11 Signs You Have An Emotionally Abusive Mother
By: Stephanie Kirby
Updated November 11, 2020
Medically 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. We expect, from childhood well into adulthood, that our mothers will always have our best interests at heart, that she will act with the intention of guiding 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.
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. This is not the case, however; 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 an emotionally abusive parent, it’s important to learn some of the signs in order 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.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse can include verbal abuse, name-calling, ignoring, belittling, and other behaviors that cause the victim to feel bad about themselves and question their worth and value. It often works in a cycle. Here is how Healthy Place describes the cycle:
"In a relationship, this cycle starts when one partner emotionally abuses the other, typically to show dominance. The abuser then feels guilt, but not about what he (or she) has done, but moreover the consequences of his actions. The abuser then makes up excuses for his behavior to avoid taking responsibility for what has happened. The abuser then resumes "normal" behavior as if the abuse never happened and maybe extra charming, apologetic, and giving - making the abused party believe that the abuser is sorry. The abuser then begins to fantasize about abusing his partner again and sets up a situation in which more emotional abuse can take place."
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, 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 simply “tough love.” Some people might even excuse abusive behavior on the basis of 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 really want to believe that she’s sorry and forgive her. But without taking real steps towards changing her behavior or without 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's so convincing that you end up feeling like maybe it is your problem and not her's. This is emotional abuse. Being able to recognize it and spot it in your own life is the first step to getting the help that 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.
In order to make some of these behaviors easier to spot, here is a list of some of the most common behaviors in emotionally abusive mothers:
Signs Of An Emotionally Abusive Mother
- 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. The act of providing criticism, however, 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, in matters both big and small, this could be a sign of emotional abuse. This is especially true if she currently does or used to point out only your negative behaviors without any acknowledgement of 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 and poor self-image well into adulthood.
- Her Responses Are Erratic and Inconsistent
When your mother never has the same response 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 to even know what footing you’re on.
Erratic responses to a child’s behavior can be a sign of emotional instability in an emotionally abusive parent, and can leave the child with the feeling that their parent could blow up at any moment -- as though they’re walking on eggshells in their own home. The anxiety this can cause can have long term effects, and can lead to mental health problems later on down the line.
- 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.
It’s possible for adults to communicate the ways in which we might feel neglected without being passive aggressive, manipulative, or placing undue guilt on those we care for -- emotionally abusive parents don’t communicate clearly, however, and 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 being able to put a finger on why they feel so negatively about themselves.
- You Are Blamed For Her Situation Or Stress
Similarly, emotional 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 something that is 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, which can lead to mental health issues and other problems later in life.
- 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? -- but it can also lead to problems later in life 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, get frustrated from time to time, frequently withholding attention or affection from a child is wrong and can lead to a breakdown of communication.
- It's Your Job To Keep Her Happy
Emotionally abusive parents have a tendency to externalize their emotions and to place the brunt of what they’re feeling on those in their vicinity, oftentimes 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 abusive parents might not even realize consciously that this is what they're doing, but 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 in order to cater to your mothers’ emotional whims.
- Nothing You Do Is GoodEnough 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.
- 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 in order 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 parent to receive basic 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, they can create a significant and frightening feeling of precarity or unworthiness in the mind of an abused child.
- She Doesn't Allow You Privacy Or Wants To Know All Of Your Business
Healthy boundaries around privacy are necessary in a parent-child relationship in order to give one’s child the freedom to explore, think, and problem-solve on their own without harsh consequences, judgement, or fear of embarrassment. However, emotionally abusive parents often cultivate relationships with their children that are overly invasive in a variety of 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 in order to pry into your personal life, finances, or other relationships. If you refuse to give them the information that they want, then you may receive the silent treatment or a guilt trip.
- 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, in fact, these attacks can be cudgels used in order to get their children to behave in the ways that 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. In especially extreme cases this can also mean screaming, shouting, threatening, or otherwise verbally terrorizing a child.
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.
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 on a child’s mental health, and can leave them feeling not only unwanted or unworthy, but as though they are in great danger when taken too far, and may leave a child feeling overly anxious well into adulthood.
- 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 own 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 Being Emotionally Abused
While emotional abuse doesn't leave behind the same scars as physical abuse, that doesn't mean that it doesn't leave you scarred. 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.
Some of the side effects of being a victim to this type of abuse from a parent can include low self-esteem, or being overly anxious, which can make it difficult for you to move forward healthily in life. 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 more. Additionally, many of the behaviors you were trained to accept from your parents can leak into other relationships later on in life, including in how you engage with your romantic partner, or how you might choose to raise your own kids. That means even when you're an adult and can create distance between you and your mother, the effects of her behavior can still impact you.
However, it's important to know that you don't have to continue to live like with the emotional wounds that your mother created. As an adult, you can put space between you and your mother. If you want to continue to try to build 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 allows 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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
What do you do with an emotionally abusive parent?
Once you have taken the steps to recognize the signs and symptoms of emotional abuse, it’s hard sometimes to know how to proceed. It can be difficult and painful to take action in these sorts of situations, but it is incredibly important.
If you are an adult who is living on your own, nothing is more important when dealing with an abusive parent than creating distance. Setting firm boundaries and making clear what behaviors you will not tolerate from an abusive parent can feel mean or hurtful -- and your parent may even try to make you feel as though you are doing something wrong -- but you are not doing anything wrong by deciding that you need to have your needs and emotions respected by someone who claims to love you. Remember that you do not have any obligation or responsibility to those who have abused you, no matter what they may try to tell you.
If you feel that you can’t create a healthy distance between you and your abusive parent, or if you feel that your relationship is too damaged to keep them at arm's length, consider going no contact with them. While this may feel extreme, sometimes it is the best option if your parent is not willing to respect you or your boundaries.
What makes a parent abusive?
Abuse can come in many forms. While physical violence in any form is considered abuse, there does not need to be physical violence involved in order for someone to be considered abusive. If a parent puts you down an belittles you constantly, that it also abuse.
Psychologists generally categorize four major signs of emotional abuse.
- Humiliating and Incessant Criticism
This may include blatant insults to your character, appearance, or intelligence. It could be calling you names or embarrassing you in front of other people. Generally, an abusive parent will try to put you down instead of building you up. A healthy parent tries to make you feel positively about who you are and what you do, but an abusive parent tears you down.
- Controlling Behaviors
This may include monitoring your every move or logging into your social media accounts an dreading your texts messages constantly. It could also manifest itself as ordering you around, making decisions for you, or having sudden, angry outbursts.
- Putting the blame on you
An abuser is very good at making you feel guilty for their mistakes. This could include, for example, making a cruel joke, then when you defend yourself, claiming that you have no sense of humor. They could make you feel guilty for not “appreciating” them, they could deny their abuse, and even go so far as to claim that you are abusing them. An abuser will do everything they can to trivialize and invalidate your feelings.
- Dehumanizing You
While a healthy parent sees and respects your emotions as a person, an abusive parent will withhold any affection from you, then call you needy if you ask for it. They may try to turn other people against you, and shut you down or interrupt you any time you try to speak openly and honestly about your thoughts and emotions.
It’s difficult to conclusively determine how or why some people end up being abusive parents. It’s sometimes thought to be associated with having experienced abuse themselves as children, with hereditary mental health disorders that make regulating emotional responses hard, or with environmental factors that make parenting difficult, such as being a single parent.
However, none of these factors determine for certain that someone will be an abusive parent, and they certainly don’t excuse abuse, either.
What are the signs and symptoms of emotional abuse?
In a child who has been abused, the signs and symptoms can vary greatly depending on the type of abuse they endured, whether they were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused, or whether they suffered neglect. However, there are some typical behaviors that manifest in children who have been emotionally abused:
- Abnormal emotional development
- Low or poor self-esteem, especially if it has been lost suddenly
- Loss of interest in activities that once made them happy
- Avoidant behaviors
- Seeking attention in unusual ways
What are the 2 types of emotional abuse?
There are lots of forms of emotional abuse, but emotional abuse is often referred to by two names -- psychological abuse, or emotional abuse.
- Emotional abuse is a larger umbrella term that often includes things like name calling and putting someone down. An emotionally abusive person may call you nicknames that belittle you, or call you stupid, foolish, or ugly. Emotional abuse is clear in any circumstance when someone who is supposed to be your ally or loved one, is instead working to tear you down, and make you feel small and worthless.
- Psychological abuse is the term used when the abuser directly tries to make the victim question their own sense of reality. This may include gaslighting, which is denying very obvious things that the victim knows to be true in order to make the victim question their own sense of reality. In an extreme situation of psychological abuse, the victim may believe that he or she is psychologically unwell and often, therefore, dependent on their abuser for a sense of reality.
What is a toxic parent?
A toxic parent is a parent who is unable to maintain healthy relationships with their children, and they often engage in damaging behaviors. They might have few or no boundaries and burden their children with private and emotionally stressful information, or they might have far too many boundaries, and treat their child somewhat coldly.
A healthy parent works to build you up and care for you. A healthy parent should make you feel strong and capable, while a toxic parent only makes you feel weak and useless. A toxic parent may even go so far as to psychologically abuse you, making you dependent up on them and their view of reality.
What are the signs of a toxic parent?
The signs of a toxic parent can be similar to the signs of an abusive parent, since it’s a much more broadly defined phrase. Oftentimes, a toxic parent is harsh, overly critical, controlling, judgmental, or has inappropriate boundaries. They may leave you feeling insecure, uncomfortable, or unwanted, and might offer up support in meager ways, or not at all.
Some important signs to look for are:
- Overly harsh criticism
- Trying to control your life
- Not giving you any independence or space
- Trying to live vicariously through their child, even when their child expresses a desire for freedom
- An extreme fear that their children experience any form of pain, and limiting their freedom as a result of this anxiety
- Patronizing and speaking down to you
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