Child abuse has a profound impact on children and those effects can stay with you even when you’re grown and have left your toxic childhood environment.
Figuring out how to maintain a relationship with an abusive parent in adulthood is difficult, to say the least. Some people ultimately decide that the only way to preserve their own mental well-being is to have no contact with their parents. Most people, however, try to find a way to have a relationship with their parents and still meet their own needs.
I invited Dr. Natalie Jones, a psychotherapist and host of the new podcast A Date with Darkness, to explain some of the strategies commonly used to maintain a relationship with an abusive parent.
5 Survival Tactics You Use to Maintain a Relationship with Your Abusive Parent
Those who have experienced childhood abuse at the hands of a parent have often developed ways to cope with the abuse. They move through their lives and relationships in a traumatic state; which means they are often in survival mode.
If you were abused by your parents while growing up, it can understandably be difficult to maintain a relationship with your abusive parents in adulthood. While the old memories of abuse still haunt you, you may also continue to have a relationship with your parents for a variety of reasons such as these:
- You believe that you must always respect your parents
- Fear of abandonment or being alone
- Out of habit
- You have been manipulated into staying in the relationship
- You desire or long to be loved and accepted by your parents
- Fear of retaliation
- Wanting your children to have a relationship with their grandparents
Similar to learning how to live in a war zone, you adapt and find ways to cope with a parent who continues to be abusive.
5 ways you cope with a toxic or abusive parent
Avoidance serves as a protective mechanism for you to preserve your energy. Essentially, if you are expecting a person to project negative energy, you try to stay away from them.
For example, you may avoid telling them something about your life that you fear they may criticize or degrade. In other instances, you may avoid their phone calls, because you don’t feel like listening to what they have to say.
Another example would be that if you are around your parent then you avoid conversation or interaction by zoning out, turning on the radio, or talking to someone else on your phone. Another form of avoidance is a lack of eye contact. You might refuse to look your parent in the eye when they’re questioning you or speaking to you in an authoritative tone to avoid conflict, feelings of shame, or to dodge a potentially hostile situation.
Another way we protect ourselves from harmful interactions with toxic parents is to keep our lives a secret from them.
We keep everything that happens to us locked away and only share the minimum necessary information to keep the conversation superficial and light. This is done to prevent anything that we talk about from being used against us, or twisted to somehow make us feel bad. Secrecy preserves the sacredness of our private life and prevents us from being talked to or about in a derogatory way.
Doing what is asked or expected of you
As an abused child, you probably became accustomed to following your parents’ orders, expectations, and keeping the peace by people-pleasing. Often you respond to your parent’s requests to do whatever they ask of you whenever they ask regardless of the inconvenience. While you may feel resentful and inconvenienced, you continue to accommodate their needs, because you want their approval, and you don’t want to cause ripples in the relationship.
Don’t question your parent or have any expectations
Abusive parents always maintain the power in the relationship and view themselves as higher than or more important than you. Thus, if you expect them to respect you or treat you the way that they want to be treated it’s considered an insult.
Abusive parents often believe that they are god-like and that their authority or opinion should not be questioned nor should you have the same expectations for them that they have for you. If you try to question or call out your parents for their behavior, you may be met with “because I am your momma/daddy, that’s why” or they may cease communication with you until you meet their demands again.
Don’t express how they make you feel
When dealing with a parent who was abusive, or continues to be abusive, the last thing they want to hear is you calling them out on their abusive behavior or how they make you feel.
Expressing your feelings towards them makes them feel ashamed, thus causing them to descend from their pedestal, which they cannot stand. Your feelings of hurt and vulnerability will be met with anger, rage, denial, and condescension. They may even try to one up you by making statements such as, “I don’t know why you feel so bad, my parents were ten times worse.”
They may turn the situation around and blame you: “Well if you wouldn’t have done ______, I wouldn’t have had to do _____. Do you know how difficult you were?”
Worse yet, they may put you down by calling you names and questioning your behavior. Lastly, they may deny that abuse ever happened, or change the subject altogether. You should not expect them to validate your feelings or apologize; they are probably incapable of empathy and acknowledging their abusive behavior.
It’s difficult to maintain a relationship with an abusive parent because there are so many dynamics between the two of you that need to be managed. It can be hard to be true to yourself and your feelings, while still trying to have a relationship with your parent, and dealing with the pain caused by your parent.
If you are struggling to find balance within yourself and your dysfunctional relationship with your parents, try to seek out ways to cope such as therapy, supportive friendships, meditation and mindfulness, doing things that you enjoy, writing out your feelings, and reading self-help books. Doing some of these tasks can help you start thriving instead of surviving, and accepting the relationship for what it is.
About the author
Dr. Natalie Jones, PsyD, LPCC currently works as a prison psychologist, and also has a private practice in Oakland, CA where she works with those who have been hurt by love and abuse. In addition, Dr. Jones specializes in being an expert witness in legal cases, does consultation and coaching for narcissistic abuse, public speaking engagements, and also has a podcast called A Date With Darkness, which provides education, tips, and intimate discussion for those who have been victims of abuse. If you want to find out more about or get in touch with Dr. Jones, please visit her website www.drnataliejones.com, subscribe to the newsletter, and be sure to listen to the podcast.
©2017 Natalie Jones. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: Freedigitalphotos.net.