Children in Abusive Homes Need Help to Unlearn Abuse

October 25, 2012 Kellie Jo Holly

Children in abusive homes learn the tools of abuse naturally. When you leave the abusive relationship, one common tragic effect of abuse is that your children abuse you. Learn how to help your kids unlearn abuse and live a better life at HealthyPlace.

Children in abusive homes often learn how to abuse without really knowing what they're doing. It's another tragic effect of abuse that can seem hopeless to overcome. But it isn't. Children in abusive homes aren't lost to us parents who have learned about abuse and can recognize abuse when it comes from our children. Granted, it's easier to teach children of abusive homes how to behave appropriately when they're no longer exposed to abuse. But, as that's not usually the case with family court being as it is, it's up to us non-abusive parents to teach children how to behave well. Here are some ideas on how to help children in abusive homes unlearn abuse.

A Question from 'M' About Children in Abusive Homes

M commented about the problem she's having with her children who grew up in an abusive home (edited for brevity).

When I say, ‘I am uncomfortable with that phrasing,’ I am fine with explaining ‘That’s how I feel when I hear it’ [to own] my feelings [instead of labeling my children] etc. But both my sons will then say they’re made uncomfortable by my objection; they have a right to express themselves in this ‘normal’ way and it’s a generational difference, or me being too fussy.

I can’t keep walking away from meals and conversations with my own sons! So usually I reason with them a while and then give up, allow the subject to be changed, and that looks as if I’m sulking or defeated (since they're reading the conversation in winner/loser terms). ‘Defeated’ confirms that I was wrong in the first place.

Besides never ‘winning’, I hate seeing them grow up without the live-and-let-live values of mutual respect that I have always taught them. I know some of it is just to wind Mum up but I also know they, especially the older one, really can’t see what’s better about simply thinking, ‘OK, if you dislike that then we won’t do it.’

My sons are 12, still just a bit of formative time remains for him, and 19, not really any years left. It hurts more with the younger one, who was born compassionate and is a natural good listener, whereas the older one takes after his father physically and I suspect has the Number-One values built-in as well.

What do you suggest when someone just blankly refuses to acknowledge you have any kind of point at all, let alone to stop the abusive forms of speech? There must be other solutions.

First, M, you’re doing a wonderful job. You are setting an example for your children, and that works more effectively than lecturing or overtly “teaching” – especially at your kid’s ages. Don’t give up on your 19-year-old. Perhaps his childhood is over, but his ability to change never ends.

About My Children from an Abusive Home

Before I share my advice, I want you to know my experience with my own children. This will help you to know if I can advise you well or not.

Your children do sound similar to mine, given your brief description of them. They tried those same excuses on me to continue their arguments, and your sons' demeanor is very similar to my boys around the time I left their dad. There isn't as much of an age difference between my kids. My younger is now 16, three years younger than his brother.

My 16-year-old is a born empathic child, caring and concerned for everyone's feelings. He divides his time evenly between my home and his dad's by choice. He recognizes manipulation when he sees it and he'll come to me for advice if the abuse at his father's house turns ugly. I am fair when we talk about his father, but it is hard sometimes! Especially when I feel my temper rising, I use the phrase "When I lived with your dad, I felt..." to keep the focus off of what my ex did to me and keep it on how I dealt with my feelings - that's what my son is asking for help with anyway.

My older son took on many of his father’s qualities, both good and negative ones, but he also chose to practice many of mine (all positive, of course, because I am perfect). There are some negative qualities of his dad and me in him, but he recognizes them and controls them well. He works on being "himself" more than being like dad these days, whereas when he was younger he idolized his father. The point is that it is never too late to learn to do the right thing. Keep the faith - your children are part YOU, too.

When You Can't Walk Away from Abuse

So far as walking away from the abuse, I understand your desire to stay put. Like you say, walking away from dinner, an otherwise entertaining TV show, or any other family moment is not always possible OR desirable.

Withdraw from the Conversation Respectfully

If your child becomes abusive, tell him that you will re-engage in the conversation when he acts respectfully. Until he can do that, there will be no conversation. Acknowledge your child’s words only when they are respectful. If your child demands that you say something, simply state, “I am not going to argue with you. I said what I meant, and until you can speak to me respectfully, I see no point in continuing this conversation.” You could also say something like, "I see that you are angry with me, and I want to hear about it. But I want to hear your anger respectfully, and I know it's within your power to speak with respect. Let's try again after dinner (or in an hour, or before bedtime, etc.)

If your kids are like mine, the more they learn about abuse from you, the more they will try to turn the tables on you. Tricky boogers, they are. For example, if you are not talking because 1) you already made your point and 2) you are now disengaged from the abusive conversation, your child may say you’re abusing them because you withdrew. You can remind them that abusive withdrawal happens when the abuser seeks to control the victim. You are not attempting to control your child's thoughts or emotions. You are withdrawing from the conversation because you feel disrespected, and reiterate that you're more than willing to talk soon, but not now when tempers are high.

Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries with our children from abusive homes seems counter-intuitive, but that is what must be done. Your children are pulling away from you naturally right now. They’re becoming “themselves” so far as development. Part of honoring their transition to adulthood is treating them like adults. Adults set boundaries for one another. Think about what boundaries you can set with your kids.

Divide and Conquer

Another thing you can try is the old “divide and conquer” method. Your children have teamed up on you. They feed off one another. Spend some time with each of them individually – something fun or running errands, whatever. Take fifteen minutes or 4 hours, any amount of time is valid. Use the time to discuss anything they want to talk about, but slide in the way they speak to you when the time is right. Tell them how you feel about it.

Ask them if they mean to hurt you. Most likely they’ll say no. Then ask them why they continue to speak to you in the ways that hurt when you know they don’t want to hurt you? Remind them that they must change their words and behaviors depending on who they’re speaking to. I’m sure they know how to be polite. Ask them to be polite to you.

And always always always model the behavior you expect from them when you have these conversation (which won’t be hard because you do it naturally). When you divide and conquer, you see more of each child and they see more of you. When they’re together, you’re the “enemy” (again, this is not only from abuse, but also because of their ages).

Add Extra Encouragement, Appreciation and Support

Abuse demands a lot of attention. Because you spend so much time fighting the abuse, you may let some of the good things fall to the side. Find instances to tell your kids when they’ve done something right. Appreciate and encourage them. I’m not suggesting that you do not already do this, but in your family as was the case in mine, extra attention for good behavior is imperative. Don’t be superficial, wait until they do something worth complimenting. Watch for the good more than the bad, and always give the goodness the attention it deserves.

Stop Playing the Winner / Loser Game

help your kids unlearn abuseAnother thing I want to point out is that you are playing the “winner/loser” game, at least in your mind. Stop playing the game. This is a game designed by the abuser to put one person in their place. Your kids learned this from watching their dad and you interact.

As an example of a game that didn't need playing, my ex wanted to play “rock paper scissors” with me, usually to decide which of us would do his chore of taking out the trash. I refused to play. It was his job to take out the trash (the only household chore he had), and I was not going to play a game I didn't have to play to get the trash out the door. It was a manipulative game, just like the counter-arguments your kids provide.

While you're learning to "not play", you could congratulate yourself on a “win” when you behave in a way that makes you proud of you. It does not matter what your accomplishment looks like in their eyes, it only matters what you feel inside. If you think you look sulky or defeated, change your body language to comfortable and proud. “Fake it ’til you make it” and “Don’t let them see you sweat”. Of course, feeling comfortable and proud is natural when you honor your boundaries (Show Yourself Respect: How to Communicate with Confidence).

Keep the Abuse Demon Separate From Your Kids

During my marriage, initially I pictured Abuse as a demon seeking to take control of my husband. It was easier to say to myself, "Well, the demon has him again! If I can get through this, my husband will come to his senses." The idea helped me to detach from the Abuse. However, I came to believe that the Abuse Demon never released my husband. He never "came to his senses" and I came to the realization that I didn't want to subject myself to the demon anymore. That meant leaving my husband, and the Abuse Demon, behind.

When it comes to my children, I cannot do that. I will never leave them like I left their father. There may be a time when I have to separate temporarily to protect myself (hasn't happened yet, knock on wood!). Underneath everything, I know it is my job to give my children the best foundation for a happy life that I can. I know that despite their "formative years" being a thing of history, I cannot allow the Abuse Demon to become my children as it became my husband. I keep the Abuse Demon separate from them, no matter what, so I can do what's best for me while allowing them to learn and grow from what they do and my reaction to it.

Example is the best teacher. I am the best example I know how to be right now. I hope to always learn how to be a better example, even if doing so forces me to admit I was wrong in the past. Life is a process of learning, and you, M, are a wonderful teacher.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2012, October 25). Children in Abusive Homes Need Help to Unlearn Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

November, 20 2012 at 5:38 am

Very helpful comments here I am glad I stumbled across this email this morning.I am feeling very disconnected from my older son( we all live in the same home) he is very disrespectful to me and at times aggressive .My husband is unmotivated it seems to create an environment where we can all be treated with respect.He say's " Why do you keep going on about things?" and projects the idea that I am complaining about nothing:( He acts exasperated as though I am fixated on myself when I am trying to set some boundaries for our kids.I have been struggling with this for years and feel very alone.I have been dealing with depression for years and I refuse to find some magic medication to make me "Nice" as suggested by my husband.There is not a pill that will make any of this o.k.My children are being taught that they can do as they wish they only need to find an argument to support it.They are not really being taught to be accountable for what they say or do.I mostly have difficulty's with my older son who seems to have nothing but arguments for me.It is heartbreaking and I don't think I can live in a household like this much longer.

October, 26 2012 at 8:17 am

Thank you so much for this huge reply to my question! And it does help. (Even more than just feeling you know what I'm feeling, y'know...)
And I love: 'how I dealt with my feelings - that’s what my son is asking for help with anyway'. You have reinforced that the listening skills I learnt through training as a counsellor (in a past life, before my health failed) are one of my strengths in this situation.
For some of your article, I already know it - which has helped by reminding me what a great distance my experience in this marriage has already brought me. How far I am from the twenty-something who committed to this dangerous man in the first place. How valuable this learning is and will be, in the much wider world, way beyond abuse. :)
Our boys do sound similar! Your learning curve and my own are close too - everyone in such relationships surely learns the same kind of stuff, but it's extra comforting to find someone doing more or less the same lessons, and more or less in in the same order! I feel more human by recognising myself in others - I expect that's common to everyone.
Finally, as an ex writer (may even get back to it one day), it is delightful to have given you some 'blog fodder'! Almost a material way of thanking you for your writing here.
... ps: I was interrupted by the doorbell, literally just as I typed the last full stop (period, that is; I'm a Brit) - my son's girlfriend's parents come to collect her, the first time we've met. :( I have never seen a mother belittle, humiliate and generally be so rude, especially not in front of strangers - except when you see a disappointed or frightened toddler being blamed and shouted at for showing how (s)he feels. And that has always upset me too. No raised voices, but the girl was trapped, beset. The father said nothing, but once, 'Don't start being aggressive again,' to the daughter (who was only saying No to her mother's attacks.
They were even grumbling because she'd forgotten to go to her counselling session this morning...
Odd that it was right in the middle of me looking at this site! The one place I probably that I can let off steam and be understood!! It did open a conversation with my son, about verbal abuse(!) and I'm glad to have seen what he has been trying to describe to me. I didn't say a word to them, but took nearly half an hour to stop shaking after they went.
:deep breath:
pps: I can't see a way to get email notification of comments here - just a thought. :)

October, 25 2012 at 2:00 pm

This was good for me to read. It helped me understand what I have been feeling from my 15 yr old who has been living with his dad for the last 2 years. I feel at times he is just like his father, and am angry that I left him just to be controlled and treated the same by my son. I vowed to never let any one treat me the way my ex did yet I feel I have to endure it to show my love to my son. Thank you for your tools I learned by reading your article. I pray that someday my son is able to crawl out from under his fathers thumb as I did and be his own person, because I know the wonderful heart he has. I miss my son being what I used to remember, at least when he is around me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
October, 25 2012 at 4:50 pm

Just last week my 19-year-old told me, "Mom, I know you were always there for me, even when it looked like you weren't. I see it now." You don't know how good that made me feel. He and I went through the wringer, let me tell you. I told him one time, "You're acting like your father!" and immediately wished I could take it back. He was, but I wish I hadn't said it. About a year ago, he bucked at the house rules. I told him if he didn't follow them, he'd have to leave. He left. He spent two nights in a friend's trailer and the last night he snuck into my car and slept there. I'll tell you what - I was a nervous wreck. But I stuck it out. I knew he'd come home.
Your 15 year old will do the same - he will "come home" so to speak. I describe my kids as having "beautiful hearts", similar to how you describe your son. Trust in them. Trust that what you taught him makes a difference, trust that what you're now teaching him will make a difference, and trust in his wonderful heart.

October, 25 2012 at 8:53 am

Hey Kellie great article. I loved your commentary on how an abuser can turn the tables on you when you choose not to tolerate it and try to put you into the role of abuser.
I think when you stick in the behavioral realm there is always this chance of turning the tables because you are interpreting behavior rather than motivation, and an act motivated by self-preservation can look similar to abuse.
A huge key is having a definition of abuse that everyone in your system can agree on so that when you stop to look at the internal process there is less wriggle room. I really like and use as a working definition 'instilling doubt in order to maintain control'

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