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  • Writer's pictureRaveena Kay

Signs you've been raised by a toxic parent and how to BREAK the abusive cycle

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Disclaimer: This article has taken me two months to write because it is very personal and I feel it affects a lot of adults. Adults look back at their childhood and even though mom and dad financially supported them, they realize they were not emotionally supported. I can speak for the Indian community, our immigrant parents had emotionally abusive parents and it keeps getting recycled. The thought is "Well at least I'm not as bad as MY parents, my kids have it easier". While some of the ways brown parents handle situations with their children is cultural, some of it is toxic. Cultural traditions, lack/stigma of therapy has made parents and children believe that it is "normal" to treat kids a certain way to prepare them for the real world. Even if their kids are successful, what emotionally abusive parents will never realize is that their child has to seek therapy for damages they inflicted on their children because THE PARENT didn't/won't get therapy.

It is our job to break that cycle by seeking mental health treatment, dialoguing with each other and making sure we do not treat our children the way our parents treated us.

Figuring out a parent has been/currently is emotionally abusive and toxic usually does not occur until the person has reached adulthood and seeks therapy. This is due to the child normalizing toxic behavior from their parent(s), and being able to justify their parents’ behavior by remembering that their parent was not all “bad”.

What does emotionally abusive mean?

Parents are not perfect and will occasionally argue and reprimand their child due to a mistake the child made. That does not mean they’re toxic. Having quarrels with parents is normal, and if the parent can apologize and understand his/her limitations that doesn't mean they are toxic.

So what is emotional abuse?

"Emotional abuse is behaviors by caregivers that includes verbal and emotional assault such as continually criticizing, humiliating, belittling or berating a child, as well as isolating, ignoring, or rejecting a child. Emotional abuse results in injury to a child's self-esteem and damages a child’s emotional or psychological well-being."psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, tells Bustle. Beverley Engel describes emotional abuse in her book The Emotionally Abusive Relationship :

“Emotional abuse is like brainwashing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidating, or under the guise of ‘guidance,’ ‘teaching,’ or ‘advice,’ the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones.”

It is important to realize that usually, the emotional abuser does not realize he/she is one. They tend to have also been emotionally abused as a child and recycle that behavior when raising children.

What are signs a parent is emotionally abusive?

1. The caregiver constantly criticizes and holds contempt towards you. Repetitive putdowns and insults are a sign of emotional abuse. According to Shannon Battle, a counselor who talked with Bustle:"Parents have overt ways of emotionally abusing their children such as desertion or speaking hurtful words that break their hearts, cast blame, and make them lose their self-worth,". Examples of such phrases are "You are a lost cause", "I wish you were more like your sister", "I wish you were never born", "You're stupid". Parents might feel they're trying to toughen up their child by saying these hurtful comments, however, this makes the child feel unloveable.

2. The caregiver is emotionally manipulative. This occurs in narcissistic parents who guilt their children into "leaving them". These parents also gaslight their children by telling them "I never said that" in order to alter the child's emotional reality and make the child question their sanity.

3. The caregiver invalidates the child's feelings/emotions. Children are taught that their emotions and feelings (when they don't match the parents) are wrong. They learn at a young age that "emotions are dangerous".

4. The parent is terrifying. According to Bustle: "Parents who scream, threaten, deliberately physically impose and use their child's fear as a method of control are behaving in an emotionally abusive manner. "A lot of parents abuse their children physically and emotionally because they have poor parenting skills. They do not know how to get children to behave, and they resort to aggression out of frustration."

According to Bustle, there are some signs you may experience currently due to your emotionally abusive upbringing:

1. You have an unhealthy relationship with others.

If you grew up with unhealthy parents and that's your "norm" and what you are comfortable with, you will be more likely to seek out people similar to personalities of your parents. According to Bustle, "If you were taught to relate to others by being passive-aggressive, manipulative, or to not get too close because you may get hurt; this can all stem from childhood. Relationships with parents are the first relationship you will form, and it can have a ripple effect later in life The ability to engage in healthy relationship patterns is informed by strength in social emotional competence," Mendez says. "When children experience emotionally abusive caregiving, trust is compromised, and the ability to engage in and maintain healthy relationships is impaired."

2. You have low self-esteem.

Verbal abuse consisting of constant criticism when growing up such as: "you're not smart, you're not pretty, you don't measure up, you will not be successful, no one will love you", will erode at your self-esteem.

The silver lining to this is that even if you were criticized at a younger age, that does not make those phrases TRUE. Your self-esteem can be rebuilt with proper therapy, CBT, and mentally telling yourself that you are good enough. According to Bustle,

"Persistent exposure to belittling, berating, name-calling and verbal punishment breaks down a child’s sense of competence and forms a foundation of self-doubt, self-hatred, and worthlessness. Emotional abuse shatters hope, pride, and motivation. There is considerable risk of mental health challenges such as depression or poor capacity for functional emotional regulation."

3. You are very pessimistic.

The emotionally abusive caregiver will tend to have a negative outlook on life. Thus, as a child, because you were surrounded by negativity, you internalize it. This damages the foundation of hope. Luckily, with proper therapy from a mental health professional, this thinking can be reframed.

4. You repress emotions.

This is something I do BIG TIME, and still continue to work on. Growing up, I was not allowed to express my emotions. In Indian culture, it's considered "weak" to cry. If parents yelled at you for doing something, you couldn't express emotion, you had to ignore the feeling and move on. This is a coping mechanism a lot of children develop because "children learn to repress emotions to survive the pain of the emotional attacks. shutting down feelings is necessary for psychological survival" (Bustle).

5. You seek out attention.

According to Bustle: "If you were neglected as a child, or only received negative attention, it may be natural to search for emotional validation and attention in other ways. Even if you have positive reinforcement in your life now, you may find yourself actively seeking it out because you were deprived of it as a child. A child who does not receive praise, acknowledgment or acceptance, grows up longing for connections and seeking positive attention," Mendez says. "Emotional abuse starves a child of necessary love and affection, often resulting in over-reaching for validation from others and excessive approval-seeking behaviors."

How do I get help? Should I talk to my parent about their emotionally abusive behavior?

This is an individual call and should be talked more in-depth with a therapist. Sometimes the emotionally abusive parent will never change. Sometimes they will change if they see the consequences of their actions. If the emotionally abusive caregiver is willing to seek therapy that would be an amazing step so that the burden does not fall on the victim.

If you do feel you have been emotionally abused, it is best to seek a mental health professional. You may also want to find a mental health professional who practices CBT, DBT, ACT. It is also important to dialogue with supportive friends/family members, create healthy relationships with people around you, and create boundaries with the emotionally abusive caregiver.



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