Emotional abuse is one of the most scarring and hard-to-detect forms of abuse. If this happened when we were kids, it's all the more confusing and delibating. "People who are supposed to protect us and take care of us cannot be abusing us" is what our young mind likes to believe. So instead of seeing it for what it is, we turn all the anger, pain, shame and guilt inward, setting ourselves up for a lifetime of negative self-worth and unhealthy relationships.
Physical abuse involves behavior that is loud and clear, which makes it easy to call out or at least identify within our own mind. Emotional abuse, on the other hand, often leaves the child doubting her own memories and judgment. Parents do not become parents overnight. While some might have tried to do their best and still let out their emotional imbalances reflect on how they treated their children, others may have used their children as an emotional punching bag: as objects to let out their own pain and frustration or used the sense of power that came with controlling children to feel good about themselves.
Emotional abuse in childhood, especially by parents, can have lifelong repercussions. Clients who turn in their 20s, 30s, 50s and even 60s for psychotherapy almost always find how they still carry the early parental messages or "voices" from their early childhood. Our interaction with our parents/primary caregivers is the basis that influences 1) how we saw the world and 2) how we saw ourselves. If this intimate and nourishing relationship was plagued by emotional abuse and violence, it is possible that we still carry the same self-berating messages about ourselves and the world around us. This is the primary reason for distrusting ourselves and the people around us.
The first step is acknowledging that what happened is indeed a form of abuse. A word before you go into the signs: sometimes, in extreme cases of trauma, a young child's mind will cope with abuse and emotional wreckage by pushing the memory to the unconscious. You may not really remember images or words vividly, and this is okay. In fact, one of the signs of traumatic childhood is foggy memory and feeling "pockets" of your childhood memories missing in your mind.
Signs in adulthood:
1. You have a hard time setting boundaries
You cannot say NO even when you want to; it's easy for people to take your time, space, opinions, views for granted. You either go all in or stay all out from projects, people, events etc. In intimate relationships, you find yourself wishing you were more assertive and feel bad for not standing up enough for yourself.
2. Your relationships are abusive or unhealthy but mostly repetitive
If you find yourself in a certain situation or emotional role (always ignored, never cared for, underappreciated, the martyr taking care of everyone's needs) in all your relationships, it is possible that you're repeating an early role you picked in an emotionally unsafe environment. For example, if you were constantly berated and victimized by your mother and made to feel guilty for reacting or expressing your feelings, you are likely to feel guilty and helpless in your adult intimate relationships as well.
3. You struggle with self-esteem issues
A child's mind is porous and immensely responsive to its immediate environment. If he is exposed to constant criticism and verbal abuse or worse, threat, he will take these as a direct reflection of his self-worth. Counselors usually explain to their clients how as a young child whose survival depended on the parents, "they chose to be wrong and flawed rather than see their parents as wrong." Because seeing the truth of their parents would put their survival at risk, they unconsciously assume it to be their own fault.
4. When you look back, you mostly felt lonely or confused
It didn't matter if you were alone or surrounded by people, a part of you always felt untouched and lonely. If this is your case, it could be a defense mechanism picked up to stay on guard against an emotionally hurtful family atmosphere. How was it growing up on normal days and special occasions? Did birthdays, Christmases and family dinners make you feel more exhausted and stressed out? Did your parents behave differently with you when other adults were around? At any point, did you try to run away from home or considered ending your life?
Signs your parents were emotionally abusive:
5. They belittled you often
Teasing playfully or being strict to ensure you did your best is one thing. But if parents constantly called you names, put you down, mocked or humiliated you in order to make you feel bad about yourself, this is a clear sign of emotional abuse. A lot of parents argue that this is only for the child's good. They fail to see how their own unresolved issues, insecurities and emotional imbalances often creep into this act of "doing what's right for the child." It ends up doing a lifetime of damage. If you aren't sure of this, ask yourself: Did their words constantly make you doubt yourself and your abilities? If so, as mixed up their idea of doing good was, they actually did wrong.
6. They made you feel excess guilt
A child enters the world with an unquenchable thirst to explore herself and the world around. But growing up with abusive parents whose need for control was high is like signing up for decades of constant guilt. If you have ever felt like you are constantly walking on eggshells, not sure when they would react and how then it's a cue to how unsafe you felt as a child. They may not have had all the resources to for a perfect life, but as parents, a basic responsibility is to make you feel secure and safe. Being forced to feel on-guard day in and out as a child is often a risk factor that predisposes you to chronic anxiety and panic attacks.
7. They terrorized you with words
If your parents lost their cool after a long day at work and later apologized for it, it's tricky to categorize this behavior as abuse. But if the words they chose, the tone of voice and body language used were intended to induce extreme fear and terror, this is a classic sign of emotional abuse. Many clients who come into resolve a current issue, such as handling a difficult boss or feeling trapped in an unhealthy relationship, often find feelings of fear surface during therapy. And when they get in touch with this fear, so often they recall the face of a terrorizing mom or threatening dad. It's the exact same fear (often a knotted feeling in the tummy) that they felt as a kid, which gets triggered as adults. Some psychologists and spiritual healers suggest that these mean bosses and demanding partners play these roles to give us a chance to release the old wounds.
8. They invalidated your feelings
You're made to feel your feelings don't count, are unwarranted, or too much (dramatic). Either way, the message is "what you feel doesn't matter." If they had just hurled words of abuse and you find yourself crying, they will be quick to tell you how sissy or oversensitive you are. Or, they might call your tears fake and ask you to stop being so phony. They might terrorize you to not cry, laugh, speak loudly, or express anger because a healthy emotionally expressive individual will challenge their sense of control. An extreme case is denying children the right to feel his own feelings within himself, forget expressing then. Many folks, men especially, who grow up with such parents find it hard to get in touch with their feelings in adulthood as well.
9. Their mood decided your day and determined your life
There was no clear line between your emotional world and theirs. All abusive parents share one thing in common: they do not respect the child's boundaries. Factors in your life—your school work, schedule, excitement about a game, plans with friends, low or sad days, happy days, vulnerable days—didn't matter. All of these get ignored when they are in a lousy mood. They make it all about them and rob you of your right to be one with your life and goals. This could be through violent reactions, emotional manipulation, and guilt-tripping, or playing helpless and victimized expecting you to take care of them. This role reversal where the child has to make space and accommodate the parent's needs is something that counselors call "a question of survival where the child has to parent the parent."
10. They made you responsible for their happiness
Even if your parents did all the right things and gave the best of everything, but did it so with an unrealistic expectation that your success, your behavior, and your choices determined their happiness, this is a sign of emotional manipulation. As children, we had the right to make mistakes, fail, explore different options and figure out our way. Curtailing all this by making you adhere to a role that wasn't natural for you is a form of control. They may not use violence for this, but sad pleas and guilt to control your every move and blame you when you "fail to make them happy."
11. They never made you feel secure about yourself
Emotionally abusive parents may oscillate from being cold to overtly doting (often to compensate for the abuse). But if you see a pattern wherein they never affirmed your self-worth or told you what you were good at, this indicates an emotional vacancy at their end. They may have had trouble complimenting you and making you feel good. But it was always very easy for them to break your confidence with snide remarks. In case of narcissistic parents, who cannot allow their children to feel good about themselves, this gets worse. Any time their child did well or felt good, the narcissistic parent would break that growing self-worth with criticism or even violence.
12. They gave you the silent treatment
Even if this doesn't involve violence, ignoring a child's physical or emotional needs is a form of abuse. A young child needs to be held often and made to feel physically safe. Older children have the need to feel emotionally safe until they become independent adults. Parents are expected to make your world a safe place, where your feelings were considered natural and you were encouraged to explore, grow and evolve. If your parents closed down emotionally, were unresponsive to your emotional needs, acted out passive aggressively or behaved violently, they did the opposite: create an unsafe emotional environment.
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