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What is Mental Abuse?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mental abuse encompasses a wide range of behaviors that all affect the victim’s perception of reality. The abuser will often attempt to control the victim’s behavior and emotions by manipulating available information and denying access to family, friends, and finances. The victim may also be subjected to hurtful criticism, taunting, and name calling in order to decrease his or her self-esteem. Mental abuse can also occur if the victim is compelled to witness the abuse of another person. Unlike physical abuse, mental abuse does not leave visible scars or wounds, but can be just as traumatic for the victim if not more so.

Altering and controlling the victim’s sense of self and reality are frequently among a mental abuser’s goals. Mental abuse, like physical abuse, is meant to compel the victim to obey the abuser. Causing emotional trauma can be an effective method of intimidation and preventing a victim’s resistance without causing physical evidence of abuse, which can attract the attention of others.

Insults, taunting, and name calling can, over time, damage a person’s sense of self-esteem by making him or her feel worthless or useless. The victim may withdraw from friends and family and forgo educational and employment opportunities as a result of feeling unworthy. If the abuser is confronted about this behavior, he or she will often try to pass off the verbal abuse as jokes that the victim is at fault for not understanding.

The abuser can gradually limit the victim’s access to family, friends, and the outside world in general. Such isolation permits the abuser to take control of the victim’s sense of reality. The victim may also be deprived of access to his or her bank accounts, making him or her increasingly dependent on the abuser.

Extreme situations of mental abuse involve the victim being forced to watch while another person is abused in some way. This second victim can be abused physically, mentally, or sexually. This situation can develop when an abused parent witnesses the abuser turn on his or her children while feeling helpless to intervene.

In many cases of mental abuse, the victim may come to believe that he or she deserves such treatment. This is often the result of the abuser’s control of the victim’s perception of reality. The abuser can blame the victim for his or her abusive behavior or convince the victim that the abuse is imagined.

It is possible that the victim may not immediately recognize that he or she is experiencing mental abuse. The abuser may apologize, promising never to repeat the behavior, and the victim may be afraid to seek help or even blame himself or herself for what is happening. As mental abuse generally becomes increasingly severe with time, breaking the cycle is a crucial step toward recovery.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon215217 — On Sep 17, 2011

I read your comments, feeling both sad and angry at the same time. Your daughter deserves a better home. And if she could have that at your mum's place then you should leave at once.

I know what I am talking about. My father was like the man you lived with. I never did anything well for him. And I was an excellent student myself. I had the best marks, perhaps in an effort to be appreciated by him by someone -- anyone.

The pain I experienced at the time of the constant bullying is still very intense in me, affecting all my relationships to this very day. I feel worthless, no matter how well I do in anything, and as partners I repeatedly choose abusers who would tear me apart and rob me of my self-confidence.

By the time I was a bit older I started to do deliberately badly at school. Just to see if anyone would care. They did not. And the abuse got worse. I was blamed for my mother's problems too. I was only a child, though.

Eventually I moved away, very far away. I resented my mother for a long time for not leaving my father. But of course I resented my father the most.

And guess what? They all meant well. My father thought he would encourage me to do better if he slagged me off. And my mother simply thought things would get better.

After years of counseling and therapy, I still struggle to have a life. I got to a point that I thought relationships were something I would just have to avoid. But all of them?? I mean the trouble even comes in friendships. Everyone walks over me.

The fact that I was a good student when I was a child means nothing. I could never make use of the knowledge I gained and by now I've forgotten everything anyway. But the abuse, the painful past I remember very clearly. I relive it every day in my dysfunctional present.

If you do want to give your child every chance at a good life, then you have to give her a loving and supporting home. Whatever she needs to learn she can learn later in life.

I suggest you also try and find a good counselor. There are some very cheap places. Ask your doctor about it.

By anon205849 — On Aug 14, 2011

I don't know when these were originally written but I am sorry for your pain anon149398. I have dealt with my husband also doing the same with my oldest son and our oldest son we have together too. We have another son together as well but he is the baby and gets well, babied.

However, as far as your daughter going to school, couldn't she do a hardship transfer if you were to leave? The reason I ask is because we can do those type of things in our area. I would look in to it if I were you. Good luck to you all and God bless!

By anon149398 — On Feb 04, 2011

my husband is always sarcastic and acts as though I have done something wrong if I don't do everything he thinks I should do. He also lets his almost 18 year old son talk back to me and be just as hateful with no reprimand.

The worst part is, the husband is always calling my 12 year old daughter chubby, fat and stupid and he always finds something to fuss at her about in our house. It can be her leaving her clothes in the bathroom after a bath or a plate on the counter or something in the living room if she snacks while watching tv. It seems he is always angry at her and not far behind is the anger with me.

When we are around others, he puts on a good show of loving both of us but in private, he makes her life a living hell and I have even been known to cry because I feel so bad about what he says to her. I wish i could afford to get out of this, but I am on disability and don't draw enough to live off of. We live in a good school zone and my daughter does very well in school. If I go to my mom's house then she will have to change to a very bad school. I don know what to do to give her every chance at a good life!

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