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Parent abuse: An unrecognised and silent suffering

Parent abuse An unrecognised and silent suffering
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As far back as 1848, hundreds if not thousands of people walked for feminism and screamed at the top of their lungs for feminine freedom. Almost a hundred years after that, people began to advocate against domestic violence, in this case, the one against women and then abuse against children. Though a considerable number of social vices have been addressed, there is still a truckload of others which has been neglected due to people’s perception of them having a less impact on society.

From another perspective, it could also be that the crusades against the vices above were picked among others because the relationship between the abuser and the victim was that of a ‘’stronger” and ‘’weaker” persons respectively, and fighting for these causes made the advocates heroes in the eyes of the society; thus leaving other imbalances of the world in the dark despite their rising occurrence.

Among the unaddressed social vices or imbalances of the world is parent abuse, which is a quest by a child to take over control by intimidating and manipulating their parents. It is a form of domestic violence.

Parent abuse is defined by Cottrell B. as “any harmful act of a teenage child intended to gain power and control over parents.” Parent abuse is not a onetime thing. It is continuous abuse. It is also however not limited to teenagers; it can be perpetuated by children of any age, especially in the African society where it is more commonly perpetuated by children after they have become independent of their parents.

Despite what the title above “…an unrecognised and silent suffering” may have had you thinking, parent abuse isn’t new or foreign to any society. We have witnessed or heard about it; our minds have just decided to ignore it. Perhaps the reason it is unrecognised is that the relationship, in this case, is that of the abuser who is perceived to be someone ‘weaker’ and a victim who should be ‘stronger’. This perception has caused victims to be silent about their pain due to fear, despair and the shame of being abused by their own children.

Parent abuse isn’t restricted to just physical violence; it includes emotional, verbal and even financial abuse.

Verbal abuse: This includes arguing loudly, screaming, browbeating and swearing at parents, name-calling, criticizing and giving mocking responses. The children may also play the blame game with their parents; making everything that goes wrong with their lives their parents’ fault.

Physical Abuse: This is the visible form of any abuse. In this case, the child tries to intimidate the parents into complying with his/her demands, isolate them by limiting the ability to escape, lock them in the house or use aggression in the form of beating, shoving, slapping, striking with an object and even verbal threats of killing alongside physical attack.

Emotional Abuse: Sometimes, children who abuse their parents go as far as painting themselves as victims of abuse from their parents so that no one believes the parent even when they speak. Some go as far as making the parent feel that they are going crazy. There could be sudden bursts of anger, a rage so frightening that the parent has no choice but to comply with whatever the child is asking for at that moment in time. The child may also mock and belittle his/her parent’s accomplishments, aspirations, or personality in front of others and claim to be teasing or joking.

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Financial abuse: This comes in the form of stealing and exploitation of the parent’s money or possessions, acquiring debts which the parent has no choice but to pay, causing damages to the home or other belongings of their parents, stealing money, and demanding things that the parents can’t afford.

What factors cause children to abuse their parents?

  • Vengeance: Sometimes, children upon becoming an independent turn on their parents and inflict pain or abuse as an act of revenge for the abuse that they actually did go through or think they went through in the hands of their parents when they were younger. This is common in cases where the children felt insignificant and were abused emotionally, physically or verbally by their parents. So when they make something of themselves, they, in turn, treat their parents the same way or worse than they were treated.
  • Witnessing abuse in the home: Being exposed to violence by one’s partner increases the risk of a child abusing that parent because the child sees this as normal Also seeing an older sibling abusing one’s parent can also lead the younger ones to follow the same footsteps.
  • Mental illness: Suffering from unresolved or neglected mental illnesses like narcissistic personality disorder, mood disorders etc. can also cause children to abuse their parents especially when they are feeling abused, frustrated or out of control.
  • Parenting style: Lax parenting can also cause children to abuse their parents. Children push boundaries and test moments to determine how far they can push or rebel without consequences, and when there’s no consequence for bad behaviours, they believe there is no boundary at all.
  • Narcissism: In this case, this is also related to parenting style. According to Joni E. Johnston, a clinical/forensic psychologist, “parents who overvalue their children tend to raise youngsters with an overblown sense of their own superiority. They become narcissists because their parents put them on a pedestal and — because they are repeatedly told they are special or deserve better treatment — they come to believe so” and are likely to turn on their parents when they try to withhold anything from them.
  • Poverty/child abuse: According to studies, poverty or abuse during childhood can wipe out a child’s innate empathy, the understanding of thoughts, feelings and emotional state of another person. Inability to be empathetic removes any kind of remorse or feelings that a child has for abusing their parents and thus it continues.
  • Substance abuse: Children who abuse psychoactive substances like LSD, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol are more likely to harm their parents most especially in their periods of ‘highness.’
  • Culture: Though there are no customs that give children the upper hand over their parents, the patriarchal tradition gives an upper hand to men over women. And in situations, where a male child in the absence of a father is the primary provider for his parent, there may be a likelihood that this child would abuse his mother seeing as he will expect total respect and obedience as the ‘man of the house,’ When this expectation isn’t met with, it could lead to him withholding the mother’s source of livelihood until she bows to his authority.
  • Other factors include:
  • Disrespect to a parent due to a perceived weakness;
  • Aggressive behavioural tendencies;
  • Exposure to violence on TV, music, social media, which makes the child thinks violence is normal; and
  • Not being able to deal with a disabled or mentally ill parent properly.
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Both sexes are equally liable to abuse their parents: The sex of a child doesn’t make him/her more likely to abuse his/her parents. The only difference is that a female child is more likely to carry out a less visible form of abuse like verbal, financial or emotional abuse which the male child is more likely to be physical in his injury.

Social class and ethnicity: According to studies, social class and ethnicity play no role in causing parent abuse unless in the case of the ethnic groups where their customs encourage absolute patriarchy.

Mothers or primary caregivers: They are the people who are more likely to be the targets of abusive children.

The effect of being abused by one’s child can be very profound and debilitating. They feel helpless, trapped and unable to control their household which brings up feelings of inadequacy and wears away the parent’s self-esteem. It is challenging for parents to open up about being abused due to shame and blame, and when they eventually do so; they receive little or no help.

As with every other type of abuse the most important thing is for the parent to realise that they are not alone; they do not deserve to be abused and do not have to suffer in silence. They can put a stop to the abuse and take back their rightful place in the relationship.

Here are a few helpful suggestions for parents who are going through abuse from their children:

  • The first step is getting rid of the feeling of despair and powerlessness that comes with parent abuse by seeking professional help from a counsellor, speaking about this abuse to a friend or someone you trust, and contacting a domestic abuse support group in places where it is available.
  • If you can still communicate with the child, then confront him/her about their behaviour and how it is hurting you. Children who are emotionally abusive will most likely turn the table on you, but still assure them of your love for them and that they need professional help. Do this firmly and remove all privileges like computers, cell phones etc. in the case of younger children.
  • Get professional help for your child if you suspect that he/she may be suffering from a mental illness.
  • Take a stance when they try to intimidate you emotionally or verbally. Let them know that you won’t take it if they continue to abuse you in this way or even hit you. Do not try to retaliate by hitting them back unless in self-defence and find a way to escape if they come at you with a weapon.
  • Lay a complaint to the police when they become aggressive or threaten to do so. In places where complaints aren’t taken seriously, then you can try to record violent episodes of this child as evidence discreetly.
  • Do not pay for the debts incurred by their destructive actions. Once you do so, they’ll continue this way. Allow charges to be pressed against them when they are in the wrong.
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The following can also be done to minimize the risk of parent abuse:

  • Promotion of love within a family and cultural settings
  • Assertive and better parenting. Take a stand on rules and the consequences of breaking Do not threaten your child or yell unnecessarily;
  • Seeking help immediately for your child you notice aggressive behaviours, temperamental issues, intense emotional disturbance or signs of mental illness;
  • Leaving an abusive relationship, so the child doesn’t regard abuse as usual. And curbing their exposure to violence through films, music etc. during their adolescence and teenage-hood;
  • Be a model of good, non-violent or abusive behaviour;

Supporting parents suffering from abuse

The society at large needs to be a support system for people suffering from any kind of violence. In order to do this, we need to be educated about abuse. Supporting victims involves a lot including the following:

  • Listening attentively to them when they speak;
  • Being non-judgmental. Even if at that moment, you feel that an attitude of theirs may have contributed to the abuse, it is not the right time to say so.
  • Respect the fact that they have talked to you in confidence and not make their pain the topic of discussion among other friends;
  • Assure them that they do not deserve to be abused no matter what they think they might have done to earn it and let them know they are not alone.
  • Search for community supports or professional help that can assist them to regain their self-esteem and empower them once more;
  • Look for and compliment them about the strengths in their characters.


Cottrell, B. (2001). Parent abuse: The abuse of parents by their teenage children. Ottawa: Family Violence Prevention Unit, Health Canada.

Johnston, J. E. (2019, January 14) The Case of Serial Killer Dellen Millard. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 19, 2019

Further reading

Holt, A. (2011, March). Responding to parent abuse. The Psychologist Vol. 24, P. 186 – 189. Retrieved February 19, 2019

Purplefairy, L. (2018, May 03). The Silent Suffering of Parent Abuse: When Children Abuse Parents. We Have Kids. Retrieved February 19, 2019

Grover, S. (2015, October 24) Parent abuse. Who’s to blame? Psychology TodayRetrieved February 19, 2019

Martin, B. (2018, October 08) Parent abuse by teen. Psych Central.  Retrieved February 19, 2019

Rukayat Adeyemi Taiye

Rukayat Adeyemi Taiye

I'm a storyteller, a poet and a content writer under the pen name: I.R. Adams. I'm a microbiologist by profession and also an advocate against domestic violence and stigma attached to mental illnesses.View Author posts

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