When Mommies Berate and Belittle

May 13, 2021

    My mother beat me almost daily. There didn't have to be a reason.  While I was physically abused by my mother, I considered the beatings tolerable. It was the psychological abuse she inflicted that stripped me of self-esteem and haunts me to this day.

   “When a mother is psychologically abusive, the child experiences it as their whole world crashing down. There is nothing that can alleviate this pain for a child because the sun rises and sets on their mother’s smile, hug, and kiss,” says Carole Lieberman, MD, author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror.

   Accumulated research shows that psychological abuse by mothers can adversely impact academic achievement, social development and self-esteem in kids.

   What exactly is psychological abuse? According to Dr. Lieberman, “Psychological abuse comes in myriad ways, such as: manipulation, withholding of love, lying, degradation, and humiliation.”

   Psychological abuse encompasses name-calling, criticizing, threatening a child or someone close to him or her with physical violence, threatening to destroy a child’s possessions, and making the victim feel worthless, powerless, and ashamed. It can include allowing a child to witness domestic violence, exposing a child to antisocial role models, or placing a child in a dangerous situation.

   Why would a parent psychologically abuse a child? Philip R. Muskin, MD, MA, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center provides insights: “Some parents are psychologically abusive because they are full of rage or depressed. Some can’t manage emotionally. Others become self-absorbed and can’t relate to their kids.”

   Research shows there can be a link between parental mental illness and abuse. As noted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “Through reduced caregiving capacities, the co-occurrence of child neglect or abuse, and exposure to other sources of fear and stress, parental mental health conditions have direct consequences for the health and well-being of their children [children of parents with mental illness].” In my case, my mother was mentally ill.

   Sometimes mothers with mental illnesses vacillate between showing love and being abusive. “Mothers who are mentally ill are most often unpredictable,” says Dr. Lieberman. “This is very confusing for a child who naturally looks for ways to please their mother to get her love and nurturance. When a child keeps getting different responses—sometimes love and sometimes abuse—it is very frustrating, and the child blames themselves for their mother’s erratic behavior.”

   But, as Dr. Muskin notes, “If a parent is intentionally abusing a child, he or she may or may not be mentally ill.”

   While all types of child abuse—physical, sexual, and psychological—are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), psychological abuse may, in some ways, be more damaging than physical or sexual abuse. One study of thousands of youths with lifetime histories of one or more of three types of abuse—psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse or neglect), physical, and sexual—found that children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem at the same rate, and in some cases, a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused. (For more information, see “Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes.” Lead author Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, is the executive director of the trauma center at Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, MA.)

        If you were psychologically abused, but lucky enough to have one caring adult in your life, this supportive relationship could have compensated for the emotional abuse you endured. As noted by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, supportive relationships with adults, adaptive skill building, and positive experiences enable children who experience ACEs to build resilience.

    “Some children who are abused are able to move on because they were fortunate enough to find other sources of emotional support, such as teachers, who gave them a more positive view of themselves,” Dr. Lieberman says.

   Without safety nets, however, psychological abuse can leave an indelible mark. Adult children of mentally ill parents who have suffered abuse realize this. It’s not natural for us to feel good about ourselves, and we often have trouble with relationships. “It is now known that maltreatment affects people as adults,” Dr. Muskin says. “They’re generally not well-equipped to handle marriages and parenting responsibilities,” he says, adding that therapy can prove beneficial.

   “Psychological scars can last a lifetime because kids look to a mother for a reflection of themselves,” adds Dr. Lieberman. “When a mom is mean, the child takes it as proof that they are bad, worthless and unlovable. When the child grows up, they have problems with relationships because they anticipate that any partner will find them unlovable and will be mean to them, like their mother was. They will anticipate problems in their work life, as well, because, feeling inadequate, they expect their boss to criticize or punish them like their mother did.”

   If you’re anything like me, you might wonder why more isn’t being done to address psychological abuse of children. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for psychological abuse to go undetected. “We know that overt physical and sexual abuse [go] unnoticed, so [there’s] no surprise about psychological abuse. The ‘wounds’ cannot be seen,” Dr. Muskin says.

   Societal attitudes contribute to the problem. Sadly, as Spinazzola’s research notes, “Psychological maltreatment does not carry a strong social taboo.”

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