I’ve been talking recently about toxic family because of my own personal experiences. I’ve been trying to understand why someone would need to do those things or act that way and I ran across a list of signs of emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse is serious subject that isn’t afforded enough attention or education. It wasn’t until I was much older and saw other parental interactions that I realized how weird my childhood really was. From 2 AM trips to Walmart to appease my mother’s boredom to feeling more liker her sister or parent than her child, my childhood was weird. And while I know my mother was abused by her siblings (and her siblings friends) that doesn’t excuse the behavior. I mean my father came from an abusive family…and while a bit abrasive and brutally honest, he wasn’t abusive.
Such behavior can often fly under the radar. Which makes it even more important to see the signs. I can’t tell you how many people thought my parents were cool…only to get to know my mom and not want to come back over.
It wasn’t until I started looking for support that I started to understand what I wish I had seen so long ago. If you’re going through the same thing or think you might be, seek help. Life is hard enough without this weight upon your shoulders. You are worthy of love, support, and validation, no matter what they said or did or thought. And you’re not alone. There are facebook groups, community forums, and even live support groups.
So without further ado, here are some “signs” of an abusive parent we need to be aware of:
1. Withholding or Making a Child “Earn” Necessities
Parents who intentionally or not deprive or make their children earn their basic needs are abusive. Making a child feel guilty or like they have to earn things like the roof over their head, food, or clothing is wrong. It’s one thing to remind a child of whose house and rules you’re under. It’s another to make them fear that they could lose it over petty squabbles.
2. “Parentification” or Enmeshment
“Parentification,” also known as “covert incest” or enmeshment, describes a “too close for comfort” relationship between a parent and child where boundaries are blurred. The child can end up feeling less like a child. They end up becoming the emotional support for the adult instead. More like a sibling, parent, or lover of their parent instead of their child.
Someone who grows up with parentification can find it hard to keep that boundary with their own child or with others. They don’t tend to have good relationship boundaries because of the lack of boundaries in their childhood relationships.
This is one of a few of these that really gets to me. I can remember over and over again my mother competing with me for resources then turning around and asking me to be her support system. Especially during the few times in which my father was unwilling to enable her. And when we were competing for resources from my father like children she always had to one up me, putting us deeper in debt…even over school supplies and clothing. It went so far as her telling me that it was my duty to take care of her no matter what the circumstance.
3. Favoring One Child Over Another
In many of the support groups I’ve been visiting recently two terms are used. The Golden Child and the Scapegoat. It’s easy to see which serves which function. But in an abusive relationship involving siblings a parent can choose one child that can do no wrong and another who can do no right. We see this often in crime serials.
It’s damaging for both children however. the Golden Child grows up with an inflated sense of self which may become deflated when they enter the real world (harming their self esteem). The other child starts with a deflated sense of self esteem and may never recover or struggle to believe they are worthy of anything better.
I would make an argument that this can still occur in single child households as well. Many of those in the support groups I follow find this to be the case after they have their first child. In the abusive parent’s eyes the grandchild can do no wrong and is pitted against their parent, putting that relationship at a strain so that the emotionally abusive parents can get whatever it is they get out of this type of interaction.
This can also take the form of pitting a child (or other family members against each other. Which only serves to reinforce the lie that love has to be earned instead of freely and unconditionally given. My father and I would often be pitted against each other. Looking back, I realize that she was trying to keep us both at each other (intentionally or not) so that she could more easily get her way.
4. Incessant Teasing/Humiliation
There is a difference between teasing and humiliation and abuse. It’s one thing to gently tease your child for a silly remark. It’s another to call them out or call them names in front of an audience. It can be a fine line as well. Making this sign particularly hard to call out.
5. Denying a Child Privacy
When you deny a child age appropriate privacy it does destroy their ability to trust others. While not entirely avoidable, growing up (until we moved) My room was either a pass through to my parents room…or had no door and was connected to the living room. I had no place where I could go and have my time to process or work things out. I’m not saying this was intentional abuse, but there are parents who would do this intentionally. This also includes invasions of privacy like reading a child’s diary.
In my mind this also includes not allowing a child to assert their boundaries. For example, one day the Valkyrie told me she wanted to get dressed by herself. So I helped her pick out her clothes and then left the room and allowed her to do her thing. She let me know if there was a problem and we all went on about our day.
If a child is old enough to do that by themselves, then I don’t think we have the right as parents to infringe on that privacy unless they abuse it in some way. Ignoring their right to privacy teaches them that they don’t deserve to assert their needs and that their boundaries will not be respected.
6. Threatening Physical Violence (Even Without Intent To Act On It)
I never personally experienced this one, but it terrifies me. I cannot imagine how unsafe a child might feel in that environment. Even if its never happened I would be terrified that one day it could.
7. Using Religion to Shame a Child
We’ve all heard stories of parents who have used religion against their children. It’s sad. It gives spirituality such a bad rap, even when the problem is the individual, and not the faith. I sometimes wonder if this may be one of many reasons people turn from established faiths. In addition, this form of emotional abuse can break a child’s ability to have that spiritual connection, whatever path they may choose.
Religion can be a beautiful thing for many families, but in some cases can be twisted and used as an instrument of shame and condemnation. Using religion to shame a child (as opposed to lovingly pointing them to spiritual values) can be damaging because in many religions, God is a father figure. This implies that not only is the biological parent ashamed of you, but so is the ultimate father of the universe.
8. Emotional Neglect or Being Absent
Abuse can be less about what a parent does and more about what they don’t do. I can relate to this article from Scary Mommy about neglect. And its tricky as she says, because its not active, its passive. It’s not something you see. It happens when your mom doesn’t keep her stuff together enough to make dinner. It was common at my house that I wouldn’t get dinner till 8 or later because mom supposedly couldn’t get up and do that. I don’t know for sure one way or the other, she was ill to some extent, but I question that now.
I understand her description of going numb when someone yells at me, or when someone ignores me because they are having a bad day. Of not knowing how to respond or what is expected of me. And if I feel that the interaction was bad, it morphs into fear, anger or shame, just as she describes. With me desperately trying to figure out what I’ve done wrong or what is wrong with me as a person. The withdrawal despite logically knowing that my suspicions are likely unfounded.
9. Showing Love Conditionally
Unconditional love is fundamental to a child learning they are wanted and loved…even if they make mistakes. Conditional love causes children to struggle with perfectionism, self esteem, and abandonment issues. It is not the same as a moment you pull away to calm down before talking to your child, especially if you make sure they know they are loved before doing so.
10. Using a Child to “Get Back” at the Other Parent
It is completely unfair to put a child in the middle of an argument or to use them as a tool for leverage. While usually associated with divorce, there are parents who do this on a regular basis. An abusive parent may use a child to get information or secrets about another parent or to poison them against them. Forcing them to choose a side. You become a pawn in their games.
11. Accepting Nothing Short of Perfection
No one is perfect. We especially cannot expect a child to be perfect. Perfectionist expectations only teach children that love is based on performance…which isn’t true. A study done in Singapore found that perfectionistic “helicopter parents” can make children excessively self-critical and undermine their confidence and self-belief.
Guilt Trips are another one of those triggering memories for me. Anytime my mother didn’t get her way, she was prone to make me feel guilty about something. When I wanted to move out I wasn’t being a dedicated daughter. I was taking her granddaughter away from her. When I took a trip to recharge I was abandoning my daughter (despite leaving her the ex’s parents house) and I obviously didn’t care.
And I have a hard time with healthy boundaries because of this. To quote the Mighty, it manipulates the power inequality between a parent and a child. It is unfair and exploitive.
Being “guilt-tripped” by an authority figure like a parent can cause real damage, often making it hard for a child to assert healthy boundaries in adulthood. It’s abusive because it uses the power inequality between a parent and child in a way the child often doesn’t realize is unfair and exploitative. It causes you to deny yourself things that you may deserve, or at least want. It can lead to anxiety, depression, fear, and stress, among other things.
13. Victim-hood and Blaming
I went through a very angry phase. I was unable to take responsibility for my actions and often saw myself as the victim. These are things I learned from my mother. She was never at fault for her own poor health choices and the way others treated her (even when she brought it on herself). And it was a hard habit to break. I like to think I’m mostly there now, but especially when I’m feeling worthless or self critical I can fall back into the victimhood side of the equation in the very least.
No parent is right all the time nor is it fair to blame a child for things that go wrong…especially if they are things they cannot control. I think back to all the times she talked about how she got disabled. Things like “Yeah, I got disabled having my daughter.” She always phrased it like that. She might elaborate and blame the doctor as well, but those were always the first words out of her mouth. Damaging words that made me concerned to have my own children and made me feel an obligation to take care of her. No matter how awful she treated me.
14. Refusing Communication
Children should always be allowed to communicate their fears and needs. I worry that I am guilty of this sometimes. That it is something that has seeped over from my own damaged past. When a child is not at least heard and acknowledged, they don’t feel safe. It makes them even more fragile. Though we also have to teach our children to express their emotions appropriately.
15. Verbal Abuse or Ridicule as “Discipline”
Words have power as I often tell my hypnosis clients. Sticks and stones definitely break bones, but words can hurt too. Especially if the person inflicting the damage is a parent. In a study examining whether childhood verbal abuse increased the risk for developing personality disorders (PDs), it was found that childhood verbal abuse may contribute to development of some kinds of PDs and other co-occuring psychiatric disorders.
16. Telling a Child to “Stop Crying” or Calling Them “Too Sensitive”
Feelings are okay. And it is okay to be a sensitive child. I know my valkyrie gets upset easily and we’ve made an effort to grow our collection of coping tools. We have our volatile moments of course where we are in public and I have to put a stop to unacceptable behavior, but I attempt to be careful about doing so.
We have to make a point of making sure our children know when they overact that its not the emotion itself that is bad or good. It’s their reaction. The way they handle it. And we have to help them develop good coping skills. Something I struggle with concerning my own little one as I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) have all the coping skills I need. We never want our children to feel that their emotions are not valid or that everything they do is an over reaction.
17. Stealing or Taking the Money a Child Earned
Parents are not entitled to the things their children have earned. I had a friend who went through this in college with her mom. Until she opened a new account her mom would constantly take money out of hers anytime things got tough or she needed cigarettes. When you take from your children it teaches them that they owe their parents for raising them. Which is not something we should be instilling in our children. We should hope that we did a good enough job that they will want to and be able to help us when we need them to be there.
18. Making Your Child Who You Want Them to Be vs. Who They Want to Be
While this should be self explanatory…I feel like a see or hear about this a lot. A relationship with a parent becomes toxic when a parent tries to force their child to be something they are not. All in the name of helping them realize their potential. Having your true identity rejected can lead to poor self esteem and perfectionism.by