What are the signs of emotional abuse?

Domestic violence prevention advocate, Kelley, reviews signs of trouble and what to do if you suspect a loved one is being abused.

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I have a sickening feeling that my sister and her kids are victims of emotional abuse. I’ve witnessed some behavior by her husband that has made me feel uncomfortable on more than one occasion. It makes me think if he acts this way in public, what does he do behind closed doors?


First of all, I’m so sorry you are witnessing this behavior and that your sister and her children may be in a complicated and potentially dangerous situation. Here is what I would suggest.

Trust Your Gut

If you feel uncomfortable—especially if you have a close relationship with your sister—the odds are that you are probably onto something. People are great at showing us who they are in subtle ways; please don’t disregard your concern.

Look for Signs

I know you suspect this is emotional, but I’d like to cover all bases here: 

Physical Signs

  • Are there any marks on your sister or her children (i.e., bruising, burn marks, scratches, etc.) that are either unexplained or explained in an odd way, such as “Oh, you know little Joey, he’s so rambunctious and fell down the stairs again” or “I’m just so clumsy I brushed my arm against the oven”? If these feel made up, they probably are.
  • Are they wearing clothing that seems to cover a bit more of their skin than their normal style or than what is appropriate for the season (i.e., your sister is suddenly wearing decorative scarves or one of her kids is wearing a turtleneck in 80-degree weather)?
  • Are her children reverting to younger behaviors such as sudden aggression, bedwetting, becoming withdrawn or anxious without another cause for these actions?

Emotional Signs

  • Does your sister and/or her children have any strange mannerisms that weren’t there before?
  • Is your sister avoiding certain topics of conversation or overdramatizing how ‘wonderful’ her relationship is?
  • Are your sister and/or her children suddenly lacking in self-esteem, or do they act more timid than during previous encounters?

Relational Signs

  • Do you feel your sister is pressed for time and leaving more quickly to get back to her husband as if she’s got a curfew?
  • Are your sister and/or her children acting more withdrawn or defensive toward you if the topic of your brother-in-law comes up in any way?
  • Is your sister, or are any of her children showing signs of being controlled (i.e., fearful of spending money, constantly watching the time, panicked if something gets broken, ruined, or displaced, receiving multiple calls from her husband while you are with her)?

Financial Signs

  • Is your sister acting differently when it comes to money?
  • Does she indicate in any way that her husband is limiting her without her consent or that she’s somehow being given an ‘allowance?’
  • Has her work situation been altered or controlled by her husband (i.e., he has insisted that she stay home, he is overly involved in her work, or he insists on controlling her paychecks) or has she lost a job due to too many call-ins?

Discretely Ask

If your sister and her children are in danger, you need to bring the subject up in a delicate way to avoid her husband from having any knowledge of the conversation.

If he suspects that you suspect, the abuse could get worse. Invite your sister to meet you privately outside of her home, somewhere that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary but still allows for a serious and open conversation.

Be prepared to get a response that may be emotionally charged, in defense of her husband, and riddled with excuses. That is not uncommon. 

Seek Professional Help in Your Local Area

If you are fairly certain that your hunch is correct, reach out to a local domestic violence shelter or, if one is not available, to a mental health facility for additional ways to approach your specific situation.

You are your family’s best advocate right now. As you trust your gut and look out for additional signs of domestic violence, know that this will most likely be a bumpy road for all of you.

If abuse is truly occurring, this path is almost always scary, difficult, messy, and potentially violent. These situations are never easy, and they can become inflammatory so quickly. Work with your area resources to develop a specific plan to keep everyone involved as safe and protected as possible.

Understand You Are Not Responsible

It is clear from your question that you love your sister and her kids. The fact that you are reaching out for answers and desiring to be in their corner speaks volumes about your character and commitment to their vitality and safety. However, it is critically important for you to understand that, while you are doing everything you can to help, you are never responsible for the actions of an abuser or for your sister’s potential refusal to remove herself and her children from the situation.

Recommended Resource

Domestic Violence Helpline: 800-799-SAFE (7233)

Meet The Expert

Kelley Wotherspoon

Kelley is a Christian, wife, mother of 3, author, business professional and domestic violence survivor advocate. She is passionate about using her life experiences to help you find joy in the hard stuff and encourage your spirit. Kelley has dual undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Family Studies and a Master’s degree in Executive Business Administration. She is driven to write, serve and advocate for those who need a louder voice. Kelley has served on the board of a local domestic violence shelter for the better part of a decade, and she runs The Kind Kids Academy with her eldest daughter. She is also in the process of developing another nonprofit that will continue to support survivors as they rise above their past abuse.