Parental, or child-to-parent, abuse is not often talked about, but it’s a real struggle for some families. There are people who care and professionals who can help.
When people talk about domestic violence or abuse in the home, they most likely are referring to abuse of a child or parent-to-parent violence.
Experts agree parental, or child-to-parent, abuse is rarely part of the discussion. But this type of abuse does occur, and it can impact parents physically, mentally, and emotionally.
If you or someone you know is experiencing parental abuse, you’re not alone. Recognizing the signs and reaching out for support can help you cope and find healing for your family.
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Parental abuse is a form of domestic violence in which adolescents or adult children exhibit harmful or violent behavior toward their parents.
Research shows that child-to-parent violence is more likely in children from families affected by domestic violence.
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Heather Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker in Blackwood, NJ, explains that parental abuse can manifest in various ways:
- Physical abuse: involves acts of violence causing harm or injury
- Emotional abuse: entails manipulative behaviors designed to cause psychological distress, such as constant criticism or humiliation
- Financial abuse: involves the misuse or theft of a parent’s money or property, often leaving the victim in financial hardship
- Verbal abuse: entails ongoing belittling, name-calling, and threats, which can significantly impact one’s mental health
These behaviors are often driven by a desire to assert control or undermine the parent’s authority within the family structure, adds Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in Manchester, CT.
“Regrettably, parental abuse carries a significant stigma, compelling victims to endure these abusive situations in silence, making it a hidden and concealed issue,” Cook-McKay notes.
Abuse involving adolescents and young adults often takes the form of physical aggression. This life phase is characterized by a growth in physical strength, which can escalate the potential for violence and harm, explains Cook-McKay.
“Common triggers for abuse include disputes over household rules and the struggle for independence,” she notes. “It can progress from verbal conflicts to property damage or physical violence against the parent. In such cases, the power balance between parents and their adolescent or young adult children can become dangerously skewed.”
Natalie Bunner, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health therapist in Lafayette, LA, says examples of overt violent behavior may include:
Verbal aggression tactics may include:
- use of profanity
- disparaging speech
Children may also threaten to harm themselves, says Bunner.
“For example, a child reacting to losing technology as a punishment could argue loudly, punch walls, or threaten to hurt themselves if the phone isn’t returned,” she explains. “Should the parent acquiesce, the behavior may continue as the child could still be emotionally charged by the event.”
Cook-McKay adds that as parents age, they may become more vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and become increasingly reliant on their adult children for daily care and support.
“In this context, abusive adult children may exploit their parents’ vulnerability, often employing the threat of physical violence to manipulate and control them,” she notes. “This type of abuse can foster a toxic cycle of manipulation and intimidation, leaving elderly parents feeling trapped and unable to remove themselves from the abusive situation.”
Wilson tells us that while it’s typical for children, especially teenagers, to push boundaries as part of their development, a drastic change in behavior or persistent, escalating, disrespectful behavior could be red flags for abuse.
Other signs of parental abuse may include:
- becoming more aggressive or disrespectful
- openly defying parents’ authority
- resorting to manipulative tactics
- physical marks or bruises on the parent’s body that cannot be explained by accidents or aging
- financial difficulties or sudden changes in a parent’s financial situation
Another sure sign, adds Wilson, is the parent’s fear of their child.
“Parents are supposed to be the authority figures in their household, but in cases of parental abuse, the power dynamics are reversed,” she notes. “The parent may feel intimidated or afraid of their child’s reactions and may even avoid confrontation for fear of further escalation.”
The impact of constantly managing the emotional temperature of the child’s environment can be debilitating for the parent, says Bunner.
“Even when the relationship is not in conflict, the parent lives in fear that the smallest challenge may trigger an explosive incident,” she says. “Existing in a constant state of anxiety negatively impacts the parent on a mental, emotional, and physiological level.”
Many parents find it difficult to accept their children are abusing them. This is likely due to the concept of challenges parental abuse poses on conventional roles and expectations in a parent-child relationship, adds Cook-McKay.
“Consequently, parents may internalize feelings of shame and guilt, resorting to self-blame as a way to cope with the abuse. In extreme cases, parents may even have thoughts of regretting having children in the first place, as they grapple with a pervasive sense of loss of control over their children’s behavior and actions.”
The first step in dealing with parental abuse, says Cook-McKay, is to wholeheartedly acknowledge and accept it’s happening.
“Denying or downplaying the abuse only perpetuates and deepens the emotional and physical harm being inflicted,” she says. “Accepting that you are a victim of abuse is a crucial realization, as it opens the door to seeking help and support.
Depending on the severity and nature of abuse, support for parent abuse may involve seeking assistance from:
- a counselor or therapist
- a support group
- legal authorities
- someone you trust
Wilson says it’s also important to set boundaries and establish consequences for abusive behavior.
“If the child continues to display harmful behavior, it’s important for the parent to seek outside support and intervention. This could include therapy for both the parent and child, as well as involving law enforcement if necessary.”
Put self-care first
Parents must also prioritize self-care, which includes seeking help to process their emotions, Wilson says.
“Coping with parental abuse can be incredibly challenging, and it’s essential for parents to take care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
If you’re experiencing parental abuse, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this struggle. There are organizations and professionals dedicated to helping people in your situation.
A good first step is to seek support and confide in someone you trust. This could be a friend, family member, or professional counselor who can provide emotional support and guidance.
They can also help you create a safety plan, which outlines steps to take in case of an emergency.
Joining a support group can also be very beneficial in dealing with the long-term effects of abuse.