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

Emotional or psychological abuse can often be subtle and hard to recognize, especially when it comes from our parents. If you’ve never given it much thought, we hope that these 18 signs can help you recognize common signs of emotional abuse that often go unnoticed.

Constant Criticism

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Criticism, even when it is about trivial things, can often undermine the self-esteem of children and is a common form of emotional abuse. It makes you feel unworthy and brings about doubts about your abilities. Parents can either consciously or unconsciously criticize their kids on many occasions without even knowing it.

Withholding Affection as Punishment

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When your parents don’t show you constant affection, it could be a sign of emotional abuse, as it teaches children that love is conditional. Research presented by Verywell Mind draws a clear correlation between withholding affection as punishment and emotional abuse of children, showing that it subtly manipulates their emotions.

Blaming You for Their Problems

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When parents blame their children for their unhappy lives, it can create a sense of guilt in the child and force them to take on a responsibility that isn’t theirs to bear. This can affect the children’s relationships as they become adults, leading them to blame their spouses for their unhappy situations.

Ignoring Your Boundaries

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When parents don’t recognize a child’s individuality and disregard or overstep their boundaries, privacy, or personal space, it can be abusive. It shows them that their needs are irrelevant and that the parent’s needs and feelings always come first.

Unpredictable Emotional Reactions

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Unpredictable emotional responses from parents create a toxic environment where the children feel like they are walking on eggshells. Sometimes, parents even bounce between extreme behaviors or unpredictable behaviors, fostering an environment of uncertainty that can cause various problems in adulthood.


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Gaslighting is a telltale sign of emotional abuse, yet many people don’t know what it is. As MBG Relationships explains, gaslighting is the intentional emotional manipulation used to maintain control over another person. If your parents did this, they were regularly invalidating your feelings and recollections of events, making you feel crazy.

Comparing You Unfavorably to Others

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A classic sign of emotional abuse that you may not know about is the comparison of children to their peers. When parents undermine their children in a negative light and show favor toward another child, it makes them feel inadequate, resulting in a lack of confidence as they get older.

Excessive Control

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Children should follow strict rules in the household, but when parents enforce strict rules about everything, including their dress sense, their friends, and the activities they can and cannot do, it limits their individuality and self-expression. This is a very common sign of emotional abuse, yet many people shrug it off as ‘old-fashioned.’

Lack of Empathy for Your Feelings

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When parents don’t have empathy for their kids, it fosters a child who grows up with similar traits. Having empathy is an important part of life, and lacking it leads to a denial of emotional validation. As a young adult, you may have felt misunderstood due to this without knowing why.

Using Guilt to Control You

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Guilt-tripping isn’t just something experienced in adulthood. Business Insider claims that it is a tell-tale sign of parents emotionally abusing their children, as it is clearly used for manipulation. This can be highly emotionally damaging for children and, like other signs, can manifest into your own behaviors as an adult.

Making You the Parent

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Many parents tend to put large amounts of responsibility on their kids. In extreme cases, roles are reversed, and a child feels responsible for their parent’s physical and emotional well-being. This is a clear sign of psychological abuse and can put a huge amount of strain on young adults.

Dismissing Your Achievements

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Belittling, dismissing, or completely ignoring a child’s achievements may sound awful, but it’s surprisingly common. Emotionally abusive parents do this frequently, and it greatly impacts their children’s self-esteem. No childhood success should be devalued, no matter how big or small.

Isolation from Friends and Family

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Parental attempts to isolate you from other supportive relationships safeguard the control of emotionally abusive parents. They control or limit the kids you can hang out with, even if this means banning you from seeing close friends, and it’s all just so they can feel better about themselves as parents.

Sarcasm and Mockery

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When parents mock their children, it can severely damage the child. Some parents do this under the guise of humor, but kids pick up on ill intentions easily, so any form of belittlement can be very upsetting. Whether it’s about their achievements or worries, sarcastically belittling a child is just plain abusive.

Threats and Intimidation

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Any threat or intimidation from parents is a clear indication of physical and emotional abuse and can affect young adults detrimentally. Unfortunately, they tend to pass on these traits to their future family, becoming increasingly aggressive as they get older. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to address the problem.

Emotional Blackmail

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A parent may employ emotional blackmail tactics to control their children, making their children feel guilty for things that are not their fault. Sadly, this is usually done to coerce them into doing something, and that, by definition, is manipulation and emotional abuse.

Neglecting Your Emotional Needs

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Not giving a child the emotional support he or she needs, whether this is showing them affection, comforting them, or offering understanding, is another hidden sign of abuse. Most often, parents who fit into this category neglect or ignore their children’s obvious desire for love, leaving them feeling abandoned.

Projecting Their Issues onto You

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The last and perhaps most common sign that your parents were emotionally abusive is that they projected their issues onto you. They make young adults feel responsible for things that they didn’t do, blaming a child for something just to make themselves feel better. That’s brutally unfair.

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