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5 Kinds of Disguised Emotional Abuse

boy-e037b70e28_640Emotional abuse is hard to detect, and that is why it is hard for a child (and even an adult) to figure out if they’ve been emotionally abused. It’s easy to tell if you’ve been physically or sexually abused, but if you’ve been emotionally abused it is sometimes hard to detect. That is especially true when the emotional abuse is disguised.

Below are five kinds of disguised emotional abuse.

1 – Permissive Parents. Permissive parents give their children everything they want, so how can a child think they are abused? They can’t. They find themselves getting angry with their parents without knowing why. Sometimes permissive parents want to be pals with their children, but children need guidance, not a pal. Permissive parents generally equate permissiveness with love. But the real reason behind a parent’s being permissive is fear of saying no; they fear if they say no to their children, their kids might not approve of them. Children of permissive parents become spoiled, and then their parents guilt-trip them. “How could you do this to me after all I’ve given you!” The parents feel betrayed because the child is not the pal they wanted. Instead, sometimes they are ungrateful monsters. The parents, who have a need to be approved of as super-loving, start using terms like “bad seed” and take no responsibility whatsoever for what they raised, which makes matters worse.

2 – Reaction-Formation Parents. A reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which someone convinces themselves they are the opposite of how they actually feel deep down. A mother, for whatever reason, may cast one of her children as a “problem child.” It may start when the child is a baby; she may be a crier. From then on the mother takes a reaction-formational attitude toward the child. Unconsciously she regards the child as not only a problem child, but even crazy. The mother projects all her own unconscious anger onto the child. Her child picks this up by the mother’s body language and begins to feel crazy as well as anger at being viewed this way. Other children, taking the mother’s lead, also degrade this child. But on the surface the mother acts very concerned. She takes her to doctors and cries because she is so distressed about the child’s problems. She can’t understand how the child got that way because, she asserts to the doctor, she has always loved her. But the child doesn’t feel loved. She becomes enraged at the two faces of her mother. Sometimes such a child ends up in a mental hospital, and feels more honest love there than at home. It will take a lot of therapy before the child can unravel just what happened to her.

3 – Parent-Rivals. Sometimes a parent is unconsciously threatened by a child. These are usually narcissistic parents who have a need to always be number one. They’re like the queen in the story, “Snow White,” who regards the beautiful Snow White as a rival. When the mirror says that Snow White is the fairest in the land, the queen tries to have her killed. When a mother like this has a child who is beautiful and gregarious and cute, she feels unconsciously threatened by her. A narcissistic father, who is used to being the star at work and at home, may view his cute son as a rival. While on the surface he says he wants the son to be like him, his actions continually downgrade his son. When his wife pays attention to the son, he cringes. In these cases parents unconsciously make their son or daughter feel that they just don’t have what it takes to be the star that they are. They make a big deal out acting out pseudo-support: “Oh, you try so hard, it makes me sad when I see how hard you try.” Children of such parents grow up with inferiority complexes and other behavioral arrests without knowing why.

4 – Stage Parents. Narcissistic parents may make their children into narcissistic extensions. Such is the case with stage parents. A mother who views herself as a superior or talented person who never got that break she needed, or a father who regards himself as a superior athlete who, because of bad luck, didn’t become successful, may cast their child in the role of making up for their frustration. On the surface the parent appears to be loving and attentive, but underneath they have an obsession with their child’s attaining what they could not attain. In this case the child feels pressured to be what their parents want, and feels loved only in a conditional way. Children of such parents end up being insecure about who they are, which causes them to have discrepancies between their ideal selves (their parents’ designation) and their real selves. They end up with psychological problems without knowing exactly where they came from.

5 – Passive-Aggressive Parents. Passive-aggressive personalities are people who are not in touch with their anger and who express it in indirect ways that are hard to detect. Parents who are passive-aggressive may constantly tell their children they love them, and yet at the same time they may forget their birthdays, fail to pick them up after school, or be emotionally distant. If the child, feeling the parent’s coldness, asks if the parent is angry or if something is wrong, the parent quickly answers, “No, of course I’m not angry. I love you.” The child perceives the difference in the parent’s words and actions and does not feel consoled. When such parenting goes on over a period of years, children becomes confused about their perception of things, untrusting of others, and unable to form a cohesive identity and sense of themselves.

5 Kinds of Disguised Emotional Abuse

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2015). 5 Kinds of Disguised Emotional Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Dec 2015
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