SAFE International teaches approximately 8,000 high school teens self-defense and violence prevention each year. By the time children have reached their teenage years, many may have been abused for years. I thought it might be useful to share a few methods abusive parents use to control their children to maintain and keep hidden their psychological and physical abuse. While some parents may use one or two, some of the worst-case examples include multiple strategies. In no particular order, they are.
1) Humiliation & Embarrassment – when a child goes through years of being humiliated and embarrassed alone or in front of others. As a parent, it is our responsibility to provide confidence in seemingly small moments. Still, when the opposite happens, and a child feels they can do nothing right or compare to others in low light, the confidence a parent is supposed to instill slowly erodes to the point where they may be none left in a short time. The child loses any respect for themselves feeling inadequate in all areas of their life, causing them to doubt all their decisions even to hating themselves continually. A simple example of this is I have two beautiful granddaughters, one aged almost four and the other two years of age. They love to climb the ladders, climbing board and other cool platforms at the local park. The eldest one is very proficient now, and I would climb behind her to keep her safe—the whole time, I am giving her positive feedback with strategies on how to climb better. A couple of times on the more challenging climbs, she would show some hesitation, but I would remind her I am there to help her, she can do it, and I am right behind her. I would tell her to focus until she reaches the top. Now, she can climb them all, and I can even hear her saying to herself, Grampy said, “Focus, Focus.” An abusive parent would be more likely to say something like, “Don’t bother climbing that you are just going to fall cause you are a Clutz.” You might not see the big deal in that, but I can almost assure you that it is a common theme in all areas of this child’s life.
2) Obvious & Subtle Threats of Violence – the threat of physical violence can be just as damaging psychologically as physical violence. If a child continually fears violence, there is no room for growth, fearing any perceived failure on their part will result in abuse. You will commonly hear kids say how a parent’s particular body language immediately told them to stop what they were doing. Not necessarily because the child was doing anything wrong, but rather because the parent wants to send a signal to remind the child who is in control, and they better follow their rules or else.
3) Conditional Love – we have all heard parents express their unconditional love for their children, but some parents will only give Love when the child meets their expectations. This forces a child always to want perfection and never disappoint their parents because they want their love and feel it is their responsibility to earn it. If a child grows up afraid of making mistakes, it is another parental control method that years later leaves a child feeling of little worth.
4) Religion – this post is not about whether religious faith is good or bad. Still, a standard method of abusive parents is to use religion against their child, shaming them and telling them that not only their parents disappointed and upset but also their almighty god. How the hell is a child supposed to react? Now the child lives in constant fear of whether they will go to heaven or hell. It brings on a new level of anxiety and the ability to control for the parent.
5) Guilt to Physically Harm – sadly, another standard method of control is when the parent harms the child physically and blames the child through manipulation. Telling the child you did not want to hit them, but the child left them no choice brings on an anxiety 24/7 with the child afraid to say or do anything out of fear that they will be harmed physically and it will be not their fault, when in fact it is the abuser’s fault.
6) Blaming the Child For Your Inadequacies – another sad form of abuse where the parent’s life situation or mistakes are put on the child with expressions like, “My life would have been so much better if I did not have to take care of you!” Parents blaming any challenging situation on their child can have catastrophic effects, making them feel unwanted or worthless.
We all say things in moments that we regret, and it is critical to tell the child we did not mean them, or apologize and explain the situation. As I teach in my book DISARM DAILY CONFLICT – Your Life Depends On It, to say you are sorry is very important in raising and supporting our children. Whenever I reflect upon my granddaughters, I have so much love and want them to grow up to be empathetic, caring, loving adults, but at the same time, I also think how many kids have little to no chance from the moment they are born.
Sadly, all the examples I gave are continual for many children day after day, year after year. There are so many forms of abuse that when stacked upon each other, is it any wonder many grow up without the confidence and empathy they need.
Managing Director, SAFE International