11 Signs You Have An Emotionally Abusive Mother

Updated January 04, 2022
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. 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.

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 dismiss 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 an emotionally abusive parent, 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?

A child manages the pain from emotionally abusive parent.
Relationships With Your Mother Can Be Challenging
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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.

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 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 even 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’s 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 an emotionally abusive parent:

Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Parents

1. They are Overly Critical

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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 and poor self-image well into adulthood.

2. Their 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 on down the line.

3. They Use 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 how 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. 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.

4. You Are Blamed For Their 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.

5. They Give You The Silent Treatment

Another sign that your mother is emotionally abusive is if she gives you 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 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, gets frustrated occasionally, frequently withholding attention or affection from a child is wrong and can lead to a breakdown of communication.

6. It’s Your Job To Keep Them 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 abusive 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.

7. Nothing You Do Is Good Enough For Them

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.

8. 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.

9. They Don’t Allow You Privacy Or Want 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.

10. They Speak 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.

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 on a child’s mental health. They can leave them feeling unwanted or unworthy and as though they are in great danger when taken too far and may leave a child feeling overly anxious well into adulthood.

11. They 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 Being Emotionally Abused

Relationships With Your Mother Can Be Challenging
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While emotional abuse doesn’t leave behind the same scars as physical abuse, it doesn’t mean that it leaves 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.

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 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 more. 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 her behavior 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 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 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 situations, but it is incredibly important.

If you are an adult 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 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 unwilling to respect you or your boundaries.

What makes a parent abusive?

Parental abuse can come in many forms. While physical violence in any form is considered abuse, there does not need to be physical violence involved for someone to be considered abusive. If a parent puts you down and belittles you constantly, that is also abuse.

Psychologists generally categorize four major signs of emotional abuse.

1. 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 positive about who you are and what you do, but abusive parent tears you down.

2. Controlling Behaviors

This may include monitoring your every move or logging into your social media accounts and dreading your texts messages. It could also manifest itself as ordering you around, making decisions for you, or having sudden, angry outbursts.

3. Blaming you

An abuser is very good at making you feel guilty for your 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.

4. 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 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 experienced neglect. However, some typical behaviors 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
  • Depression
  • Avoidant behaviors
  • Seeking attention in unusual ways

What are the two types of emotional abuse?

There are many forms of emotional abuse, but emotional abuse is often referred to by two names — psychological abuse or emotional abuse.

  1. 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.
  2. Psychological abuse is when the abuser directly tries to make the other person question their sense of reality. This may include gaslighting, which denies very obvious things that one knows to be true to make them question their sense of reality. In an extreme situation of psychological abuse, someone may believe that they are 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 cannot 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 upon them and their view of reality.

What are the signs of a toxic parent?

The signs of a toxic parent can be similar to those of an abusive parent since it’s a much more broadly defined phrase. Often, 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 of emotional abuse 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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