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20 'Harmless' Things Parents Say That Are Actually Emotionally Abusive

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When we think of the word “abuse,” we usually think of physical harm. But sometimes, the most damaging kind of abuse isn’t physical at all — it’s psychological. This kind of emotional abuse can be especially damaging when it comes from a parent or guardian.

Parents seldom set out to abuse their children. A lot of the time they may not even realize they are being emotionally or psychologically abusive. Sometimes parents can make what they believe are “harmless” comments that actually come across as invalidating and hurtful.

Maybe you grew up hearing things like, “If you don’t behave, no one will ever love you,” making you feel unlovable if you didn’t fall in line. Maybe your parent was abusive by being “too close for comfort,” constantly telling you that you were their favorite child, driving a wedge between you and your siblings. Or maybe, in a desire to keep you “healthy,” your parent made excessive comments about your food intake and weight — something they might even continue to do to this day.

Even though these “harmless” comments may come from good intentions, with repetition, they can be incredibly damaging and oftentimes emotionally abusive. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychological abuse in childhood can be just as damaging as sexual or physical abuse in the long run.

To shed some light on what “harmless” comments actually hurt, we turned to our mental health community. It’s important to remember what may seem “harmless” to one person may actually feel hurtful or abusive to another. No matter what anyone says, your feelings are valid, and you deserve support.

Here’s what our community had to say:

1. ‘Children are meant to be seen, not heard.’

“‘Children are meant to be seen and not heard.’ Appearances were important and my thoughts, emotions and opinions were not.” — Keisha D.

2. ‘If you don’t behave, no one will love you.’

“As a child, my dad and stepmom said so many things — I don’t know where to start! But I will go with the one that caused the most damage. ‘If you do not behave, no one will want you or love you.’ To this day, some 40 years later, I still believe I am unwanted and unloved especially if I do something wrong.” — Tammy Z.

3. ‘You’re not the daughter I expected.’

“‘You are not the daughter I wanted.’ My mom said this constantly. I’m adopted, so this was heartbreaking and made me even more depressed and anxious. I don’t talk to her anymore. If I’m not wanted, I’ll stay away.” — Benedicte V.

4. ‘Never be a burden to anyone.’

“This seemed like good advice, but I grew up keeping everything to myself, and trying to help everyone. When someone did something nice for me, I felt obligated to reciprocate, not wanting to be a burden, thinking I was a burden.” — Florence N.

5. ‘Don’t be so dramatic.’

You’re being a drama queen” every time I expressed any emotions not pre-approved by my stepmother. I repress my emotions to this day because of that instilled fear.” — Lea L.

“Throughout my entire childhood whenever I expressed emotion, I was told I was ‘being too dramatic,’ so when it came to be being abused and assaulted, I couldn’t tell my parents because I was ‘just being too dramatic.’ It’s affected me my entire life and I’ve really struggled with expressing my emotions because of it.” — Natasha A.

6. ‘Sometimes I wish I never had kids.’

“‘Sometimes I wish I never had you kids.’ My mum to me and my brothers and sister.” — Christina F.

7. ‘You’re my perfect child.’

“‘You’ve always been my perfect child.’ My mom would tell me she favored me over my four other siblings.” — Brooke L.

8. ‘Why can’t you be more like your siblings?’

“‘Why can’t you be like your sister?’ We are two very different people. If it wasn’t for the fact we look alike, you would not think we were related. My Mum was very controlling of my looks until I got a job and was able to do what I wanted to. She lost control. The insults I am now used to started [then].” — Sarah W.

9. ‘It’s like you don’t want to be happy.’

“‘You can choose to be happy, you just don’t want to.’ From my mom while I was trying to ask for help during a suicidal episode.” — Darian K.

10. ‘You should be thankful.’

When my mother used to tell me every time I have depressive episodes: ‘You should be thankful. You survived college. You’re abundant with food, money and shelter. You have us. Your sisters actually love you. So, there is nothing to be depressed about! You’re just brokenhearted because someone you like just rejected you.’ Yes, it seems harmless to anyone, but for me, even though I have everything, [depression is] still there and it won’t go away just like that. I’m sorry.” — Pamela J.

11. ‘You are the sorriest youngin’ that ever lived.’

My Mama always used to say, ‘You are the sorriest youngin’ that ever lived.’ She said this on my wedding day. To which I responded, ‘That’s OK because after today you won’t have to worry anymore!’ Some years later I confronted her with this and she said, ‘Well I was just joking, couldn’t you tell I was joking?’ I was a child. How was I supposed to know?” — Marsha S.

12. ‘You’ve always been so difficult.’

“‘You always have to be difficult!’ anytime there was a difference in opinion.” — Marie V.

13. ‘You’re just going through a phase.’

“‘It’s just a phase.’ Mom talking about my panic attacks that I’ve had since adoption and still have. When is this ‘phase’ over?” — Elizabeth M.

14. ‘You’re really filling out your bra now, aren’t you?’

“‘You’re a woman now. You know what that means, right?’  — my dad, when I got my first period at his house at age 9. Followed by, ‘You sure are filling out your bra…’ Every weekend thereafter for the next three years.” — Kristy B.

15. ‘You need to act your age.’

“‘Act your age, not your IQ,’ said right in front of my friends when I was 11. It pierced my heart.” — Carre L.

16. ‘You keep messing everything up.’

“I was told that I ‘slop things up’ (whether in the kitchen or my handwriting, etc.).” — Jen B.

17. ‘That’s silly, you shouldn’t feel that way.’

“When I was a child (and even still as an adult), whenever I would get the courage to tell my mom how something made me feel that she did/is doing, she would say, ‘That’s silly’ and proceeded to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way. It made me feel then and makes me feel worse now, so I’ve stopped telling her things.” — Jen D.

18. ‘Are you sure you’d be qualified for that job?’

“’I don’t think you have the skills for that career’ or ‘Are you SURE? That career is really difficult,’ my parents when I was younger and my inlaws. I have had issues now finding a career path I really want because I always think back to what they had said…” — Kachina M.

“My mom when I told her that I wanted to be a makeup artist: ‘You don’t really handle people well. Maybe a nice desk job?’ Thanks for killing my dreams and making me believe that I can’t do anything. Anytime I would bring up a new aspiration for a career, she immediately would find something to bring it down. Now, I don’t have a career because I never believed that I was good at anything. I still don’t.” — Kimy L.

19. ‘Should you be eating that?’

“‘Food is not your friend.’ My mom [said this] to me when I started gaining weight after going through a breakup and hard time in my life.” — Shauna A.

“‘Maybe guys don’t like you because of the way you look. I’m not saying that you need to lose weight, but you know how guys are.’ My dad said this to me.” — Morrigan R.

20. ‘Oh so now I’m the bad guy?’

“‘Oh so now I’m the bad guy?’ when telling them they were doing something hurtful/that made me uncomfortable.” — Bethany R.

If you grew up feeling invalidated, you’re not alone. To connect with other people who understand, we encourage you to post a Thought or Question on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors.

For more from our #TraumaSurvivors community, check out the following stories:

Getty Images photo via Anna Drozdova

Originally published: November 9, 2019
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