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Were You Emotionally Abused as a Child?


Many people are surprised when they learn they were emotionally abused as children. Maybe they kind of knew it but didn’t want to believe it or maybe they truly had no idea that what was done to them is considered maltreatment. It’s important to recognize if you were emotionally abused growing up because that understanding will help you resolve your current emotional issues, not to mention your eating problems.

An article on how adults shouting can be harmful to children’s development really hit home for me. My parents frequently argued and it wasn’t so much their loudness that got to me but the upset behind their disagreements. It felt like they were shouting even when they weren’t because I could feel the anger gushing out of them. Raised voices are disconcerting and make children feel frightened. Even today, I feel myself immediately emotionally dysregulate when people are arguing loudly around me. 

My client Alberto always attributed his parents raised voices and regular blowouts as part of being Latino. “You know,” he’d joke, “we’re full of passion and let our feelings out. It’s a good thing.” He needed to see his tight-knit family as normal and functional because if he saw them as they really were—angry and controlling—he might feel a need to do something about it today, such as confront or detach from them.

We often think of emotional abuse as screaming or shouting, but it’s not always so loud and clear. My client Shandy’s mother used to get up close to her and whisper what she’d do to Shandy if she didn’t behave, terrifying the poor child. Shandy said she believed her mothers threats were so frightening precisely because she wouldn’t say them in a normal voice, making them seem all the more chilling.

If you’re emotionally dysregulated, you did not get there by accident or choice. Something harmful happened to you along the way to adulthood. Maybe many harmful things. Emotional abuse is not a one-off. It’s a pervasive pattern of mistreatment that includes shaming, controlling, intimidating, withholding love and approval, neglecting, smothering, ignoring,  or retaliation. The underlying threat is that you will be harmed in some way because of speaking your needs, being yourself, sharing your truth, or challenging parental (or family) authority. You didn’t develop these fears out of the blue.

Mistreatment by parents or relatives doesn’t mean you deserved it. They learned inappropriate behaviors from how they were parented and carried them into adulthood. The more you understand about the emotional abuse you suffered, the more likely you’ll be able to treat yourself more kindly and improve your emotional regulation.