave a child feeling worthless.
4. The Parent Humiliates the Child in Front of Other People
Emotionally abusive parents may use shame and humiliation as a way to hurt their children. They may tell embarrassing stories or engage in name-calling in front of other people. This is typically done in front of the child’s peers, leaving them to feel embarrassed and hurt.
5. The Parent Is Sexually Inappropriate With the Child
Parents who commit sexual abuse engage in sexual behaviors with their children. The parent usually threatens the child to keep the abuse a secret. Sexual abuse can be hard to notice, but some children may display their own signs. For example, a child that is sexually abused may act out sexually with other children.
6. The Parent Exposes Their Child to Inappropriate Sexual Content
Showing children inappropriate sexual content is a form of sexual abuse. A perpetrator may become aroused by looking at or watching this content with children. This is just as much a form of pedophilia as touching or performing sexual acts with a child.
7. The Parent Treats Their Child Like a Romantic Partner
Emotional incest is a type of emotional abuse where a parent expects their child to take on the role of romantic partner.5 They depend on them for emotional support, putting children in a difficult position since they aren’t equipped to fulfill this role. Parents who commit emotional incest may take their children on dates or share personal information about their sex lives.
8. The Parent Withholds Love
Emotionally abusive parents may withhold love and affection as a way to punish children or change their behavior. While children do need firm limits and discipline at times, punishing children by withholding love can hurt a child’s sense of self-worth.
9. The Parent Uses Manipulation to Get What They Want From Their Child
Toxic parents can resort to manipulation to get what they want from their children, and can often include gaslighting their kids to further create doubt in their minds. While any family dynamic can involve manipulation, it is especially common in divorced families.6 For example, one parent may try to alienate the child from the other parent during a divorce by speaking negatively of them. This is also referred to as parental alienation.
10. The Parent’s Anger Is Unpredictable
Abusive parents have trouble managing their anger and can have angry outbursts that may feel like they come out of nowhere. Children of abusive parents may describe feeling like they have to “walk on eggshells” to keep their parents from getting angry. This creates significant stress and anxiety for children, who feel constant pressure to be on their best behavior.
11. The Parent Withholds Basic Necessities
Neglect is also a type of abuse. Neglectful parents may withhold basic necessities, like food, water, or clothing, from children. This withholding can be used as a form of punishment. Children may become malnourished, dehydrated, and lack proper hygiene. Often this form of abuse is accompanied by other types, like physical and verbal abuse.
12. The Parent Targets Siblings Against One Another
“Choosing favorites” is another type of emotional abuse where parents may put one child on a pedestal. These parents may provide praise, love, and gifts to the idealized child and withhold these things from the devalued child. This can cause feelings of shame, inadequacy, and anger in the devalued child and significant tension or even abuse between the siblings.
13. The Parent Takes Financial Advantage of Their Child
Parents may financially abuse children who earn their own money. Many famous cases of this involve children who grew up working in the entertainment industry. Parents may claim to have a separate bank account for the child, but actually keep the money for themselves. When children are old enough to access their accounts, they may find that their money is missing.
14. They Control Their Child’s Behavior
Controlling parents attempt to monitor their child’s every move, even as they get older and are ready for more independence and autonomy. They may forbid play dates or demand that a child continue an activity or sport despite wanting to stop. This is a form of emotional abuse that limits children’s abilities to live freely and develop important skills as they age.
15. The Parent Uses Religion to Control a Child
Religion and spirituality can serve an important and healthy function in families by providing beliefs and values to live by. However, in some rare cases, religion may be used in a harmful way, and may be considered religious abuse. For example, some religious groups have used their beliefs to justify sexual and other forms of abuse toward children.
Impacts of Mentally Abusive Parents
Many therapists believe that “trauma is in the eye of the beholder,” meaning each person experiences and copes with trauma differently. Two people can experience the same abuse, like siblings growing up with the same parents, yet they exhibit different reactions. The effect of abuse on a child can depend on factors like the type of abuse, how long it lasted, and whether or not the child received support.
Impacts of being raised by an abusive parent include:
- Cognitive limitations, like impairments with learning, attention, and memory2,6
- Low self-esteem7
- Post-traumatic stress2
- Eating disorders8
- An insecure attachment style11
5 Ways Deal With Emotionally Abusive Parents
Relationships between abusive parents and their children are often complicated. There may be mixed feelings of love, anger, and hurt. You may even experience trauma bonding, which happens when an abuser and trauma survivor develop a close bond with one another, which can make it difficult to walk away.
Here are five ways to deal with abusive parents:
- Try talking to them about your feelings and how their behavior affects you
- Suggest attending family therapy together
- Consider setting boundaries if they are resistant to change
- Find an individual or group therapist to work with to try to heal on your own
- Contact your local child welfare agency if you are concerned that they are currently abusing a child
How to Heal From Emotionally Abusive Parents
Many people raised by emotionally abusive parents turn to therapy to heal. Therapy involves meeting with a therapist, either individually, in a group, or as a family, to talk about the issues concerning you. Therapists may work differently depending on their approach. For example, some therapists may focus on your past, while others may focus more on your present thoughts and feelings.
Several types of therapy are used to treat abuse survivors, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT).12 You can ask a therapist to explain their approach to treatment to help you get a better idea.
To begin the process of finding a therapist, ask your healthcare provider for referrals, contact your health insurance company, or ask family or friends for recommendations. Choosing Therapy’s online therapist directory is another way to approach finding a therapist. It allows you to search for local or telehealth therapists who specialize in treating victims of emotional abuse.
Final Thoughts on Emotionally Abusive Parents
If you’ve experienced emotional abuse from a parent, you are not alone. You can heal and move forward from your abusive past. Any form of abuse is difficult to cope with, but therapy, social support, and self-care can help you recover.
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