11 Signs You Have An Emotionally Abusive Mother

By Stephanie Kirby|Updated June 17, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Karen Devlin, LPC

The parent-child relationship is typically considered one of the most naturally and unconditionally loving bonds in our day-to-day lives, so abuse from a parent is not only unexpected but extremely harmful. From childhood well into adulthood, we expect that our mothers will always have our best interests at heart, that she will act to guide us, or that she will know the appropriate emotional boundaries to maintain. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is not always the case, and sometimes it can take time for children of emotionally abusive parents to realize what ways exactly in which they were abused.

Emotionally Abusive Parents

Physical abuse — what many of us think of when we hear the word “abuse” — is sometimes easier to recognize or understand, as many signs of emotional or psychological abuse can fly under the radar and may be dismissed as circumstantial or as a particular parenting type. However, this is not the case; emotional abuse can leave significant lasting damage, and it is more than worth addressing.

While it can be difficult or even painful to recognize that you may have emotionally abusive parents, it’s important to learn some of the signs to potentially move forward with your life or to develop an increased awareness of the patterns your parents may have instilled in you earlier on in life.

Keep in mind that the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) if you need any help.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Relationships With Your Mother Can Be Challenging
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Relationships With Your Mother Can Be Challenging

Therapy Can Help - Get Matched With A Licensed Therapist.

This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.

While physical abuse may spring to mind immediately, there are various kinds of abuse, although they can overlap or occur simultaneously.

Emotional abuse is a form of abuse that might also be called psychological violence or mental abuse. Abusive behavior that is not physical can fall under this category, but that does not make it any less serious or damaging than physical abuse.

While many examples of emotional abuse abound, some that may help you define it could be manipulation, humiliation, verbal harassment, or intimidation. Especially when this sort of behavior forms a pattern, it can be extremely damaging and lead to dangerous outcomes over time. Modern buzzwords like shaming, gaslighting, isolating, and scapegoating, as well as classics like threats and insults, can be categorized as emotional abuse. These things may also be present when it comes to parental emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse can be subtle in its efforts to control, intimidate, or isolate you. Emotional abuse is traumatizing and hurtful, can leave a person vulnerable to feelings of self-doubt, isolation, and depression, and can escalate to physical violence; it should be taken very seriously.

Why It’s Not Easy To Recognize 

Emotional abuse can sometimes fly under the radar partially because many abusive behaviors exist on a spectrum of more “acceptable” parenting methods; many emotionally abusive parents don’t even realize that what they’re doing is wrong because it’s what they’ve always known, or have been taught by other family members, and it feels to them like they aren’t abusive simply because they don’t engage in physical abuse.

Your abusive parent might even think they’re doing the right thing or believe that their behavior is “tough love.” Some people might excuse abusive behavior based on what that parent has been through, implying that being a single parent or having been abused themselves might be why they perpetuate abusive behaviors. However, none of these are good excuses for inflicting pain onto your child, and no amount of good intentions will erase the fact that emotional abuse can leave lasting damage on everyone in a household.

As with other abusive behaviors, the cycle of abuse is also part of what can make emotional abuse so difficult to recognize in your own life. Your mother might act loving and kind in one moment, and the next time you talk to her might be completely different. She may even apologize for her hurtful behavior. This can be especially confusing and hurtful — you may want to believe that she’s sorry and forgive her. But without taking real steps towards changing her behavior or seeking professional help, these good patches are just antecedents to continued abusive behavior.

If you try to confront her about her behavior, she may do a great job of explaining it away or even making you feel like you’re the one that has a problem. She could be so convincing that you end up feeling like maybe it is your problem and not hers. This is emotional abuse. Being able to recognize it and spot it in your own life is the first step to getting the help you need. This can be especially difficult if you have lived like this for years.

Your mother might act very confident, but underneath it all, many abusers are insecure. Just like bullies, they are exerting their power to cover their feelings of being unworthy and not enough.

To make some of these behaviors easier to spot, here is a list of some of the most common behaviors in emotionally abusive mothers. These signs may be a key used to identify emotionally abusive parents.

Signs Of Emotional Abuse From Your Mother

  1. She Is Overly Critical

All healthy and intimate relationships involve a degree of honesty and a willingness to give constructive feedback to help one another grow, with the understanding that it is done out of a genuine sense of love, and only if it is coupled with ample support. However, the act of providing criticism can become a tool of abuse when excessive and can break down a child’s self-esteem, self-importance, and willingness to advocate for themselves.

If your mother constantly harps on what she perceives as ‘faults’ of yours, this could be a sign of emotional abuse in matters both big and small. This is especially true if she currently does or used to point out only your negative behaviors without acknowledging your positive traits or accomplishments.

Feeling belittled by a parent can be incredibly hurtful, and the negative comments your parent offered you can lead to negative self-talk, low self-esteem, and poor self-image well into adulthood.

  1. Her Responses Are Erratic and Inconsistent

When your mother never responds to the same behaviors, it can be extremely hard to know what to expect out of her or to know how you should behave. If you make a small mistake, she might be kind and forgiving, or she might be angry and spiteful. These mood swings can make it hard to know what to expect from your relationship or even know what footing you’re on.

Erratic responses to a child’s behavior can signify emotional instability in an emotionally abusive parent. They can leave the child feeling that their parent could blow up at any moment — as though they’re walking on eggshells in their own home. The anxiety can have long-term effects and lead to mental health problems later in the child’s life.

  1. She Uses Guilt To Manipulate You

Emotionally abusive mothers are particularly adept at putting guilt trips on their children. Their passive-aggressive language can make their tactics harder to spot and give them plausible deniability about the way they’re attempting to make you feel, which can make this behavior hard to spot.

She might say things like, “Well, if you stopped by more often…” or “My friend’s daughter calls her every morning to check in on her.” She might have a way of making comments that appear to be harmless on their face, but which might leave you feeling guilty like you’re doing something wrong. These comments may be a type of emotional manipulation.

It’s possible for adults to communicate how we might feel neglected without being passive-aggressive, manipulative, or placing undue guilt on those we care for — emotionally abusive  or emotionally absent parents don’t communicate clearly, however. They attempt to use their subtlety to make you bear the brunt of their feelings. In this way, emotionally abused children learn that their parents’ feelings are their responsibility, or worse yet, they may feel that they are secretly bad people without putting the finger on why they feel so negatively about themselves.

  1. You Are Blamed For Her Situation Or Stress

Similarly, emotionally abusive parents often refuse to take responsibility for their behavior or their feelings. Instead, they project their problems outward onto those they abuse, placing undue guilt and responsibility on their children and family members.

This behavior can be quite hard to ignore or resist. Even though you want to defend yourself against it, inside, you may secretly feel responsible for things that had nothing to do with you, leading to mental health issues and other problems later in life.

  1. She Gives You The Silent Treatment

Another sign that your mother is emotionally abusive is if she gives you the silent treatment. If she doesn’t like your behavior, something you said to her, or is in any other way unhappy with you, she stops talking to you.

The silent treatment is another way to make you feel guilty, and it compels you, her child, to make the first move in reaching out to make things right (even if you didn’t do anything wrong). Not only is it completely maddening to deal with — after all, who wants to have to guess why someone else is angry? It can also lead to problems as young adults, with romantic partners as we learn that passive-aggressive communication styles are acceptable ways to talk to our partners or for them to talk to us.

While everyone, including parents, gets frustrated occasionally, frequently withholding attention or affection from a child is wrong and can lead to a breakdown of communication.

  1. It’s Your Job To Keep Her Happy

Emotionally abusive parents tend to externalize their emotions and place the brunt of what they’re feeling on those in their vicinity, often making it their families’ responsibility to please or even soothe them. Additionally, they can tend to have poor emotional boundaries with their children, leading them to overshare their emotional difficulties and leaving it up to them to make things right, even if they are too young to be able to handle that responsibility, or if they did not make things’ wrong’ in the first place.

Some emotionally abusing parents might not even realize consciously that this is what they’re doing. Still, their extreme responses to everyday situations can be so intolerable that you might try to do everything in your power to avoid dealing with the repercussions  — like putting aside your agenda for the day to cater to your mothers’ emotional whims. This may cause you to become overly involved in different aspects of your parents’ lives.

  1. Nothing You Do Is Good Enough For Her

As an extreme extension of being overly critical, emotionally abusive mothers may never be satisfied by your accomplishments, no matter how big or small. They aren’t supportive of your efforts and don’t celebrate your successes with you. It’s not particularly important whether or not you lived up to what they expected of you, or whether or not your achievement was perfect — a hyper-critical mother will still find ways to downplay your wins and up-play your mistakes.

These sorts of unrealistic standards can leave abused children and adults feeling perpetually unsatisfied with themselves, even when their mother is not present. When we cannot please emotionally abusive caretakers, it feels like we can’t please ourselves, no matter how objectively successful we might be. This could lead to physical health issues as well as mental disorders, at times.

  1. You Had To Earn The Things That You Received

Unconditional love does not always exist with emotionally abusive parents, which can mean that their children have been expected, from a young age, to meet a certain bar of performance to get the things that their caretakers should willingly and unconditionally give to them.

For some, this means they constantly had to watch their behavior to make sure they were doing “enough” for their parent to be proud or happy with them. For others, this means that they have to do certain things to get what they need. In some abusive households, children are expected to perform jobs around the house or find ways to pay their parents to receive necessities like a room to sleep in or food to eat.

Not only do some of these behaviors, such as withholding food or appropriate shelter, verge into the territory of physical abuse, but they can also create a powerful and frightening feeling of precarity or unworthiness in the mind of an abused child and affect a child psychologically.

  1. She Doesn’t Allow You Privacy Or Wants To Know All Of Your Business

Healthy boundaries around privacy are necessary for a parent-child relationship to give one’s child the freedom to explore, think, and problem-solve on their own without harsh consequences, judgment, or fear of embarrassment. However, emotionally abusive parents often cultivate relationships with their children that are overly invasive in various ways, particularly surrounding their child’s personal life.

This can mean that they don’t respect your privacy. In childhood, this could manifest itself in household rules like not being allowed to close your bedroom door or in invasive behaviors, like your parent rifling through diaries, journals, or private social media. As an adult, it can manifest as persistent questioning to pry into your personal life, finances, or other relationships. If you refuse to give them the information they want, you may receive silent treatment or a guilt trip.

  1. She Speaks To You In An Aggressive Or Belittling Way

Verbal put-downs, negative comments, name-calling, or even threats are not uncommon in the playbook of emotionally abusive parents. For some emotionally abusive mothers, these attacks can be cudgels used to get their children to behave in ways they like.

This can mean calling you hurtful names or insulting you or your intelligence, manner of dress, appearance, personality, or other aspects about you. This can also mean screaming, shouting, threatening, or otherwise verbally terrorizing a child in extreme cases.

Sometimes this aggressive communication does not have to be directed at the child themselves, either, to have a significant impact; witnessing, hearing, or hearing threats of domestic abuse or violence in the house counts as emotional abuse, even if the child is relatively uninvolved. It may still have an effect on a child’s emotional development.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a situation that could be domestic violence, do not hesitate to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit their website for more resources. If you do visit their website, you may need to consider clearing your browser history.

A parent raising their voice once in a blue moon is not necessarily wrong, and neither is a little bit of light ribbing in a family within certain bounds. However, frequent screaming, shouting, or hurtful insults should not be passed off as jokes. These behaviors can have a range of impacts concerning a child’s mental health. They can leave them feeling unwanted or unworthy, can affect a child’s confidence, and make them feel as though they are in great danger when taken too far and may leave a child feeling overly anxious well into adulthood.

  1. She Won’t Allow You To be Yourself

Emotionally abusive parents often prioritize having control over their children over nurturing their growth, including the growth of their individuality. This means that they will not only demand that their kids behave in ways that reflect their interests and priorities as parents, but that they may also harshly punish their children for behaving in a way that seems foreign, unique, or otherwise distinct from what they’re used to.

For many narcissistic parents, their children are an extension of themselves rather than their unique being. Your mother may have forced you to do activities that she liked, dress the way she did, or behave exactly as she did. If you are LGBT+, she may have strong prejudices against your self-expression and try to stifle it with demeaning comments or outright punishment for your sexuality or gender identity. She might dismiss or mock your genuine interests, or she might mock you for being proficient at an activity.

How To Recover From Abuse

Relationships With Your Mother Can Be Challenging

Relationships With Your Mother Can Be Challenging

Therapy Can Help - Get Matched With A Licensed Therapist.

While emotional abuse doesn’t leave behind the same scars as physical abuse, it doesn’t mean that it leaves you scarred. Emotional abuse, and specifically child emotional abuse, can leave you struggling with many emotional and personal issues that you might not know the root of or that you might not feel capable of handling on your own.

Adults who report experiencing childhood emotional abuse often experience depression, anxiety, and stress later in life. Learning how to develop healthy relationships with various kinds of people in one’s life may be difficult without understanding emotional abuse. Consider seeing a therapist to talk through your experiences and proactively manage any potential side effects from experiencing emotional abuse.

We know that difficult experiences in childhood can be an influential factor in the development or onset of many mental health problems in adulthood, including mood disorders like depression, seasonal affective disorder, bipolar, and more, or in anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance abuse disorder. Additionally, many of the behaviors you were trained to accept from your parents can leak into other relationships later in life, including how you engage with your romantic partner or how you might choose to raise your kids. That means even when you’re an adult and can create distance between you and your mother, the effects of a parent’s mood swings can still impact you.

However, it’s important to know that you don’t have to continue living with the emotional wounds your mother created. As an adult, you can put space between yourself and your mother. If you want to continue building a healthy relationship with her, it will be important to learn how to set boundaries. This allows you to set standards for what is acceptable treatment and permits you to not put up with anything other than that.

Learning how to set boundaries and how to retrain your thoughts after experiencing emotional abuse can be difficult. A licensed therapist can help you identify the behaviors you have been exposed to and the impact that they’ve had on your life. Then, they can help you learn how to replace your negative thoughts and self-talk with positive ones. With ReGain, you can get started today on recovering from your emotionally abusive mother.

What is a toxic mom?

A toxic mom is a parent that you have a relationship with that is unhealthy. There may be verbal abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or emotional neglect present between you and your mom, which can affect you in a number of different ways.

What are emotionally abusive parents?

Emotionally abusive parents will engage in emotionally abusive behavior, which is a type of child abuse, and can include ridiculing you, withholding love and necessities, often yelling, not allowing you to be yourself, or even refusing to realize when you succeed. In other words, parents can make their children feel like they are doing things wrong, even when they aren’t, or like they are never good enough. This can also lead to you not being able to trust your own emotions and continuing in the pattern of experiencing abusive relationships as an adult. There can be many long-lasting effects of this type of parental abuse.

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