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How To Know If Your Parents Are Abusing You
Your parents are abusing you if you feel:
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|Divorcing Your Parents
Granted, no parent is
perfect. And whining about parental failure, real or not,
is practically an American pastime that keeps the
therapeutic community dutifully employed.
A patient of mine, a
lovely woman in her 60s whom I treated for depression,
recently asked my advice about how to deal with her aging
Over the years, she had
tried to have a relationship with her mother, but the
encounters were always painful and upsetting; her mother
remained harshly critical and demeaning.
|Should she visit and
perhaps forgive her mother, or protect herself and live
with a sense of guilt, however unjustified? Tough call,
and clearly not mine to make.
But it did make me wonder about how therapists deal with adult patients who have toxic parents.
The topic gets little, if any, attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature, perhaps reflecting the common and mistaken notion that adults, unlike children and the elderly, are not vulnerable to such emotional abuse.
All too often, I think, therapists have a bias to salvage relationships, even those that might be harmful to a patient. Instead, it is crucial to be open-minded and to consider whether maintaining the relationship is really healthy and desirable.
Likewise, the assumption that parents are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true. I remember one patient, a man in his mid-20s, who came to me for depression and rock-bottom self-esteem.
It didnt take long to find out why. He had recently come out as gay to his devoutly religious parents, who responded by disowning him. It gets worse: at a subsequent family dinner, his father took him aside and told him it would have been better if he, rather than his younger brother, had died in a car accident several years earlier.
Though terribly hurt and angry, this young man still hoped he could get his parents to accept his sexuality and asked me to meet with the three of them.
The session did not go well. The parents insisted that his lifestyle was a grave sin, incompatible with their deeply held religious beliefs. When I tried to explain that the scientific consensus was that he had no more choice about his sexual orientation than the color of his eyes, they were unmoved. They simply could not accept him as he was.
I was stunned by their implacable hostility and convinced that they were a psychological menace to my patient. As such, I had to do something I have never contemplated before in treatment.
At the next session I suggested that for his psychological well-being he might consider, at least for now, forgoing a relationship with his parents.
I felt this was a drastic measure, akin to amputating a gangrenous limb to save a patients life. My patient could not escape all the negative feelings and thoughts about himself that he had internalized from his parents. But at least I could protect him from even more psychological harm.
Easier said than done. He accepted my suggestion with sad resignation, though he did make a few efforts to contact them over the next year. They never responded.
Of course, relationships are rarely all good or bad; even the most abusive parents can sometimes be loving, which is why severing a bond should be a tough, and rare, decision.
Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, a trauma expert who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said she tried to empower patients to take action to protect themselves without giving direct advice.
Sometimes we consider a
paradoxical intervention and say to a patient, I
really admire your loyalty to your parents even at
the expense of failing to protect yourself in any way
from harm, Dr. Herman told me in an
We also know that although
prolonged childhood trauma can be toxic to the brain,
adults retain the ability later in life to rewire their
brains by new experience, including therapy and
thanks so much for this article! i have
tried over the 14 years of my marriage to help my husband
deal with his mother and her family. his parents divorced
when he was 13, and his mother used to take him with her
to drive by his fathers suspected lovers
home; she didnt come to our wedding because his
father would be there; she would go without talking to
him for years on end, then send a check and want to see
him again; she has no relationship w/ our 2 young
daughters; her mother - my husbands only
grandparent - died last year and NO ONE in the family
told my husband or his oldest brother (their other 2
siblings knew and attended the private funeral w/ all the
other relatives). its so nice to hear a
professional say its okay to let go of this person
forever, as hard as that may be. i will make sure he
reads it. brooke
2. October 20, 2009 8:53 am
I have terrible parents. I have
considered often going no contact. This is a very drastic
decision; I prefer to create healthy boundaries that I
can maintain and not get involved in a situation I cannot
walk away from. This allows me to keep in touch with
siblings and relatives who will survive my parents.
3. October 20, 2009 8:54 am
Mental health sometimes comes at a very
high price. Biological connections do not always offer
happy endings . . .
|4. October 20, 2009 8:55 am
oh, but I do want to say my mother wanted to join my facebook page today. No Way! Thats one of the limitsshe does not need to know what Im doing or saying on Facebook. I hit the ignore button and do not feel a bit guilty. tinwoman
5. October 20, 2009 8:55 am
Fascinating article. Wed like to
believe that parents are at their core kind and loving,
but thats not really true for some. Who knows where
it starts their own childhoods, mental illness,
just the devils spawn but they threaten to
pass it on to their children.
6. October 20, 2009 8:56 am
Read former psychoanalyst Alice Miller on this subject! The Body Never Lies, among many other books. For a perspective unlikely to come from therapists. Griffith Feeney, NY
7. October 20, 2009 8:56 am
8. October 20, 2009 8:56 am
Inheritance issues aside (more than one
kid has kept ties for this reason only), why would one
want to put up with such abuse?
|9. October 20, 2009 8:56
This 71-year-old retired
university psychology professor, who worked 15 years in
early adulthood as a social worker, completely agrees
with Dr. Friedman. Over a lifetime of clinical work, I
too have seen a few patients who had parents so toxic
that only cutting them off helped the patient move toward
a healthier life. I also agree that we clinicians find it
difficult to assist patients in contemplating such
cut-offs because our research and training make us keenly
aware that the parent-child tie is incredibly powerful.
In fact there is research that indicates abused children
removed from their parents grieve more than healthy
children who lose good parents. Dr. Friedman did his
patient a service by allowing him to consider the
possibility of such a cut-off, and helping him in his
grief once he had made that decision. MEP,
10. October 20, 2009 8:57 am
this is so so true some parents ARE too toxic to tolerate. the best thing i did for my kids, in my opinion, was to encourage and support them to limit contact with their severely mentally ill father - whos mentally ill as a result of his being sexually molested by his mother. now all four of my children - theyre 29 - 15 - are all happy and healthy and well-adjusted he, on the other hand, continues to be depressed, miserable and mean anniek, connecticut
11. October 20, 2009 8:58 am
My girlfriend made the difficult
decision to cut off ties to her father after realizing
that the pain he brought on her and her siblings was
simply too much. An abusive sociopath who hovered between
delightful charm and raging anger, he helped create
cycles of depression and low self esteem that were simply
unsustainable to her well-being. Though she still
struggles with her decision, she immediately improved
afterwards and is a better person for it. Her bravery in
fighting for what was healthy and right for herself is
something I find truly admirable. F.R.S., U.K.
12. October 20, 2009 8:58 am
Often the amputation necessitates
harming relationships with siblings, as well. You have to
be prepared to lose those ties if you sever the
parent/child ties. It is a hard process. Having people
understanding or standing behind your decision can give
you strength when you feel guilty or sad.
Bradstreet, St. Louis
13. October 20, 2009 8:59 am
One of the smartest decisions I ever
made was disconnecting from my family. If you
cant trust family to be on your team, then you most
certainly have a deficit out in the world. Once I ditched
the family that said they loved me, (and
whose actions did something ELSE) I was able to learn and
find people who ACTUALLY love me.
14. October 20, 2009 8:59 am
The last comments in the article regarding the good news that brains can heal over time drastically minimizes the often debilitating pain and diminished capacities to lead a productive life that can occur when maltreatment is not addressed early. Why should someone suffer a childhood or lifetime of depression, anxiety, etc. when early intervention might change the trajectory well before medication is needed? CK, Minn.
15. October 20, 2009 8:59 am
Just to tag on to MWs quibble (or
maybe additional observation rather than quibble): I have
to say as a person who has heard/experienced such
comments from a parent, you have to remember that the
parent who makes those kinds of statements that may seem
shocking, also likely submits the child to a life, an
entire upbringing, steeped in constant, more subtle
degradation. That enormously confusing tug in the
childs heart then - between trying to love
ones parent and trying to learn to love ones
self - I think is terribly damaging. Who do you think
wins in the childs mind? It is the parent, of
course. When the child becomes an adult, he/she is
constantly bound to that parent emotionally
only having known oneself in the light of that
parent who needed, for some reason, to hurt that child.
It is so hard to become an individual then, let alone an
individual who can love him or herself. Parents just
dont know sometimes, what they hold in their hands.
Not because theyre bad - just because -
maybe theyre still too child-like
Karen, St. Paul MN
16. October 20, 2009 9:00 am
My father was emotionally abusive and
we have not had a healthy relationship since I was 12. We
have not had any relationship since I was 14.
17. October 20, 2009 9:00 am
This issue extends to the dillemas
faced when one through his/her involvement in therapy
confronts the same issues after their parents have died.
Having had a sexually abusive mother and an emotionally
absent father, I still was a good, obedient son until the
day they died. Now I am confronted with the issue of how
to leave them be and detach without those primordial
feelings of obligation. I am halfway there with the help
of compassionate and skilled therapists. Michael
18. October 20, 2009 9:02 am
Some parents abuse their children. Some abuse is physically violent; some is psychological or emotional. And children, while they are children, are pretty much at the mercy of their parents. There is very little that can be done to protect a child from abusive parents, particularly when abuse is not physically violent, and there are very few people who even trywhether because it is more comfortable to look the other way, or because they suspect that any efforts to protect or defend the child will be futile (after all, there are no laws against being viciously mean to ones own children). This, at least, is the sense I have gotten from many years of listening to college students talk about their family histories. A hope I try to hold out to students whose parents have abused them is that, as they grow into adulthood, they can develop the resources and maturity to see that the abuse they endured is wrong, and that they do not have to put up with it any longer. I regularly suggest to students from abusive families that they seek professional counseling support as they seek to move into a healthy adulthood.
It is alarming to think that many mental-health practitioners may, like Richard Friedman, operate with the assumption that while abuse from a romantic partner can be rejected (which generally requires leaving the abusing partnersince if you dont leave, the abuse will escalate), abuse from a parent must be endured forever because the parent must not be left.
Dont these people know that
abuse, by its very nature, endures and escalates over
time? Do they not know that the victims of abuse cannot
change their abusers? Abusive parents do not stop being
abusive when their children grow up; it only gets worse.
Thats a sad truth, but it is the truth. Abused
children deserve better than to be told they must accept
abuse from their parents even after they are grown up.
They deserve to be helped to healthy adult senses of self
and healthy relationships with genuinely loving people
who may or may not be members of their families of
20. October 20, 2009 9:02 am
Thanks for writing this article. It is
an interesting topic. After years of childhood sexual
abuse by my father and total denial by my mother, I find
myself now caring for the aging parents who were so
abusive and neglectful. It is a mysterious process that
seems to have spawned a new stage of development, where I
find myself becoming even more separated from
them psychologically. Despite their abuse and neglect I
was always trying to get them to love and approve
of me even though I did so much to separate
myself from them. Everyone needs love and connection. How
difficult it is to let go emotionally despite the
intellectual separation. Only now is it really happening
that in my 60s I finally feel empowered. Young people who
suffer from neglectful, abusive parenting need the
support of the therapeutic community more than ever. It
is their only lifeline to a future of
hope. Marcia Polese, Manchester by the Sea
21. October 20, 2009 9:03 am
Oh, I nearly forgot ~ we need to heal
22. October 20, 2009 9:03 am
Agree with MW. There are many forms of
this short overt hostility: Guilt peddling. Choosing to
interpret everything that happens in the worst possible
way. Intentionally, incessantly picking fights (or trying
23. October 20, 2009 9:04 am
Wow..that is exactly the conclusion I came to with my parents but I have never seen it written before. I had become a nurse with idea just below the surface that i could help them if I just could do the mysterious elusive thing for them. It finally became clear that even if I werefill in the blank with the most amazing person who ever lived they could not be helped and would never stop hurting me. And my mother would be a danger to my newborn. So i cried alot and then I was done. With my wonderful spouse we loved each other and I focused my energy on making my own family whole, happy, safe, sane, caring, reliable, healthy, steady through thick and thin. I helped each parent in the months before they died but no more pain or injury to me. I believe i stopped the cycle. Susan, Chicago
24. October 20, 2009 9:04 am
Amen, amen, amen! ak, Denver
25. October 20, 2009 9:04 am
I want to add one thing
adult, I knew my parents were neglectful and damaging to
me but i never fully realized the depth of their damage
until I had a child of my own As we have come to each
growth moment, I realize anew and with surprise how
continuously my parents left me to fend for myself
medically, hygiene, emotionally, safety, education,
socially. i will never understand how they could do this
to me and my siblings, but I just dont think about
it anymore. I have been stedfast not perfect, but
stedfast-in my family responsibilities, and I am proud
that we have had a loving home and a child who feels
loved and supported no matter what. Susan, Chicago
How to Divorce Your Parents -