“How could you have been abused?” a grossly misinformed person in an adult survivor’s life may say. “You had a roof over your head, food in your belly, clothes, and no one ever hit you!”
But as every adult survivor of emotional child abuse knows, the essentials—good attention, unconditional love, and emotional support—were missing.
Unfortunately, however, many misconceptions about emotional child abuse abound. Here’s a look at some of the biggest ones.
Misconception #1: Emotional abuse is another word for verbal abuse
Fact: Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse, non-verbal abuse, and non-physical forms of abuse.
“Child abuse is more than bruises or broken bones,” state Melinda Smith, M.D., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D, in a HelpGuide article. “While physical abuse is shocking due to the scars it leaves, not all child abuse is as obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making a child feel worthless or stupid are also child abuse. Regardless of the type of child abuse, the result is serious emotional harm.”
For example, the silent treatment does not involve words nor physical abuse, but it inflicts on the shunned child a sense of insignificance, unworthiness. The silent treatment tells a child, “You have not behaved as I have desired, so your existence will not be acknowledged until you apologize or prove yourself under my complete control.”
Misconception #2: Emotional abuse is made up… People need to stop being so sensitive
A form of emotional child abuse is “minimizing”—when the abuser admits an incident has occurred yet says it was not a big deal.
“Statements such as ‘You’re too sensitive,’ ‘You’re exaggerating,’ or ‘You’re blowing this out of proportion’ all suggest that the recipient’s emotions and perceptions are faulty and not to be trusted,” states the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center in an article about emotional abuse.
“Trivializing, which occurs when the abuser suggests that what you have done or communicated is inconsequential or unimportant, is a more subtle form of minimizing.”
The danger of minimizing and trivializing what happened is that the abused begins to feel full of self-doubt regarding his/her reactions, perceptions, and understanding of situations. Moreover, the abused starts squelching their “spider senses” that tell them when they are being abused.
Also, this belief that the abused need to “toughen up” gives free rein to the abused. It puts the blame for such behavior on the abused, who has to “toughen up,” rather than the abuser, who really needs to stop acting abusively.
Misconception #3: Emotional abuse is only name-calling
Fact: Abusive words aren’t just name-calling. Abusive words can be used to dismantle the spirit and self-esteem of another.
Verbal abuse can be used in…
- Gaslighting someone (For example, the adult survivor is manipulated to make dinner for her mother, does so, and then the mother never shows up. When the adult survivor calls, the mother says, “I never said we’d have dinner tonight… You must’ve heard wrong.” Even when there’s proof to the contrary.)
- Overly criticizing (“Your glasses make you look ugly. Your cheeks are too round. Your teeth are crooked.” All said within a few minutes, usually. Abused parents have a way of getting into monologues.)
- Comparing them to others constantly and finding fault with the abused (“So-and-so’s son only worked at the company for a year, and he’s got a raise! How long have you worked at the place and had, what, no raise? He’s so brilliant, that’s why, probably.”)
- Belittle what the abused loves (“You’re into Russian literature? That’s so nerdy. No one likes that. I’m sure you’ll have lots of friends loving that.”)
- Backhanded “compliments (“You have such a beautiful face…. Now, if you could only lose weight for the rest of you.”)
- Spreading insecurity (“I don’t want to be the one to say anything, but do you think your husband’s cheating on you? I mean, who really works at the office late anymore? Maybe if you were nicer…”)
- Veiling abusive through the guise of love (“You know I love you, so that’s the only reason I’m telling you that everyone’s talking about how ugly you painted the house.” Or “I’m only telling this for your own good, but you really need to stop wearing jeans. They make your legs look too short.”)
Misconception #4: Emotional abuse is just part of life
Fact: Not true. Some families are emotionally healthy.
Moreover, no child needs to learn to accept being treated like nothing. Every person is worthy of dignity. We all matter in the eyes of God. Every life is precious.
To ask a child to suck it up or to tell an adult survivor that he or she needed to get used to the abuse is denying a person’s dignity.
No child should get used to be ignored, despised, maltreated, have his/her worth diminished, or made to feel unlovable.
That is true whether the child is alive in the 1800s, 1900s, or 2000s or in the far future.
Misconception #5: Parents would stop abusing their children if emotionally abused children just told their parents to stop
Fact: Telling a parent to stop is very difficult for abused children. And just telling someone to stop doesn’t mean he will. (People, after all, are not robots to be controlled.)
That said, emotionally abused children have been conditioned by their parents to squelch their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs to comply with their parents’ demands and needs. To speak up is to commit a grave crime in their parents’ eyes.
Still, some children do speak up, and when they do, they are told they are being too sensitive, they need to stop whining, they need to stop complaining, they’re being annoying, they need to toughen up, they should shut the hell up, they will be ignored for being a pain in the butt, etc.
If the parents cared how their children felt, they wouldn’t abuse them.
Change can happen but the abuse won’t stop due to someone just saying “stop.” The adult survivor needs to say stop, create healthy boundaries in the relationship, and even go No Contact for the amount of time necessary for the abuser to find therapy, learn new healthy skills, and establish a long-term pattern of nonabusive behavior.
Healing and change aren’t instant magic.
Misconception #6: People can spot an emotional abuser
Fact: Not. At. All.
Emotionally abusive parents very often abuse their children in view of no one except the abused child. In some circumstances, even the abused child’s sibling may not know of the abuse due to the parent’s triangulation of the sibling relationship, their favoring one child over the other, or conditioning the other siblings to accept the abuse of the one particular child.
A very common issue about adult survivors of emotionally abusive parents is that no one believes them because the friend or relative never saw the abuse. “But your parents are so sweet!” or “But I never heard them say one thing bad about you!” or “Your parents always spoke so well of you!” are common replies that adult survivors here.
All that is smokescreen behavior. Under the guise of concern, an abusive parent tells friends and relatives how his/her child is depressed or overly sensitive or troubled or prone to exaggeration. Before friends and relatives, the abusive parent may praise his/her child yet never give his/her child any praise—only harsh criticism or ignoring their accomplishments.
Myriad emotionally abusive parents look just like other parents and behave like emotionally healthy parents in public. (Narcissistic parents have it down to an art form.) However, what happens at home is the dark truth that the emotionally abused child knows.
Misconception #7: A psychologist needs to meet the emotionally abusive parent to make a diagnosis of whether an adult survivor was really emotionally abused
Fact: An adult survivor’s responsibility is first and foremost for his or her own safety.
An adult survivor of emotional child abuse must first get help for him/herself. Unfortunately, sometimes when they awaken, they are urged into family therapy by the abused parents.
Why is that?
Because abusive parents often know how to work the system and elicit the desire responses (after all, the abusive parents have been living double lives for a very long time).
Psychologists are only human. They make mistakes. And sometimes, abusive parents are master manipulators and/or actors, especially in therapy, and they can twist sessions with their children into a sobfest of how the parent cares and tries so hard but the child is troubled.
An adult survivor of emotional child abuse would do well to go to a therapist ALONE and talk in private about what has happened, what he/she feels, the reasons for going into therapy. Because of adult survivors have little capacity to express their feelings (due to being conditioned by the abusive parent to squelch any feeling that isn’t pleasing to the parent), the adult survivors need time to learn to acknowledge, recognize, and share their feelings.
A good, insightful therapist will recognize signs of emotional child abuse, will understand how to best reach the adult survivor, and will guide the adult survivor through the various stages of healing.
Misconception #8: A heart-to-heart conversation between parent and child will cure emotional child abuse
Fact: This misconception is similiar to #5 but this is like the extended version.
“If only I knew why you shutting me out!” an abusive parent will say in an email or phone call to the adult survivor, who has decided to start establishing healthy boundaries. “If only you had said something!”
Chances are that the adult survivor did mention his or her feelings at some point, but the abuser minimized, trivialized, denied, or just ignored the adult survivor’s feelings
Moreover, the “flying monkeys” of the abuser will often descend on the adult survivor and badger him/her, saying, “But did you tell your parent how you felt? Did you have a conversation about this?”
Because one conversation stops abuse, right?
One conversation can lead to the path of healing, but healing is not due to any magic spell or wishful thinking.
Abuse stops when a parent recognizes his/her abusive behavior, learns skill sets for healthy parenting, and seeks professional help. They can find help on various websites, but they also need to go to counseling and find out WHY they are abusive, how to stop it, and how to create a healthier bond with their children.
Misconception #9: All parents are abusive sometimes
Fact: Parents do err at times, but the systematic and persistent abusive behavior by the parent is what makes it abuse. A parent who loses his temper once in a very long while and blurts out, “Just do it! Stop being lazy!” is being an unkind parent in the moment but may not be an emotional abuser.
An emotionally abusive parent persistently acts that way, shows no desire to change, and continues creating excuses for behaving abhorrently.
Misconception #10: You need to maintain a relationship with your emotionally abusive parent because he/she is your parent
Fact: No. No, you don’t.
No one deserves to be in a toxic relationship. No one should be in a relationship with any person, parent or otherwise, who regularly seeks the diminishment of your being.
Unfortunately, emotionally abused children usually suffer in silence and bear the abuse until they are adults. Even worse, the adult children often continue in the same setup as when they were children because their abusive parents conditioned them to such abuse.
But adult children can stand up for themselves. They can say, “No more.”
An adult survivor of emotional child abuse does not owe anything to the parent. The adult child has already had to surrender his/her childhood to the abusive of the parent… Why give the adult years to the abusive parent, too?
Everyone, children and adults, deserve healthy relationships. The Counseling Center lists the following basic rights in a relationship with others. Though the list is for adults in relationships, it works for the adult survivor-parent relationship as well.
- The right to good will from the other
- The right to emotional support
- The right to be heard by the other and to be responded to with courtesy
- The right to have your own view, even if your partner has a different view
- The right to have your feelings and experience acknowledged as real
- The right to receive a sincere apology for any jokes you may find offensive
- The right to clear and informative answers to questions that concern what is legitimately your business
- The right to live free from accusation and blame
- The right to live free from criticism and judgment
- The right to have your work and your interests spoken of with respect
- The right to encouragement
- The right to live free from emotional and physical threat
- The right to live free from angry outbursts and rage
- The right to be called by no name that devalues you
- The right to be respectfully asked rather than ordered
Everyone has the right to emotionally healthy relationships. No one should have to bear it because the abuser is related by blood or other familial ties.
“A person’s rightful due is to be treated like an object of love, not an object of use.” (Pope John Paul II, “Love and Responsibility“)
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Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.