How to Identify Family Patterns of Emotional Abuse

April 5, 2010   •  Posted in: 

Some of the most destructive family patterns and perceptions come from abusive situations.

The devastation of physical and/or sexual abuse is overt and terrible. Less visible, but still harmful, is the emotional abuse that can result from imperfect family relationships. So much emotional abuse is caused by the negative, destructive messages communicated to children while growing up.


Family members can perpetuate emotional abuse without recognizing the amount of harm being done. The intentions of adults in a family may not be to pass along negative responses to their children, yet through their own inability to control these responses, they set up a negative pattern for their children to follow. As children follow these patterns, the negative perceptions that accompany them become grounded in their lives.

Without ever being told, children develop a working model for life-based upon the suspicion, insecurity, perfectionism, self-centeredness, frustration, or oppressive behavior of their parents. This model produces feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness, all of which suffocate optimism, hope, and joy.

You may have a background where abuse of this type, or worse, was evident in your family. It will not be difficult for you to pinpoint how these negative experiences have affected your ability to balance yourself emotionally. Or you may look back at your childhood and conclude your family can’t be a source of your depression, because you didn’t have an abusive experience.

Whatever your preconceived ideas may already be, take the time to truly examine the patterns you learned from your family.

As much as parents and adults try to minimize the damage done to their children through their own mistakes and faulty behaviors, it is not possible to completely eliminate negative influences. A careless comment or unkind remark can be enough to plant a seed in a child’s mind that grows into a poor perception.

This is not a search through your past to assign blame, but rather a mature look at the learned responses from your family to discover those that might be contributing to the strength and longevity of your depression. It is so important for you to be able to identify the burdens from past relationships that may be slowing down your rate of recovery. Once you discover these hindrances, you will be equipped to develop an effective plan for moving forward.


Use the following statements as a starting point for writing down your recollections:

  • Good things my family taught me about life
  • Negative things my family taught me about life
  • Good things my family taught me about myself
  • Negative things my family taught me about myself

It is important for you to remember the good and positive responses to the life you learned growing up. Most likely, your experiences with your family will be a mixed bag of good and bad, positive and negative, uplifting and deflating. While you want to be cognizant of the negative, don’t forget to highlight positive things you learned. For each negative life response, write a new positive one. These will help you celebrate the good patterns your family has brought to you.

You might want to write down the members of your immediate family — parents, siblings, and grandparents. (If you have nontraditional family experiences, use those individuals you consider to be significant mentors.) Think about how you related to each of these family members and what you learned about yourself from them. How did they treat you? What were some ways they hurt you? What were some ways they made you feel valuable and special?

Remember that negative responses may come easier than positive ones. Be patient and allow the positive ones to rise to the surface of your memory.

Write at least three examples of both negative and positive statements that you remember your family member saying to you. Feel free to write down more as they come to you.


As you recover from depression, you may find that your circle of support will not come from members of your family. It may be necessary for you to use other relationships to provide the support you need. Your family may be too close to objectively view your recovery. Members of your family may not be prepared to accept the truth you’ve uncovered through this process. Don’t allow their lack of acceptance to deter you in seeking the truth.

The goal is not to protect the family; the goal is to recapture a life filled with optimism, hope, and joy. If you need to discard flawed family patterns and perceptions, it is your perogative as an adult to do so.

Are you depressed? Though no replacement for a formal diagnosis,  this depression quiz can help you recognize the signs.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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