6 Red Flags a Parent Might Be an Abuser

A POST FOR ADULT CHILDREN AND THOSE CONCERNED AN ADULT THEY KNOW MIGHT BE ABUSIVE*

For child abuse survivors, it takes years—sometimes decades—to recognize, name, and understand the harm they suffered. There are many reasons for this. For one, many survivors apply the term “trauma bond” to their parent-child dynamic. This term was coined for partner abuse, but can apply to parents and children as well. When a child is abused or neglected, then showered with treats (i.e., tuition for a coveted afterschool program or ice cream out), then again abused or neglected, it creates the same toxic hope that drives all victims toward their abusers. And this cycle of harm, then reward, then more harm is particularly potent between parents and children.

And here’s why. Thanks to evolutionary biology, infants and toddlers love their parents no matter how they are treated. We have to. For tens of thousands of years, a child who failed to attach to their caregiver(s) risked death. As Benoit (2004) wrote:

A normally developing child will develop an attachment relationship with any caregiver who provides regular physical and/or emotional care, regardless of the quality of that care. In fact, children develop attachment relationships even with the most neglectful and abusive caregiver.

Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome (Diane Benoit, 2004)

As the child begins to grow up, however, and notices there’s something off about the way their parents operate, that attachment becomes increasingly complicated. And because abusers are unwilling to renegotiate boundaries or make allowances for others’ well-being, as the child enters adulthood, that bond becomes increasingly strained and distant.

As with all healing journeys, the first step is the hardest. It took me years even to say to myself My parents are abusive. But maybe I can save you a little time. Here are six signs I’ve found to be pretty reliable indicators of child abusers:

1. They claim victimhood.

The fact is, once you become a parent, you enter into a relationship where you have all the power for the first few years. Then, you have most of the power. Short of political power or professional leadership positions, few of us will ever experience the kind of power we have over children, whether that’s as a parent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, or a priest. And if we learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it’s that power differentials invite abuse from narcissistic, entitled people.

So the moment a parent starts telling me they’re a victim because their teenage daughter argued with them or their child just came out as trans or their adult child cut them off, I start to wonder. It’s one thing to say you’re frustrated or hurt or at your wit’s end. It’s something else entirely to say that your hurt feelings are more important than anything else, so you’re the only victim here that matters.

Children are supposed to differentiate themselves. They’re supposed to want things and feel things that are unique to them. And they’re supposed to make mistakes as they do that. It’s part of growing up. So if someone experiences a child’s separating themselves from the family unit as victimization, it’s a big red flag.

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2.They fundamentally misunderstand what abuse is.

Another standard of abusers is “I would never.” They’re invested in Hollywood depictions of abuse as violent, bloody combat. If it doesn’t leave a mark, then it’s not abuse. Or so the reasoning goes. My father beat me once, then never again because he realized he’d “gone too far.” When the fact is both he and my mother abused me every day for 23 years.

Child abuse includes a range of destructive behaviors such as: putting a child down (Why do you always look like that?), threatening them (You’re lucky I let you live here), belittling a child (You’re not smart enough for that), blaming a child for family problems (This wouldn’t have happened if you’d just let your father have his way), rejecting a child (We never wanted a girl), or medical neglect (not taking the child to the doctor after an injury or failing to follow medical recommendations).

Most parents commit a couple of these sins once or twice. But when it’s a pattern, it’s a problem. And when it’s a pattern, it’s more likely the parent is going to get defensive or even be unaware of what they’re doing (“I was just trying to prepare her for the real world,” or “It’s not abuse if fill-in-the-blank”). That, my friends, is called gaslighting, and it’s yet another type of abuse.

3. They are not self-reflective and have no regrets.

Good parents, in my experience, are not only aware that they messed up a few times, but they can point to specific moments they messed up. They know what they did. And it’s not pretty. They lost their temper and shouted at their kid. Or their child came to them for comfort, and they said they were too busy. Good parents know where they fucked up, they have regrets about it, and they have tried to make amends with their child. They’re also well aware that as their child gets older, they’re going to hear about more incidents that seemed minor to them as adults—but for their child left a deep wound.

Abusive parents swear they “never did anything wrong” and “were the best parents.” They list tons of things they did for their child that are mostly superficial and required little emotional effort, from tuition to bake sales to Halloween costumes to birthday parties. If most of their “good parenting” evidence is performative—it was done publicly and boosted their reputation—that’s worrying. These lists, if you really look at them, start to sound like the parent’s proudest moments, when they got the most pats on the back. Not the moment when they turned around a child’s tears or insecurities with some loving reassurance or a sympathetic ear.

Abusers don’t have such stories because they don’t do such things. The specifics of their child’s experience (not theirs) seem to have escaped them. Not only can they not name a specific moment of emotional connection with their child, but they also can’t list a specific moment when they messed up. Big red flag.

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4. They insist their child owes them a relationship.

This is a major red flag in all relationships, from friendships to marriages to sibling relationships. No one owes you a relationship. Relationships are by definition consensual. If it’s actually a relationship, everyone gets to decide whether they want to continue with it—or not. As painful as it is, anyone can opt out of our lives at any time. And people do. But for some reason, we think family members have to stick around no matter how we treat them.

This assumption is especially dangerous in adult parent-child relationships because it has the full force of cultural and religious norms behind it. If a parent’s primary complaints are that their child is “ungrateful” and isn’t giving them “their due,” this reveals that all along the parent-child relationship was transactional. Chances are good that the parent is thinking about all those bake sales and Halloween costumes and birthday parties, which further reveals that they weren’t done for the child. Rather, they were deposits in the child-as-bank-account where a future payoff could be counted on.

But infants don’t sign a contract upon their arrival. They can’t consent to anything. And for good reason. The brain doesn’t finish developing until our early to mid-twenties. Nobody’s working with a full deck of cards before that point. Nobody. So if the parent is claiming that their child is supposed to stick around, that was the deal? HUGE red flag.

5. They think their intent is the only thing that matters.

Abusers aren’t too keen on understanding how their behavior was received. They don’t particularly care what it felt like to be their child. They just care whether or not they meant any harm, and they expect that to be good enough. I always loved her. She knew that. It sounds benign, but in the context of abuse, it can be just as bad as I never meant to hurt her.

But you did. And that’s what matters. When we’re talking parents abusing children, it impacts the entire lifespan, including physical health outcomes.

This is very similar to the mindset of rapists who say it’s not their fault and it couldn’t actually be rape because it hurts them to be called a rapist.

It also echoes the defense of racists everywhere (Hey, I’m not racist. My Black friend will tell you. I’m a good person. I didn’t do anything wrong; this is a witch hunt). Again, it’s all about them. Often, it circles back to how they are the victim, how they feel humiliated. They conveniently ignore the suffering of the person they hurt because hey, it never happened anyway. It couldn’t have because they didn’t mean for it to.

So if a parent is trying to be the judge, jury, and bailiff in the question of whether they did harm, be skeptical.

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6. They begin undermining their child’s credibility before they even graduate high school.

If someone is telling you their kid can’t be trusted, that you shouldn’t even bother getting their side of the story, you’ve got to do some digging before you just accept that. Because this is a HUGE red flag. It’s exactly what parents who neglect and abuse their children will say.

The easiest way to tell if a child is truly out of control, or if the parent is campaigning to discredit their abuse victim? Provide some resources. Free mental health counseling for the child. Support from the school district. Parent and peer support groups for children with addictions or disabilities or mental health struggles. Classes and workshops (for the parent or the child). An abuser will act appreciative, then vanish off your radar. Next time you bump into them? They’ll be telling the same story. And all those resources you provided? They haven’t tried any of them, or anything else for that matter. They don’t want to help their child; they just want your attention and sympathy.

The result of all this, as any abuse survivor knows all too well, is to isolate the victim. If the entire extended family, church community, and neighborhood believes the child is “crazy”—and the parent is the real victim—there’s no one the child can go to. There’s no one whom the child can tell.

Abuse victims don’t say anything in the midst of abuse because their abusers have ensured it isn’t safe to. We try, and we aren’t believed. There are only so many times a person can go through that before they learn their lesson: Mom or Dad got to them first.

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So look, if your parent ticks a lot of these boxes, you absolutely deserve better. And to even begin moving out of that, you have to name your experience and your feelings. But if you don’t have a lot of people in your life who are familiar with abuse, or worse yet, if the people in your life jump to your abuser’s defense, you need to have a safe space apart from all that to begin healing. A good therapist can be a huge help to sort out your feelings and what actually happened (and whether it’s abuse). Starting with a therapist search can be a good first step.

If, on the other hand, you’re concerned that someone you know may be abusing their child, that’s trickier. You can always report to Child Protective Services. But if the parents are BIPOC, it’s much more likely that the children will be removed permanently, which can have other devastating effects. On the other hand, I’ve learned the hard way that providing resources to the family or even for the child comes to nothing. Because abusers are such successful manipulators, it can be hard to gather evidence, and it can be next to impossible to convince any other friends or relatives that it’s even worth considering. According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 7 children is a victim of abuse or neglect, although many organizations state this number is underreported. The point is child abuse is incredibly common, and the majority of perpetrators are parents.

If you don’t want to call Child Protective Services or you’re worried about exposing the child to other dangers in the foster care system, other ways to take action include:

  • Donating to nonprofits (like Childhelp) that educate the public, lobby for legislative changes, and attempt to provide services to prevent, intervene, and treat the impacts of child abuse
  • Educating yourself about abuse and child development
  • If you have children, getting therapy, taking classes on child development, and scheduling time for yourself away from your children (while your children are with people they love and trust); current theories support the idea that child abuse can be prevented if parents commit to dealing with their own issues outside the parent-child dynamic
  • Refusing to engage with (or actively reporting accounts of) abusive parents who troll abuse survivors online, or who seek reassurance and approval from them
  • Believing young people who come forward with stories of child abuse; remember that it takes decades, a tremendous amount of courage, and a lot of grief to admit that your parents abused you
  • Remaining in the young person’s life and supporting them (often at great social cost to yourself) if or when they do speak out

Child abuse survivors often end up losing their entire families and communities when they decide to come forward. People who knew the family often throw their sympathy behind the parents and refuse to believe survivors. I understand. It’s easier. It’s easier to pretend that child abuse doesn’t happen in your family or community, that everything’s fine, and that you didn’t miss the warning signs or felt too helpless to do anything.

But shunning, shaming, and discrediting child abuse survivors is even worse. It makes the journey to healing and wholeness so much longer.

Many of us take to the internet to tell our stories because it’s the only place left to us. It’s the story society doesn’t want to hear. The tale that people have tried to stop us from telling. I understand that, too. We all carry this shame. Once we’re adults, we’re all complicit in one way or another because this society keeps chugging along, and we’re part of enabling that. But the more we know how prevalent abuse is, and how permissive society is toward abusive parents, the better we abuse survivors will be able to understand what we survived—and to eventually move forward, to a life beyond it.

All children deserve that much.

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*In order to keep this a safe space for child abuse survivors, comments have been turned off on this post.