Signs of Emotional Abuse From Parents

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What Is Emotional Abuse by Parents?

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse, is a pattern of behavior perpetuated by a parent that causes a child to experience emotional distress, harms their sense of self-worth, and affects their emotional development. It can include rejection, constant criticism, threats, or emotional neglect.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), child abuse and neglect are entirely too common in the United States, with 1 in 7 children being a victim. While any child can be a victim of emotional abuse, the CDC notes that children living in poverty are at greater risk of abuse.

While emotional abuse doesn’t leave scrapes or bruises, it can leave severe emotional scars and be just as damaging to a child as physical or sexual abuse. However, because it doesn’t leave physical marks, it can be harder to recognize and more difficult to prove, so people and law enforcement authorities may be less likely to intervene and help the child.

Nonetheless, it’s important to note that child abuse by parents or legal guardians of children below the legal of 18 is a crime, punishable under the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

This article discusses the types, signs, and impacts of emotional abuse by parents.

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.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Types of Emotional Abuse by Parents

These are some of the types of emotional abuse children may experience from their parents:

  • Constantly criticizing the child 
  • Blaming the child for adult problems
  • Rejecting the child repeatedly
  • Dismissing the child’s feelings
  • Deliberately causing the child emotional pain
  • Ridiculing the child or mocking them
  • Humiliating or publicly shaming the child
  • Talking down to the child
  • Calling the child names
  • Getting angry at the child often
  • Yelling or swearing at the child
  • Threatening to abandon the child
  • Threatening to harm the child or their family members, friends, or pets
  • Intimidating or scaring the child
  • Coercing or manipulating the child
  • Gaslighting the child
  • Frequently harassing or picking on the child
  • Ignoring the child or using silence to control their behavior
  • Withholding love, support, and guidance
  • Neglecting to care for the child and their needs
  • Allowing the child to witness domestic violence and abuse

Emotional abuse can be perpetuated in person or online, through text messages, emails, social media, and other digital apps or platforms.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

These are some of the signs that a child is being abused by their parents:

  • Sudden changes in behavior or academic performance
  • Watchful demeanor, as though waiting for something bad to happen
  • Nervousness around certain people
  • A tendency to avoid being around certain people
  • Withdrawn or unresponsive demeanor
  • Overly passive or compliant behavior
  • Early arrival and late departure from school or other activities
  • Reluctance to go home
  • Lack of adult supervision
  • Emotional distress or agitation
  • Aggression or rage

These are some of the signs that a parent is emotionally abusing their child:

  • Rarely touching the child or showing affection
  • Stating that they do not like the child
  • Describing the child as a burden
  • Showing little concern for the child and refusing others’ help
  • Demanding academic results and sporting performances the child cannot achieve
  • Berating the child in front of their friends, teachers, or neighbors
  • Denying that there are any problems at home or at school
  • Telling teachers and other caregivers to discipline the child harshly if they misbehave

Impact of Emotional Abuse By Parents

Emotional abuse can make a child feel unwanted, unloved, worthless, and flawed, according to a 2014 study.

Children who grow up with abusive parents may not be able to recognize the abuse, since that’s all they know. They may blame themselves for their parents’ actions and grow up believing that they are not worthy of love or respect.

Emotional abuse can be deeply damaging to children and have lifelong consequences that persist well after the abuse stops. These are some of the negative effects a child may experience as a result of emotional abuse:

  • Cognitive difficulties, such as difficulty paying attention, learning, and remembering
  • Academic issues, such as lower attendance in school, poor academic performance, and disciplinary issues
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and low self-esteem
  • Emotional difficulties, including difficulty interpreting, communicating, processing, and regulating emotions
  • Substance use, such as doing alcohol, nicotine, or drugs at an early age
  • Behavioral issues, such as acting out, behaving bizarrely, or trying hard to please others
  • Changes in weight and appetite, which could result in eating disorders, nutrition deficiencies, and malnourishment
  • Sleep issues, such as insomnia or nightmares
  • Physical aches and pains, that have no other discernible cause and don’t seem to get better with treatment
  • Career issues, as a result of lower educational attainment, limited employment opportunities, and an increased risk of delinquency
  • Relationship issues, due to abnormalities in social development 

Children who have been emotionally abused are more likely to be abusive to others or to seek out people who are abusive, because this is the relationship dynamic they grew up with. Therefore, they may become victims or perpetrators of abuse in the future. This is known as the intergenerational cycle of violence.

A Word From Verywell

Emotional abuse can be difficult and traumatic for children to experience, leaving behind deep emotional wounds and severe negative consequences. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the signs and get help for children who might be at risk.

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.
  1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Children’s Bureau. What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms

  2. Nemours Foundation. Abuse.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing child abuse and neglect.

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

  5. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Children’s Bureau. Definitions of child abuse and neglect.

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

  7. 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.

  8. Young JC, Widom CS. Long-term effects of child abuse and neglect on emotion processing in adulthood. Child Abuse Negl. 2014;38(8):1369-1381. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2014.03.008

  9. Li S, Zhao F, Yu G. Childhood maltreatment and intimate partner violence victimization: A meta-analysis. Child Abuse Negl. 2019;88:212-224. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.11.012

  10. Greene CA, Haisley L, Wallace C, Ford JD. Intergenerational effects of childhood maltreatment: A systematic review of the parenting practices of adult survivors of childhood abuse, neglect, and violence. Clin Psychol Rev. 2020;80:101891. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101891