17 Signs Your Parents Were Emotionally Abusive (But You Didn’t Know)

A parent-child relationship is an important part of anybody’s development when they are growing up and sets us up for positive relationships as adults. Emotional abuse from parents can be hard to spot and comes in many different forms. Here are 17 signs your parents may have been emotionally abusive.

They Were Unpredictable

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According to Regain, emotionally abusive parents “may show love and affection one day, then anger and hostility the next for seemingly no reason, creating distrust and making it difficult to know where your relationship stands.” These mood swings can make it feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells.

They Withheld Affection as Punishment

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Parents who emotionally abuse their children often use their love and affection as bargaining tools, withdrawing them when your behavior displeases them. This conditions you to believe that love is earned, rather than given unconditionally, and that in order to feel their love, you have to meet their expectations or demands.

They Constantly Criticized and Compared

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A classic sign of emotional abuse, this criticism isn’t constructive but aimed at belittling or demeaning the child. Choosing Therapy says, “Being frequently told that one’s choices and actions are wrong results in feelings of low self-worth and worry about being verbally attacked for these choices.”

They Were Controlling and Dominant

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Controlling or dominant parents will micromanage your life decisions, including who you are friends with, what you do in your spare time, and the career choices you make. They will also enforce strict rules and limitations, significantly restricting your autonomy and independence.

They Shifted the Blame

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When emotionally abusive parents make mistakes, they’ll rarely admit them, instead finding ways to blame their kids. They can also make you feel responsible for their happiness and emotional well-being, and they won’t be accountable for the emotional damage they cause you.

They Manipulated You Through Guilt and Shame

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Guilt-tripping can be used to control someone’s actions and decisions, and when this tactic is used by parents, it often relates to how loyal you are to your family. They may have shamed you for your choices or used emotional blackmail to ensure you carried out their wishes.

They Invalidated Your Feelings

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According to Psych Central, “Emotional invalidation is the act of dismissing or rejecting someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.” Examples of this invalidation include phrases such as “I’m sure it wasn’t really that bad” or “It could be worse.” It can also be shown through non-verbal cues such as eye-rolling or ignoring the person when they’re talking.

They Invaded Your Privacy

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Reading diaries or going through texts, emotionally abusive parents often have no respect for your personal boundaries and will leave you with the sense that you are being watched or monitored. They’ll usually justify this invasive behavior by saying they are protecting you or are concerned for your well-being.

Their Love Was Based on Achievements

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In an emotionally abusive relationship, sometimes love and affection can seem to be based on successes or accomplishments. This might be in your personal skills, education, or career, and it leaves you feeling valued only for what you do rather than who you are.

They Disregarded Your Personal Boundaries

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It can be difficult when someone ignores or ridicules you for your need for personal space and independence. In the case of a parent-child relationship, this may be seen when they force you into situations or decisions against your will, such as forcing you to attend a family gathering when you have other plans.

They Used Gaslighting to Undermine Reality

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Gaslighting is a classic sign of emotional abuse in any relationship, and Mind Body Green says, “It involves psychologically manipulating someone to question their own reality, feelings, and experiences of events, in order to maintain control over that person.”

They Made Threats

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Emotionally abusive parents may make threats or intimidate you into being obedient or doing what they want you to do. This can include emotional threats, and the tactic is used to instill fear rather than respect in your relationship.

They Were Overly Dependent on You

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In a positive parent-child relationship, parents should not be dependent on their children. This includes expecting you to take on adult responsibilities from a young age and leaning on you for emotional support, reversing the roles within the relationship.

They Neglected Your Emotional Needs

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Physical affection is essential to a child’s development, and VeryWell Mind says, “When a parent or caregiver doesn’t show a child love or make them feel wanted, secure, and worthy, these actions result in emotional deprivation.” Emotionally abusive parents may have been emotionally unavailable during times of need or ignored your emotional expressions.

They Publicly Humiliated You

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When you’re growing up, your confidence can be easily knocked, and manipulative or abusive parents will use this to criticize or mock you in public, embarrassing you in front of others. This might include sharing personal information or downplaying your achievements to damage your self-esteem.

They Isolated You from Friends and Family

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Healthy relationships should always promote and encourage you to develop relationships with others, so if a parent discourages you or even forbids you from seeing individuals, it could be a sign of emotional abuse. They may have described those outside of the family as untrustworthy or monitored your social interactions to create a dependency on them.

Their Emotions Were Extreme

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If it was the norm to see the extremes of your parents’ emotions, they might have been neglecting your emotional needs as a child. These might have been expressions of extreme love and hate, with little room for rational or balanced responses.

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