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

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By Jonathan Trent

Facing emotional abuse is incredibly difficult, especially when you didn’t know it was happening at the time. Analyzing childhood experiences and relationships with parents can be painful for some. To help you identify specific behaviors, here are 19 signs that your parents were emotionally abusive.

Constant Criticism

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Did your parents always nitpick at any success you had? Did you feel that nothing you ever did was good enough? If they constantly criticized you and only focused on your weaknesses, this can be a sign of emotional abuse. Sadly, this type of constant criticism can result in negative self-esteem issues.

Excessive Control

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Your parents might have tried to micromanage your daily life if they were emotionally abusive. Worse, they might have made important life decisions for you without any respect for your wants or boundaries. One result of overly controlling parents can be a lack of motivation and self-interest down the line, says Psych Central.

Withholding Affection

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Some children aren’t aware that their parents were emotionally abusive because they still showed affection. However, affection can be conditional–your parents might only have displayed approval when you met their expectations. Otherwise, they might have been cold and distant, essentially holding love ransom.

Setting Unrealistic Expectations

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Emotionally abusive parents can set impossibly high standards for their children. This means that children can never feel good enough and always feel like they’ll fail even before they’ve begun. This puts devastating amounts of pressure on children, which can impact their well-being.


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Recognizing gaslighting for what it is as a child can be extremely difficult. Parents might try to make you doubt yourself, your memories, and your perceptions. They’ll also likely deny any instances of criticism or abuse, making you believe that you’re the problem, not them.

Always Overreacting to Your Mistakes

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Children are bound to make mistakes – it’s how they learn and grow. Unfortunately, emotionally abusive parents can enact harsh punishments even for the simplest of mistakes. This can lead to children living in fear of failure due to constant reminders of past mistakes.  

Emotional Blackmail

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Parents who are emotionally blackmailing their children will make them feel guilty for unhappiness, threaten them in order to control their behavior, or manipulate them emotionally. Medical News Today outlines that emotional blackmail can often be more damaging than other forms of abuse “because it affects a person’s conscience.”


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If you always felt like the ‘problem child’ growing up, it could be because your parents were using you as a scapegoat. You might have constantly been blamed for issues in the family or isolated from other loved ones due to these false accusations. Sadly, this is all too common.

Public Humiliation

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Emotional abuse doesn’t always happen behind closed doors; it can also manifest as public humiliation. Your parents might have mocked you in front of other people, shared personal information about you in public, or expressed open disappointment when comparing you to others. 

They Always Invalidated Your Feelings

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If you opened up to your parents, did they always tell you that you’re wrong? If you were made to feel like your feelings weren’t valid during your childhood, it could be that your parents were undermining you at every turn. This might have led to you keeping feelings of unhappiness bottled up.

Excessive Competitiveness

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If you grew up with siblings within an emotionally abusive household, you may have constantly felt in competition with other family members. Your parents might even have felt like you were in competition with them, resulting in them undermining your achievements or acting envious of your success.

They Were Always Lying

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Your childhood may have been confusing as a result of your emotionally abusive parents’ fabrications. They might have constantly changed the narrative to leave you out of the loop or lied about certain events or situations, whether to you or to others.

Lack of Empathy

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It’s always difficult to deal with a loved one who lacks empathy, especially when it’s your parents. Parents lacking empathy may come across as harsh and indifferent, with Verywell Mind revealing that unempathetic parents will also victimize and ignore the opinions of others.

Their Moods Were Always Volatile

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Did you feel as though you were walking on eggshells growing up? Your parents might have exhibited extreme mood changes so that you never knew how they were going to act with you. This likely resulted in high levels of anxiety at home, potentially forcing you to avoid your parents altogether.

Selective Memory

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Having a selective memory can be another manipulation tactic used by emotionally abusive parents. They might twist past events or act as though they can’t recall crucial information that you try to bring up. They might remember or forget facts conveniently when it best suits them, which is yet another form of gaslighting.

Using Others Against You

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If abusive, your parents might also turn others against you. This can be done with the intention of seeking backup and sowing conflict within the family unit. Signs of this behavior include spreading misinformation about you to others or asking loved ones to back them up in their case against you.

Isolation Techniques

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Your parents might have taken control over who you could see as a child. Why? Well, their intention might have been to monitor your emails, messages, and phone calls in order to cut you off from others; this isolation technique can be so that they can better control you in their own environment.

They Neglected Your Needs

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Emotionally abusive parents usually provide little to no support for their child’s physical, emotional, or financial well-being. They may also have neglected basic needs such as food and sleep. Psychology Today explains that children who grew up in such unsupportive environments can struggle to develop self-esteem and confidence as adults.

You Lived in a State of Fear and Anxiety

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Finally, the biggest consequence of growing up with emotionally abusive parents is living in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Their behavior results in you worrying you’re never good enough, and if you recognize this trait or any others, it might be wise to seek therapy to help you process the abuse. Help is out there!