What Is Psychological Abuse?

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What Is Psychological Abuse?

Psychological abuse, also known as mental or emotional abuse, involves using verbal and non-verbal communication to try to control someone or harm them emotionally.

Though psychological abuse doesn’t leave bruises and broken bones, it can cause severe emotional issues and mental health conditions. This form of abuse can be harder to detect; however, it’s important to recognize it and seek help as soon as possible, as it is often a precursor to physical abuse.

Signs of Psychological Abuse

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

  • Being visibly upset or agitated
  • Being withdrawn and unresponsive
  • Avoiding certain people or being scared, nervous, or timid around them
  • Behaving in unusual ways, such as rocking, biting, or sucking

There are also more subtle signs, such as:

  • Starting to cancel plans at the last minute
  • Making excuses for the partner's hurtful words or behaviors
  • Being more quiet when the partner is around
  • Being overly apologetic
  • Appearing to be more indecisive and insecure
  • Feeling rushed all the time
  • Constantly checking the phone/partner is constantly checking in

Types of Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse can take different forms, which can include:

Psychological abuse can happen to anyone, in any type of relationship, including friendships, working relationships, intimate relationships, or familial relationships. Child abuse and intimate partner abuse are among the most common forms of abuse, and are considered serious public health issues.

Child Abuse

These are some examples of psychological child abuse:

  • Yelling or swearing at the child 
  • Constantly criticizing or picking on the child
  • Humiliating the child or talking down to them
  • Blaming or punishing the child for adults' problems
  • Threatening to hurt the child or abandon them
  • Failing to create a healthy, safe, and stable environment for the child
  • Allowing the child to witness violence or abuse at home
  • Not being concerned with the child and refusing others’ help for the child

Children who have been emotionally abused may have:

  • Difficulties in school
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
  • Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and difficulty regulating emotions
  • Behavioral issues, such as aggression, acting out, lying, or trying hard to please
  • Physical health issues, including aches and pains and gastrointestinal issues
  • Tendency to engage in risky behaviors or use substances at an early age

Psychological abuse can be just as damaging to children as physical or sexual abuse; however, it can be harder to detect, so people may be less likely to help the child.

Children who have grown up with abusive caregivers may have trouble recognizing that they are being abused as it may seem like normal behavior to them. As a result, they may carry these behaviors forward and behave abusively or seek relationships with abusers in their adult lives.

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.

Intimate Partner Abuse

These are some examples of intimate partner abuse:

  • Wanting to know what you’re doing, where you are, and who you’re with at all times
  • Expecting you to be in constant contact or checking up on your whereabouts
  • Wanting the passwords to your phone, email address, and social media accounts to track your digital activity
  • Monitoring your spending habits and controlling your finances
  • Getting jealous and frequently accusing you of cheating on them
  • Making decisions on your behalf, like what you will eat or wear, often without consulting you
  • Trying to keep you from meeting your friends and family
  • Discouraging you from working, going to school, or attending social events
  • Deterring you from getting medical help or advice
  • Getting angry and abusive in ways that are frightening to you
  • Swearing at you, calling you names, or treating you like a child
  • Ridiculing you or humiliating you in front of others
  • Threatening you or your loved ones with bodily harm
  • Threatening you with police or legal action, often for made-up reasons
  • Threatening to hurt themselves when they’re upset with you as a way of manipulating you and controlling your behavior
  • Telling you things like, “If I can’t have you, no one can.”

Experiencing intimate partner abuse can cause you to:

  • Feel unwanted and undeserving of love and respect
  • Feel hopeless, powerless, guilty, or ashamed
  • Feel controlled, manipulated, or used
  • Feel overwhelmed and stressed
  • Live in constant fear of upsetting your abuser
  • Act differently in order to avoid upsetting your abuser
  • Doubt and question your version of events
  • Have difficulty focusing, sleeping, or enjoying your work and hobbies
  • Develop anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, or chronic pain

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.

Coping With Psychological Abuse

Here are some strategies that can help you cope if you have experienced psychological abuse:

  • Recognize the problem: The first step, which can sometimes be the hardest, is recognizing that you’re being abused. For instance, you may think, “But, my parent/partner has always behaved this way.” Learn what are healthy relationship dynamics and start seeing unhealthy behaviors for what they are.
  • Leave the abusive situation: If you are in an abusive situation, it’s important to create a safety plan and leave as soon as you can. Seek help from trusted friends, family members, neighbors, law enforcement, or organizations if you need it.
  • Maintain a record of the abuse: Your abuser may gaslight you by saying, “I never said that,” which can cause you to doubt yourself and question your reality. It can be helpful to write down all the details of the abusive situations so you have a record of what really transpired.
  • Don’t engage your abuser: If you come face-to-face with your abuser, don’t give them the satisfaction of reacting to them. Learn to set firm boundaries and refuse to engage with them.
  • Remember that you’re not to blame: Remind yourself repeatedly that you are not to blame for being abused. You do not deserve to be abused, and you have not caused the abuse.
  • Work on healthy relationships: It’s important to develop self-awareness and distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behaviors, across different types of relationships to break the cycle of abuse. It may be difficult to trust people or let yourself be vulnerable, but those are important components of healthy relationships with mutual respect, trust, and affection.
  • Seek help: There is no shame in seeking therapy to help you cope. Therapy can help you process your emotions, develop coping skills, build self-esteem, and heal from the trauma.
  • Join a support group: Support groups can help you voice your abuse amongst people who have had similar experiences. They can be a source of support, inspiration, and advice.

A Word From Verywell

Psychological abuse can affect your sense of self and leave emotional scars that may take a long time to recover. Once you are able to leave an abusive situation and secure your safety, it’s important to practice self-care and compassion to help you heal, seek therapy if you need it, and remember you’re not to blame in any way.

10 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.
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  4. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Types and signs of abuse.

  5. Nemours Foundation. Abuse.

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  10. Cleveland Clinic. How to heal from emotional abuse.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.