21 'Signs' of an Abusive Parent We Can't Keep Overlooking
“I brought you into this world and I could take you out of it so fast your head would spin.”
Growing up, this was something I heard frequently from my mother. At the time, I believed my mom just had a “mean streak,” but now I know a lot of her words and actions were actually abusive. Because of this comment (and a lot of other ones like it), I unsurprisingly grew up feeling unloved, unsupported and downright terrified for most of my childhood.
Even though I know my mother (like so many other parents who abuse their kids) was abused herself, it’s not an excuse for the years of psychological damage she wreaked on my younger self. If you can relate to my experience of growing up with an abusive parent, you’re not alone.
Because parental abusive behavior can often fly under the radar, it’s important for us to talk about the signs. To open up this conversation, we asked members of our Mighty community to share one “sign” of an abusive parent we often overlook. In addition to their experiences, we’ve analyzed why each behavior can be abusive. Before beginning, we want to preface by saying this list is not an exhaustive one, but merely a small part of the large and under-discussed category of abusive parenting.
If you are struggling with the emotional impact of growing up with an abusive parent, you’re not alone. You are worthy of support, validation and care as you heal. If you’re interested in getting more support on your recovery journey, sign up for our Trauma Survivors newsletter with weekly encouragement from people who have been there.
Here are some “signs” of an abusive parent we need to talk about:
1. Withholding or Making a Child “Earn” Basic Necessities
Parents who maliciously deprive their children of their basic needs or make their children feel guilty for receiving the things a parent is obligated to provide are abusive.
“I [haven’t] been abused by my parents, but the thing I noticed when my school friend was being abused by her parent was that the mother would always made basic needs like food, clothes, roof over their heads into a ‘privilege’ to be earned. If my friend did one thing wrong, it was thrown in her face.” — Kirsty F.
“Using necessities as a means of control. Using necessities to make you feel like you aren’t being abused. My whole life I heard: ‘At least I put a roof over your head!’ ‘At least I feed you!’ ‘At least I don’t beat you!’ And I tried to tell myself I was selfish for feeling bad after abuse, because I had a home and food and wasn’t physically abused. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that those were basic human rights. I thought not getting beaten or starved were just privileges I had to earn.” — Ashley B.
2. “Parentification” or Enmeshment
“Parentification,” also known as “covert incest” or enmeshment, describes a “too close for comfort” relationship between a parent and child where boundaries are blurred and the child can end up feeling less like a child and more like a romantic partner.
“Parentification. It’s not a child’s responsibility to take care of the needs of the parent. The child develops anxious attachment dependent upon the needs of the parent… They also constantly feel that anything bad that happens is their fault. I still can’t shake that and I’m 42 years old and have been in therapy for three and a half years. It’s a deep wound that takes massive effort to heal.” — Monika S.
“When the parent relies on the child for emotional support. Talks to their small child the way the would an adult friend. This is not only confusing, but also [takes away] the child’s ability to know what healthy interpersonal relationships and boundaries are.” — Jodie A.
3. Favoring One Child Over Another
According to Ellen Weber Lilly, Ph.D, author of “The Favorite Child,” not all instances of child favoritism are abusive, but when it does become abusive, favorite children can grow up with a distorted, inflated view of themselves, while unfavored children can grow up with a distorted, negative view of themselves.
“Favoring one kid over the other. Pushing one child away in favor for the other.” — Amanda K.
4. Incessant Teasing/Humiliation
According to Karyl McBride, Ph.D., L.M.F.T, a classic sign of childhood emotional abuse is the use of shame and humiliation. This can include harsh, incessant teasing or putting a child down in front of an audience.
“When a parent ‘teases’ a child to the point that said child breaks down into tears. It’s emotional abuse, and it causes years of insecurities and self-loathing.” — Sarah H.
5. Not Giving a Child Privacy
Not allowing a child to have age-appropriate privacy may impact their ability to trust others, maintain their own boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. Reading a child’s diary for example, is an example of this kind of abuse.
“Lack of privacy. I know too many people, myself included, who have had zero to no privacy growing up. This included but was not limited to phone raids, room raids, having the door taken off the hinges so you couldn’t ‘hide’ anything, etc… As an adult I can see this behavior wasn’t always ‘for my protection.’ At times it was abuse hidden under the guise of safety. Behavior like that has caused me to be wickedly defensive and protective over my own space and belongings — it can often border on paranoia at times.” — Shmelshey S.
6. Threatening Physical Violence (Even If There Is No Intent to Actually Use Violence)
Threatening physical violence creates an unsafe environment for a child. Even if no physical harm is actually done, this kind of fear tactic is emotionally abusive, and may be just as damaging as actual physical abuse.
“Intimidation. My dad would stand at the bottom of our stairs at night if we weren’t settled down going to sleep and would snap his belt. We knew what it meant.” — Toni C.
7. Making Siblings “Compete” for Love and Approval
Though similar to favoritism, this kind of emotional abuse isn’t just about choosing one child over the other — it’s about actively encouraging and “pitting” siblings against each other. It reinforces the lie that parental love should be “earned” instead of freely and unconditionally given.
“Turning the children against each other so you have to compete with your siblings for approval. And every child thinks the other has it better; that she loves the other child better. Bonus points if she can play the kids against their other parent so every person in the family is isolated from everyone else.” — Tracy S.
8. Using Religion to Shame a Child
Religion can be a beautiful thing for many families, but in some cases can be twisted and used as an instrument of shame and condemnation. Using religion to shame a child (as opposed to lovingly pointing them to spiritual values) can be damaging because in many religions, God is a father figure. This implies that not only is the biological parent ashamed of you, but so is the ultimate father of the universe.
“Religious harm. My mom called me ‘Jezebel’ since I was 8. She raised me in a very strict religion and I knew who that was in the Bible. Everything I did wrong was twisted into shame from God… I was nothing but a piece of crap in her world. I spent my life trying to make her love me. My favorite color was hers. My favorite food was hers. My favorite song was hers. I mirrored her in hopes she’d notice me. I didn’t even know I was doing that until my first therapy session when I was 14. It took five years to discover my favorite color was green. I had to dig out of the whole of being her to find myself. It was such a struggle.” — Jessica B.
9. Emotional Neglect or Being Absent
Sometimes abusive behavior is less about what a parent does to a child and more about what they don’t do. Scary Mommy contributor Anna Redyns wrote, “The tricky thing about [childhood emotional neglect] is that it’s not an active type of neglect. You can’t see it the way you can a child’s bruised cheek or hear their grumbly belly.” This can be incredibly damaging to a child because they may not realize they were being abused, but still live with the emotional impact of neglect — often struggling with their mental health and self-esteem as a result.
“Neglect; absence. My dad was physically abused as a child, so his way of ‘fixing’ it, i.e. not physically abusing, was by ignoring us completely. He never had a job, so he was always home. But never ‘there.’” — Amanda L.
10. Showing Love Conditionally
When parents show love unconditionally, children learn they are loved and wanted — even when they make mistakes. When parents give love conditionally, children are taught the opposite and may struggle with perfectionism and trying to “earn” love.
“Conditional love. A parent withdrawing their affection when their child has displeased them or done something they disapprove of.” — Steph E.
11. Using a Child to “Get Back” at the Other Parent
Putting a child in the middle of an argument between parents is emotionally abusive. This kind of behavior is frequently associated with parents who are divorcing, and an abusive parent may use children to get information about the other parent, “poison” the child against the other parent or make the child choose a side.
“Is using your child as a pawn against their other parent! My mother and father both did this. ‘Tell your mum this.’ ‘Tell your dad this.’ ‘Your mum is this, your dad is that.’ The amount of times they’d mentally try and drill into our heads why each other was the worst parent was so damned detrimental to a child!” — Amber L.
12. Accepting Nothing Short of Perfection
Expecting perfection from a child can teach children they will only be loved if they perform well. A study done in Singapore found that perfectionistic “helicopter parents” can make children excessively self-critical and undermine their confidence and self-belief.
“Demanding absolute perfection from their kids when it comes to grades. ‘Oh you got a 90/100? Let’s make that an even better A!’” — Veronica S.
13. Constant “Guilt-Tripping”
Being “guilt-tripped” by an authority figure like a parent can cause real damage, often making it hard for a child to assert healthy boundaries in adulthood. It’s abusive because it uses the power inequality between a parent and child in a way the child often doesn’t realize is unfair and exploitive.
“When a parent makes their child feel guilty over the littlest thing. It isn’t bad if it occurs once. It’s abuse when it occurs for years and possibly for their entire life. The child will grow up fearing that he or she will disappoint their parent, and for some, this can prevent them from doing things they want. [They may struggle with] self-expression, have lower self-confidence and will feel like they are failures. I like to call it the ‘guilt-trip card’ when my mom ‘played’ it. She would scold me about how I’m not doing things her way and then proceed to tell me her life stories about how her life is tough. As a child, I didn’t want to talk back to my mother because it was a disrespectful thing to do, but as I got older, I developed anxiety and depression due to the constant fear of getting in trouble. It’s a manipulation tactic my mom uses, and I believe there are many other parents using it too.” — Vy N.
14. Playing the Victim and Always Blaming the Child
This kind of behavior is emotionally abusive because it models a failure to take ownership for wrongdoing. It can create problems in adulthood if a child mimics the parent and also plays the victim constantly, or if the child has learned they are always at fault and perpetually blames him or herself.
“The [parent] who can do no wrong and is always the victim. The parent will talk ill of their child, playing the victim, to all relatives and friends, and cause people (including teachers, parents of friends, family members etc.) to judge the child and doubt the child without even getting to know them, naming them the ‘problem child’ without even giving the child a chance.” — Nicole A.
15. Never Allowing a Child to Communicate His/Her Own Needs
Curbing a child’s ability to speak for him or herself when he/she is able can be abusive. Children should be made to feel safe expressing their needs and emotions — this is necessary for healthy communication in adulthood.
“Speaking for them. An abusive parent will interrupt when someone is asking the child a question or the child is speaking to another adult. In order to prevent being outed.” — Charlena J.
16. Verbal Abuse or Ridicule as “Discipline”
Though as children we are taught the “sticks and stones” adage, the reality is, words do hurt — particularly when the person inflicting harmful words is a parent or adult in charge of protecting and providing for you. In a study examining whether childhood verbal abuse increased the risk for developing personality disorders (PDs), it was found that childhood verbal abuse may contribute to development of some kinds of PDs and other co-occuring psychiatric disorders.
“Verbal abuse as ‘discipline.’ Hearing ‘I work all week and I come home to this?!’ and hearing about how food is provided for the kids and, in turn, the kids feeling guilty for any request made. Like food, a drive somewhere (school, church). Basic parent responsibilities.” — Kyanna S.
“Constant ridicule even when I’m doing good things for myself, interrogating me about my sex life, going through my belongings and stealing some after I moved out.” — Brad B.
17. Telling a Child to “Stop Crying” or Calling Them “Too Sensitive”
A vital part of growing up is developing a separate identity from your parent, particularly when it comes to expressing emotions. It can be emotionally abusive to shame a child for experiencing “unfavorable” emotions, because emotions aren’t “bad” or “good” — they just are.
“Telling your child to stop crying. There are ways to stop the crying without shaming them for displaying emotion. It’s actually something I have to mindfully be aware of with my own children, as they inherited a lot of sensitivity from me. It’s worth it to keep those reactions in check though, because kids cry a lot.” — Elizabeth B.
“Being called ‘too sensitive.’ I grew up feeling my feelings weren’t valid and that every reaction was an overreaction.” — Kiandra Q.
18. Violating a Child’s Age-Appropriate Boundaries, Saying It’s a Parental “Right”
Not allowing a child to assert his/her own boundaries on the grounds of parental “right” can be abusive. For example, if a child gets to an age when they want to dress and undress privately and aren’t allowed to because a parent says its their “right” to monitor a child at all times, this can teach a child they don’t deserve to assert their needs, and their boundaries won’t be respected if they try.
“Parental entitlement to ‘rights’ like treating you however they want to or being included in something or disregarding your boundaries because it’s their ‘right’ as your parent.” — Abbie M.
19. Constantly Invalidating a Child’s Struggles
Invalidation is a prime example of emotional abuse — especially when it’s used to justify poor parenting practices on the basis of “it could have been worse.”
“Not validating anything. Saying, ‘Back in my day, we had it so much worse’ then giving examples of how things were. Example would be: get spanked for crying too much. ‘Back in my day we got smacked with a switch — at least you’re getting a paddle!’ As if it’s supposed to justify the beating.” — Falina B.
20. Stealing or Taking the Money a Child Earned
Parents who feel entitled to the money their children makes because they supported and provided for their children can act abusively. It may teach the child they are not able to protect their own belongings, and that they perpetually “owe” their parents for raising them — an obligation a parent has to a child, not something the child should have to “pay back.”
“My mother searched my person and things daily, and took the door off my room. I had to pay to live there, to do laundry, or even eat, from the age of 14 until I left at 18. She also took any money I’d earn from babysitting the kid next door. When I started putting it in a savings account, she found out, forged my signature and took almost 400 dollars — that was all that was in it.” — Amanda P.
21. Making Your Child Who You Want Them to Be vs. Who They Want to Be
In an effort to see children “realize their potential,” some parents try to mold their children into who they think they should be. This can be abusive because it often means a child is not allowed to express his or her true identity, and anything that deviates from the parent’s ideal could be rejected — potentially leading to poor self-esteem and perfectionism.
“Wanting you to be like them. I had to have the same first car my father had, participate in the same sports, etc.” — Tim K.
“Being forced into a life/career that helps reinforce a parent’s wants, regardless of the effect it has on the child. Instead of wanting them to be happy in life and doing what they want, the only approval comes from what they see fit. Even if the child/teen doesn’t want to. Then using it to gloat to others as if the child is some kind of prize possession rather than a child, but showing no approval/respect for what the child/teen actually likes in life. This goes parallel to not just a career, but also life choices and hobbies that are chosen by a child to please their parents. A lot of parents think a child lives to ‘make them proud,’ rather than to be happy. And no child or young adult should he held accountable for their parents’ pride.” — John L.
Unsplash photo via Tess