What Is Mental Abuse?

A scared woman depressed hiding in the closet ashamed and frightened.

globalmoments/iStock/Getty

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Mental Abuse?

Mental abuse, also known as psychological or emotional abuse, involves deliberately hurting someone and causing them emotional pain, or trying to control or manipulate them through verbal or non-verbal communication.

Mental abuse can be harder to recognize than physical abuse; however, it can be just as harmful and may lead to emotional scars and health issues. Furthermore, mental abuse is often a precursor to physical abuse, so it’s important to recognize it and get help as soon as possible.

This article explores the different types of mental abuse, signs that someone is being abused, the impact of mental abuse, and some coping strategies that may be helpful for people who have been abused.

Types of Mental Abuse

These are some of the different types of mental abuse:

  • Bullying
  • Intimidation
  • Coercion
  • Harassment
  • Ridicule
  • Humiliation 
  • Controlling behaviors
  • Gaslighting 
  • Attempts to isolate the person from their friends or family
  • Verbal displays of anger, such as yelling or swearing 

The nature of mental abuse can vary across different types of relationships. Intimate partner abuse and child abuse are among the most common.

Intimate Partner Abuse

These are some examples of what mental abuse by intimate partners can look like:

  • Wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times
  • Expecting you to report your activities and remain in constant contact
  • Making decisions for you, often without consulting you
  • Cutting you off from your friends and family
  • Keeping you from going to school or work
  • Discouraging you from going to the doctor or getting medical help
  • Acting jealous or accusing you of being unfaithful
  • Insulting you or calling you names
  • Humiliating you in front of other people
  • Treating you like a child
  • Controlling your finances or monitoring how you spend money
  • Getting angry and yelling or swearing at you
  • Blaming you for their anger and outbursts
  • Threatening you, or your friends, family members, or pets
  • Deliberately frightening you
  • Threatening to report you to the authorities, sometimes under false pretenses
  • Threatening to harm themselves in an attempt to control you

Mental abuse by intimate partners can start suddenly and come as a surprise. For instance, abusers may initially be very attentive, pay you a lot of compliments, and shower you with love and attention. However, they may slowly start to control your life and become abusive

You may find yourself making excuses for their behavior, thinking it’s your fault, or feeling embarrassed or foolish for entering into a relationship with them. However, it’s important to remember that being abused is not your fault.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. 

If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Child Abuse

These are some examples of what mental abuse of children can look like:

  • Criticizing the child constantly
  • Blaming the child for problems
  • Talking down to the child and humiliating them
  • Threatening to abandon the child or hurt them
  • Failing to provide a safe and stable environment for the child
  • Exposing the child to severe abuse or violence among family members
  • Neglecting the child and showing no concern for them

Child abuse can sometimes be hard to detect, making it hard for people to recognize it and help the child.

Children who grow up in abusive or violent households may believe that it’s a normal way for family members to treat each other and in turn display abusive and violent tendencies in school or in intimate relationships as adults.

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

Impact of Mental Abuse

Being in abusive situation can cause you to:

  • Feel helpless and powerless
  • Be scared and afraid of upsetting your abuser
  • Feel guilty and ashamed
  • Feel stressed and overwhelmed
  • Feel useless and unwanted
  • Lack confidence in yourself
  • Feel used, manipulated, or controlled
  • Question your reality and your memory of events
  • Alter your behavior in order to keep the peace and avoid upsetting them

Mental abuse can affect your self-esteem, concentration, stress levels, ability to sleep, mood, and ability to function. In the long run, it can lead to physical and mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.

Signs of Mental Abuse

These are some of the signs that someone is being emotionally abused:

  • Being extremely agitated or upset 
  • Withdrawing and refusing to communicate or respond
  • Acting scared or nervous around certain people
  • Displaying unusual behaviors generally associated with dementia, such as rocking, biting, or sucking

Coping With Mental Abuse

These are some strategies that can help you if you are or have been in an abusive situation:

  • Seek help and support: Victims of abuse are often too scared or ashamed to tell others about the abuse. However, it’s important to reach out to a friend, family member, therapist, or organization that can offer help, support, or protection. 
  • Write down your experiences: Abusers often gaslight their victims and make them doubt their reality. It can be helpful to write down your version of events so you have a record of what really happened.
  • Don’t blame yourself: You may blame yourself for what happened to you or think that you did something to cause it or deserve it, but you need to remember that if someone has abused you, it’s their fault and not yours. Remind yourself of this fact over and over again if you need to.
  • Refuse to engage your abuser: If you are in a situation where you need to interact with your abuser, step back and refuse to engage with them on any level.
  • Recognize unhealthy patterns: If you have grown up in an abusive home or been in an abusive relationship, emotionally abusive behaviors may seem normal to you and you may seek them out or perpetuate them in other relationships. It’s important to break the cycle by recognizing unhealthy patterns and working toward healthier relationships with mutual trust, respect, affection, and independent agency.

A Word From Verywell

Mental abuse doesn’t leave cuts and bruises but it can cause deep emotional wounds as well as physical and mental health issues that can take time to heal. It can be helpful to seek therapy or join a support group in order to develop coping mechanisms and connect with others who have faced similar experiences.

Was this page helpful?
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Types and signs of abuse.

  2. Iram Rizvi SF, Najam N. Parental psychological abuse toward children and mental health problems in adolescence. Pak J Med Sci. 2014;30(2):256-260.

  3. Karakurt G, Silver KE. Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age. Violence Vict. 2013;28(5):804-821. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00041

  4. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Emotional and verbal abuse.

  5. National Library of Medicine. Child neglect and emotional abuse. Medline Plus.

  6. Nemours Foundation. Abuse.