How Do You Tell Which Parents Are Abusive and Which Are the Victims of Abusive Children?
Members of estranged parents' forums say their adult children are abusive. They claim verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and deliberate mind games; many claim financial abuse; a few claim extortion, harassment, even physical assaults. Members diagnose their children with alcoholism, drug addiction, Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and sociopathy, all conditions that can make adult children just as much of a threat to their parents as abusive parents are to adult children. This is exactly the sad picture you'd expect if estranged parents' forums were gathering places for parents victimized by abusive children.
It's also exactly what you'd expect if you're familiar with the acronym DARVO.
So how do you tell the abusers from the victims? That's an excellent question, and one I'm working to answer. Without the chance to interview both parents and children, then check up on their stories, it's impossible to get a real answer to this question; and even then, some abusers are skilled enough to convince anyone that they're the wronged party. However, it's possible to come to tentative conclusions.
My working principles are:
1. Abusiveness is not an either/or situation. Abusive parents can have abusive children. In fact, abusive parents are more likely to have abusive children. So it's not a simple matter of determining that one party is abusive and calling it a day.
2. Abusers lie. Bear that in mind at all times—when reading both parents' and children's accounts. (This is the point I stumble over the most because I'm biased toward the children.)
3. If a person's own writing shows that they lie, rewrite reality, or otherwise engage in cognitive distortions, they're abusive. Period. Instant kill shot. The only exception is if they catch themselves distorting, correct it, and reflect upon it. That suggests that they have abusive tendencies, but are working to improve themselves in a most un-abuserlike manner. Unfortunately, that also means they're not entirely trustworthy, and can still cause pain to those around them; so if anyone is reading this list to decide whether someone in their life is toxic, a) please don't and b) go with your gut to decide whether the person is safe to be around.
4. Look for patterns of distorted beliefs. Common beliefs that show up in estranged parents' posts are:
- My child is responsible for my happiness.
- My child is permanently subordinate to me.
- My child wants to control me.
- Any limits my child sets on me are a power play that I must resist.
- My child's decision to ignore my advice or make a choice I disapprove of is a sign of immaturity.
- My child was most real and true to himself when he was a preschooler (and had not begun to defy me).
- I am the best friend my child will ever have./I am my child's only true friend.
- My child is living only half a life if he or she doesn't have a relationship with me.
- If the relationship had any good times at all, the child has no justification for breaking it off.
- If I put up with a certain level of mistreatment from my own parents, then my child should put up with the same level of mistreatment from me.
- My pain is the complete justification for why my child should resume a relationship with me.
- Children have no right to break off relationships with their parents.
- Refusing to have a relationship with me is abusive.
5. Is the abuse offensive or defensive? Is one party tracking down the other party to abuse them? Or does the abuse happen only when one party insists upon contacting the other party? If a daughter drops by her mother's house for a visit and ends up shoving and punching her mother, there's an excellent chance that her abuse is offensive. If a mother drops by her daughter's house despite requests for no contact, and the daughter ends up shoving and punching her mother, the abuse is defensive—and is probably self-defense, not abuse.
 The one form of abuse members don't claim is elder abuse. Most of them aren't yet dependent on others for care, and the few who are have other caretakers or are in the care of social services. It's hard to abuse someone you don't see.
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The analyses on this page are my own opinions and should not be construed as medical advice or statements of absolute fact.