How Does Emotional Abuse Affect Self-Esteem?


Research shows that the parenting style used on a child during the first 3 to 4 years of his life is the strongest factor that determines his level of self-esteem.

Parenting style refers to how parents treat, guide, and nurture their young. It encompasses the messages that parents communicate to a child, verbally and non-verbally, about how lovable, worthy, capable, acceptable and important he is.

From the time of infant-hood to childhood, a child’s sense of self is defined by how he was treated and what he was told by his parents and primary caregivers. Infants especially, have no knowledge of who they are as a separate person so they rely heavily on their parents’ feedback.

When our parents consistently display affection, love, encouragement and set proper boundaries, we grow up feeling confident, secure and achieve our potential. On the other hand, when our parents neglect our needs, criticize us incessantly, withhold love and affection, place excessive demands on us, or are overly controlling, we end up feeling unworthy, insecure, self-critical and unimportant. Over time, our sense of self and self-esteem becomes distorted and crushed from such emotional abuse.

Types of emotional abuse in a nutshell

1) Hypercriticism – parents who are hypercritical tend to talk down to their kids, making them feel stupid and embarrassed for failing to understand something or live up to their unreasonable expectations. These parents are impossible to please and find fault in everything their children do. Hypercritical parents typically use words like ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’, what is wrong with you?’, ‘you will never amount to anything’, ‘you are stupid’ and any other remarks that ridicule and humiliate their kids.

Effects on self-esteem – Children who are brought up by hypercritical parents suffer from extremely low self-esteem, strong sense of unworthiness and self-hatred. The message they get is ‘I am a bad person’.

2) Neglect – in emotional neglect, the parents will provide basic needs for the children but are generally uninvolved or uninterested their lives. Compared to other types of emotional abuse, neglect has to do more with what parents did not do than what they did do to their kids. On the physical aspect, neglectful parents do not give enough physical nurturance such as holding and hugging their children. On the emotional side, these parents are unable to show empathy and sympathy when their children are in distress.

Effects on self-esteem – children of neglectful parents receive the message that they are unwanted and unlovable. When these kids feel they are unwanted they will tend to display behavior of either extreme neediness or extreme defensiveness.

3) Abandonment or rejection – again this type of abuse has two aspects, namely physical and emotional. Physical abandonment happens when there is death, divorce or illness, and emotional abandonment occurs when parents silent treatment, puts the child off or pass their parental responsibility to someone else. Words that these parents use sound like ‘can’t you see I’m busy?’,’go away’, or ‘don’t bother me’.

Effects on self-esteem – children who are consistently abandoned tend to suffer from intense insecurity, self-obsession, and even self-loathing. The message they get is ‘I am unworthy’. As adults they may lack the confidence to reach their full potential.

A word on emotional abuse

As the term ’emotional abuse’ carries strong negative connotations, some clarifications are needed here.

Emotional abuse is a pattern of negative behavior handed out to a person continuously over a period of time. Occasional hurtful words and actions do not constitute abuse. Even the best parents in the world inevitably or unwittingly say and do insensitive things to their children from time to time.

Nor does emotional abuse need to be intentional to be defined as such. Many parents and caregivers who abuse their children typically have low self-esteem themselves and are unaware of the debilitating consequences of their behavior on their children’s sense of self. Most are only doing to their children what had been done to them by their parents. Among these people, few of them actually stop and question the appropriateness of what they had learnt from their elders.

Regardless of the type of emotional abuse we may have received, recovering from low self-esteem is possible with the right guidance and support. The fact is our low self-esteem is caused by internalizing a set of untruths given to us from emotionally unbalanced people in our childhood. Learning to identify and understanding where these untruths came from is an important step towards of recovering from low self-esteem.

Source by Evelyn Yeo

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