- What is emotional abuse
- Types of emotionally abusive parents
- How to deal with emotionally abusive parents as a child
- How to deal with emotionally abusive parents as an adult
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Parental emotional abuse can take many forms, including verbally abusing, terrorizing, exploiting, isolating, rejecting, neglecting, and parentifying1.
It occurs when parents repeatedly interact with their children in a harmful way.
The parent’s abusive behavior can be chronic or only when triggered by alcohol or other potentiating factors.
Types of Emotional Abuse By Parents
Emotional abuse is hard to identify because, in most cases, it occurs behind closed doors and does not have obvious physical signs, as opposed to physical abuse or sexual abuse.
It is not always clear to what extent abusive behaviors are considered emotional abuse, as they are sometimes seen as bad parenting skills.
Here are some types of abuse from childhood that can leave emotional scars2.
Verbal abuse includes belittling, name-calling, degrading, shaming, ridiculing, singling out a child to criticize or punish, and humiliating a child in public. It includes openly telling children they are worthless or calling them derogatory names.
Terrorizing is life-threatening, making a child feel unsafe, setting unrealistic expectations with the threat of harm if they are not met, and threatening or inflicting violence on the child or their loved ones.
Exploiting or mis-socializing a child is encouraging them to develop inappropriate behavior that interferes with their development. For example, the parent may instruct their child to commit crimes or other antisocial activities.
The parent refuses to acknowledge the child’s worth and the legitimacy of their physical and emotional needs. A child is also rejected when their parent defines them as failures, refuses to acknowledge their accomplishments, refuses to show affection to them, and pushes them away.
Also See: Parental Rejection
The parent cuts off the child from normal social interactions. They may confine the child, preventing them from participating in social activities such as family gatherings and school functions.
The parent fails to provide basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. They may leave a child mentally, physically, or emotionally ill or prevent them from receiving treatment.
The parent forces their child to grow up and take on responsibilities they are not ready for. The child is criticized and punished for their age-appropriate behavior if they do not meet these expectations.
The mental well-being of children who witness domestic violence is undeniably compromised, regardless of whether they are physically harmed.
Causes of Emotional Abuse
Some common risk factors of emotional mistreatment are:
- Abusive parents suffered from parental abuse in their own childhood
- Affective disorders, depression, etc.
- Substance abuse such as alcohol and drug use
- Contentious divorce
- Poor or lack of parenting skills
- Children who are unwanted or unplanned
- Children who are socially isolated
- Children who are intellectually or emotionally handicapped
Effects of Having Emotionally Abusive Parents
Maltreatment of any kind creates emotional harm. However, research has indicated that emotional maltreatment is particularly harmful, possibly the most damaging form of abuse3.
Psychological abuse may have many long-term consequences for the child victim, such as the following.
Emotional maltreatment is particularly detrimental to a child’s self-esteem.
The demeaning nature of abuse toward children directly targets their self-worth. Low self-esteem results from constant criticism internalized by them.
Low self-esteem, in turn, causes a strong sense of shame, feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, self-dissatisfaction, and disempowerment4.
Emotional maltreatment impacts emotional health and development in children. Abused children may develop emotional instability, borderline personality disorder, or emotional unresponsiveness as a result.
They are also more prone to withdrawal5, self-directed anger, and pessimism about the future.
Emotional maltreatment is particularly destructive for a child’s competence in verbal and non-verbal communication skills, social skills, empathy and negotiation6.
As a result of childhood abuse, children have a distorted sense of relationships, making it difficult for them to form friendships or develop close relationships.
Other effects include externalizing behavior such as physical aggression, relational aggression, and impulsivity7.
Children are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of abuse in adulthood8.
Mental Health Issues
Emotionally abused individuals are at a three-fold higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as depressive disorder or eating disorders than non-abused individuals9.
In addition, emotional abuse from parents can lead to obsessive-compulsive symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)10.
They are also three times more likely to show suicidal behavior and suicidal ideation.
Abused children are more likely to show lower academic achievement.
Sexually Transmitted Infections and Risky Sexual Behavior
Emotionally abused have a significantly higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually risky behavior11.
HIV infection is twice as likely found in those who have been emotionally abused as kids.
Physical Health and Life Style
Child emotional abuse has adverse effects on health and lifestyle.
It is associated with smoking, alcohol problems drinking, obesity, and health-related problems such as failure to thrive, somatic complaints, poor adult health, and high mortality12.
Also See: 23 Signs Of Mentally Abusive Parents
How To Deal With Emotionally Abusive Parents As A Child
If you are a child facing an emotionally abusive adult, ask for help from a school counselor or trusted adult. If they don’t believe you or listen to you, try another one.
Keep telling someone until you find someone who can help or support you emotionally.
Most likely, they won’t be able to do anything about it, but they may help you connect with mental health professionals, convince your parents to seek help, or be a caring adult who listens to you to help lessen your pain.
Also, check out this article on how to deal with strict parents as a child.
Also See: Trauma-Informed Parenting
How to Deal with Emotionally Abusive Parents As An Adult
The best way to prevent abuse in adulthood is to keep a physical and emotional distance from the abusers.
The decision to cut off contact with one’s parents is not an easy one. You must weigh what you can gain from staying in an abusive relationship against the risks to your health.
It is best to seek professional help whether you want to stay away or be in touch with your abusive parents.
To remain in contact with your parent, you will need the help of a family therapist. When they are repeated frequently, parents’ abusive behaviors and your responses may have become normalized over time. They are difficult to change without outside help.
If you decide to cut ties, a therapist or clinical psychologist can help you regain your sense of self-worth and address the negative impacts of your past.
Healthy relationships can also be formed and maintained with the help of mental health professionals.
Build a network of supportive friends and families. Support yourself emotionally by surrounding yourself with people who understand you.
Emotional abuse during childhood is highly predictive of adult depression. Research has found that social support is protective against depression for abused females13.
Also See: Best Trauma Book
- 1.Baker AJL. Adult recall of childhood psychological maltreatment: Definitional strategies and challenges. Children and Youth Services Review. Published online July 2009:703-714. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2009.03.001
- 2.Kairys SW, Johnson CF. The Psychological Maltreatment of Children—Technical Report. Pediatrics. Published online April 1, 2002:e68-e68. doi:10.1542/peds.109.4.e68
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- 12.Norman RE, Byambaa M, De R, Butchart A, Scott J, Vos T. The Long-Term Health Consequences of Child Physical Abuse, Emotional Abuse, and Neglect: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Tomlinson M, ed. PLoS Med. Published online November 27, 2012:e1001349. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001349
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