5 Strategies of Abusive Families with Adult Children

5 Strategies of Abusive Families with Adult Children

My recovery work has taught me that the original traumatic experiences are about 5% of the total problem.  Almost all children experience traumatic events, but if they have supportive parents, they can come to understand what they experienced and recover from it in healthy ways.  When the trauma is coming from our parents (or those who are closely tied to family), the trauma is horrible, but it is the manipulation and gaslighting which make recovery seem impossible.  The games played by enablers become impossible to reconcile.  And this doesn’t end when we become adults.  As a matter of a fact, the older we get, the more important it becomes for our family to keep us confused about our reality.  Lately, I have been thinking about how our families “up the ante” when we become independent adults.  And I came up with five examples to illustrate it for you.

They deny the abuse.  That doesn’t sound surprising at all.  It may be so obvious that you are wondering why I wrote it.  But when we become adults, the denial shifts.  Don’t get me wrong, they still deny the trauma and call us crazy, but the denial develops nuances.  For example, they may add some more adult terms into the gaslighting.  They may start bringing up defamation of character or libel cases.  They may make sure you know about “false memory syndrome”.  They may point you to psychological and legal cases that support their denial tactics.  They will claim you have disorders you don’t have or blame it on traumas that occurred in your adulthood (which were usually a direct reflection of your childhood trauma pattern.

They will act like the perfect family.  Once again, I know they probably did this when you were a child too.  But I am not talking about the mask to the outside world here.  I am talking about how they act in front of you.  Now that you are an adult, you aren’t triggering their trauma the way you used to.  And since you aren’t with them every day, all day, they can put up a good front when you’re around.  The nicer they act toward you, the more confused you get.  You start questioning how bad it really was.  “Maybe they weren’t so bad.”  “Maybe I don’t have to work on recovery or alienate them because they are so nice now.”  Deep down inside, your traumatized inner parts are screaming for you to validate their pain, but you are confused by their current outward behavior.  Of course, this will dissolve if things get tough or you share a space for too long.  But believe me, it is on purpose.  It is meant to confuse you.

They bribe you.  There is nothing worse than being alienated from the gravy train.  I know.  I did it.  That financial safety net was mighty nice especially as a single mother of twins.  My parents pulled out all the stops for their grandchildren.  They bought the nicest toys.  They took them on the best trips.  They bought a beach house so the kids would always have a place to go in the summer.  And they talked about all the things they would do in the future … as long as I kept the lid on Pandora’s box (that part was never said out loud).  Even when it came to me, there was discussion of help with investments and bills when I needed it.  They made it clear I needed them to stay safe in the big scary adult world.  And it was hard to turn it down.

They play the victim.  Aging parents of adult children start to get a bit scared as they age and unconsciously realize they are in trouble.  They are getting frail and they know it.  The adult child usually becomes the one with more physical strength.  So they resort to other methods of gaining control.  One method is to play the victim.  Some popular phrases they might use against you are:

“Be nice to me now because I am probably going to die soon.  You don’t want to feel guilty when I die.”

“You are making me sicker every time you bring up the past.”

“You are ruining my life with all this talk of abuse. It is your fault I feel so bad.”

They turn the tables on the abuse accusation.  Abusive parents love to tell others that their adult children have become abusive.  But they never go into detail about what is happening or how that could have happened.  They don’t own up to anything that happened in the childhood of that adult child.  But people are not born assholes.  They are born to assholes.  Any abusive behavior from the adult child is coming from what was learned in the home.  That said, most of the abusive behavior adult children are accused of is not actually abusive.  Here are some examples of non-abusive behavior that is often called abusive by parents and families who perpetuated childhood trauma:

  • Cutting off family members
  • Setting boundaries with family members
  • Telling the truth about their childhood trauma to others
  • Refusing to financially or physically take care of abusive aging parents
  • Refusing to attend family events

So the next time you are struggling to navigate the family environment as an adult child of abusive parents or families, please remember these common strategies.  Understanding how these are being used against you can help you to make the right decisions for your healing.  Let’s face it.  They aren’t going to do the right thing for you.  You are the only one who can do that.

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18 Comments

  1. This is a great source of information for me for my son’s whose father is the textbook narcissist. My older son is only 19 and I just helped him get away by making sure he got a dorm room at college. He is still to close to his childhood traumas inflicted on him by his father to be able to read something like this. I’ll archive it for him to resource when he’s ready. I’ll keep touching base with it as well so I don’t get confused by his continued horrible behavior.

    Reply
    • Thank you Aimee. It is good to keep touching base with reality so you don’t get sidetracked by the gaslighting. Sending my love and light to you.

      Reply
  2. I experienced abuse from multiple perps. My abuse within my family wasn’t severe but it’s interesting that even though it wasn’t severe and chronic is still has all the exact same principles and tactics. Very interesting patterns, dynamics around dysfunctional, warped and sick family systems going back several generations. The gaslighting and scapegoating is the most painful and confusing thing to recognise and act on. I tick all boxes for ways to cope. Thanks!

    Reply
    • It is so amazing how things seem to follow patterns no matter what the abuse was like. Love to you Kate.

      Reply
  3. I struggle with this so much now that my dad has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s at 66. I’ve always struggled to cut them off afraid of guilt and regret when they die. Though my dad was the least abusive of the two-by far-he always defended my mom and her actions. If it were my mom diagnosed I know it wouldn’t be as hard on me. They visited for the first time in almost a year last weekend and his decline was noticeable and heartbreaking. How do you avoid your parent at such a sad and vulnerable part of their life? I just don’t know.

    Reply
    • It is never easy. But I like to think of my inner children as though they were young external children and I think about how I must protect them above all else. When the guilt comes, I write from it instead of acting from it. That’s helps, but nothing makes this easy.

      Reply
  4. Great advice in this post – particularly the five strategies. Setting crystal clear boundaries and holding the line is so important in dealing with abusive family members.

    Reply
    • You are so right Steve. Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Wow, such a timely post for me. I can relate so much to it. I stopped bringing up the abuse because I realized after years it was getting me nowhere. My family does do the perfect family thing, and it does get confusing. But, when the wheels start coming off the bus they start showing who they really are again. I try my best to protect my inside kids by limiting contact. When my narcissistic mom figured out what I was doing she started posting things on Facebook about how wonderful her boyfriend’s kids were. After I ignored all that, she decided to demand to come see her grandchildren and would literally just show up (she lives a state away). I do feel guilty sometimes because I stay away so much and she is frail and pathetic, but even so, she can still muster up that evil side when she needs it. As for money, I don’t speak to her about it. Interestingly, I had an intensive treatment opportunity, but it was going to cost me some big $$$. My spouse and I were so desperate to get me help that my spouse called my mom and asked her for the money, and when she balked, my spouse said it was the least she could do since she caused so much of my trauma. Interestingly, she admitted the trauma to my spouse, but said it wasn’t her fault because she was drinking then. And more surprisingly, she gave us the money for treatment, but is now not talking to me, which makes my life easier.
    I dread when she gets to a dying stage. I pray she goes quickly and does not linger as I know this was very traumatic for me when my dad spent a long time dying and I was expected to care for him and take the abuse by my family.

    Reply
    • Thank you Kathy. I am sorry you can relate to so much of what I listed. It sounds like you have experienced so much dysfunction from your mother. I hope you are able to keep the distance that is so vital for your own healing. Love to you.

      Reply
  6. Might be a naïve question but are abusers cognizant of their strategies, i.e., do they carry them out consciously, deliberately?

    Reply
    • That’s a very good question. I do believe that most of it happens unconsciously. They are playing out behavior that has existed for generations. That said, they have a responsibility to bring awareness to it (even though most don’t).

      Reply
  7. No contact, no contact, no contact! It is not for everyone. I was blessed that my parents (both abusive and both unaware) never established a relationship with my son so it was easier for me to go no contact because I did not have to think about the impact on my child’s relationship with his grandparents (non-existent). Certainly I can understand the challenges around that for others.

    I can only speak for my own experience and that my heart sings whenever I reflect on my choice of no contact. Don’t get me wrong. Parts of me still question every once in a while if the decision is correct but then I do a “check in” with my heart to see if I should re-evaluate and my heart says “no way, Jose!”

    The reason why my heart sings is because deep down I already know that my parents would gaslight, deny and follow all of the examples you have listed. By remaining in contact I would be re-experiencing the traumatic crazy making all over again. I made a new agreement with my parts that I would not allow anyone to invalidate my experiences and feelings again which is why I remain an island unto myself :)(in regards to my family).

    I am moving toward forgiveness (as you know its a process) and I am letting go (working with my parts) by validating all my parts along with what they went through and felt and in doing so I am opening up and experiencing more and more freedom. I cannot do that in the presence of people who remain in the dark.

    Thank you Elizabeth, I hope this helps many who struggle with this issue. Deep down our heart speaks the truth.

    Reply
    • I agree Wendy. No contact was one of the best decisions I made in my recovery. It allowed me to open up to a new narrative without constantly being barraged with denial and doubts. That would have made a very hard step even harder.

      Reply
  8. Thank you, I needed to read this today!As a recovering codependent taught from home… I learned to attract other narcissists and their abusive families too. I am forever grateful for the knowledge and strength I have now, to break those ancestral chains! I’m fighting for myself and my future children. So glad we have your help here.

    Reply
    • Thank you Lynsi for your fight! I am glad you are doing it.

      Reply
  9. Six example. They turn your brothers and sisters against you. They poison them against you by inventing gossip and try to make them compete to give more money than the others.

    Reply

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