Hiding in Plain Sight: Emotional Abuse Quietly Harms

By Jocelyn Gardner ‘17
Mental Health Columnist, Webmaster


Trigger/content warning: emotional abuse, references to physical abuse and all mental illnesses


According to Oltmanns and Emery, “Psychological abuse, also referred to as emotional abuse or mental abuse, is a form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Few people think that emotional abuse happens to them, but often, people do not even know it is happening. Emotional abuse does not tend to present as overtly as other forms of abuse. As I will explore later, culture and expectations play into emotional abuse as well as the usual suspects of control, trauma, power dynamics and negative emotions.

One important disclaimer is that while it may be easy to cast blame upon someone you believe is inflicting emotional abuse,  you can’t say that this person is completely “bad” or that they have premeditated harm based on the assumption of what that person has done. As I like to constantly say, nothing is that clear-cut. On one hand, it is easy to blame parents, for example, without considering underlying problems such as their own upbringing. A lot of people who commit emotional abuse do not realize it. Don’t call this an excuse, however; explaining something should never be equated to excusing it.

Even if there is some underlying issue that may help to explain why a person inflicts emotional abuse on another, it is irresponsible and selfish for the abuser to deny the abuse and avoid self-awareness. I find this is especially true in the all-too-common instance of parents abusing children, which leads to ingrained and inescapable damage. How can you leave someone you depend on by law? Sometimes, the laws make it harder to protect yourself, especially as a dependent, adult child. Unlike some physical abuse, emotional abuse leaves no physical mark and is difficult to prove or trace.

The persistence of such dangerous familial occurrences is one of our nation’s foremost modern tragedies. Emotional abuse has the potential to harm a person to the very core; it can chip away at someone’s sense of self and worth.

This is not an exaggeration. “Many [...] victims of abuse live in homes or environments where they have become so accustomed to the situation they consider it normal,” explains the emotional abuse page on OutOfTheFog.net. “They do not recognize it even IS abuse sometimes, because there is no physical injury; instead an ongoing emotional barrage takes place which can be just as damaging.”

Emotional abuse is more than name-calling or use of fear. Interfering with relationships, blaming, acting dependent on the child, overwhelming said child with attention, brainwashing, guilt-tripping, infantilizing, patronizing, invalidating and extorting are all examples. These things all affect one’s self-view drastically, causing psychological distress. Commonly, people internalize the abuse or feel irretrievably trapped. There is an underlying control dynamic used as a way to manipulate. Some abusers use the victims for some kind of missing fulfillment. Again, this is particularly damaging in parent-child relationships—the reversal of roles in such a situation makes the child feel responsible for the parent, and the parent can use this as a way to guilt or manipulate the child.

For example, blaming a child for the problems of the parent(s) and telling the child she is an embarrassment or failure to the parent(s) is inappropriate and overwhelmingly negative. On a side note, negative reinforcement or punishment is shown to be ineffective and harmful anyway. Further, parents who constantly change their minds, especially in regard to large decisions, as a way to mess with the child--depending on the situation-- are also abusive. A parent cannot expect the child to make reparations for every issue. It is also abuse for a parent to threaten to take legal action against an innocent child, to extort the child using money and “favors” (i.e. letting the child do something out of “kindness” or “reasonableness,” then demanding something in return), or to force the child out of the home while refusing to let her leave.

I’m focusing on parental emotional abuse out of all the interpersonal relationships because it is often overlooked, misunderstood and incredibly dangerous. This is especially dangerous because as your parents are always your parents, at least by definition, there is no getting around the nature of your relationship.

As I mentioned before, culture plays into the acceptance or even promotion of parental emotional abuse. I have talked to far too many people, of all ages, who have told me casually about behaviors that could be classified as abusive. Conditional “love” based on academic performance is an example. There is a crushing fear of rejection by parents. Perfectionism in a person’s life shouldn’t extend to this person’s expectations for others. You might have heard the expression that some parents “live through their kids.” Maybe you’ve heard the story of a dad who pushes his child too hard toward athletic glory to make up for his own unrealized dream. Or the mom who pushes her college dreams onto her daughter and uses this as a form of guilt-tripping (“I didn’t have this opportunity; if you don’t appreciate it, you should be ashamed!”).

The worst part is that even if someone gets to the point of realization that their parents are emotionally abusive, there isn’t much that can be done. It is highly difficult on many different levels to get to a safer place by breaking away from abusive environments. Uncovering the damage left by years of abuse can be devastating enough even when distanced from the abuse itself. Having this realization in the middle of being trapped between childhood and adulthood is incredibly hard, and all the advice I’ve found is along the lines of “suck it up until you’re financially independent.” This is unacceptable, and would not happen in the case of physical abuse. Some might say this is because safety is not compromised. This is simply not true and is an amazingly ignorant assumption based on the myth that matters of the mind are trivial. Emotional abuse can and does lead to serious mental health consequences (e.g. anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, attachment problems, low self-esteem) and even death.

Sometimes the damage cannot be reversed, especially if the victim is not aware that the negative behavior is abusive. The first step to solving this and feeling safer is to recognize what is happening, and to look critically at the situation. Next, keep in mind that as with any form of abuse, you are not at fault. You don’t deserve to be harmed. And you do have some options, even if it doesn’t feel like you do. Talk to people you trust and seek out resources; take care of yourself. Then, if appropriate, talk to the person emotionally abusing you in a mature, calm manner. Only do this if you feel comfortable—often, someone manipulative can play mind games with you and push you into the same destructive patterns. Sometimes, seeking resolution is not appropriate, and this is where the issue becomes very tricky, as I previously mentioned. Breaking away might be your best option, as hard as it is to deal with the consequences of doing so (e.g. financial ramifications, family conflict, etc.).

The important thing is for you to feel safe. If you do look up resources, be careful because many of them encourage you to remain silent and stay in a negative environment. This is where other people can help you, and when in doubt, trust your gut.