Occasional conflict is normal between parents and their children when teens/young adults are attempting to separate themselves from their parents and establish their own independence. During this time, they may resist authority and become defiant.

Parent abuse is not an argument or disagreement, nor is it an anger management issue. It is control and power that the teen/young adult wants to have over their parent. They control, manipulate and try to intimidate. This abuse is ongoing and not on an occasional or one-time basis.

Parents who are abused have one thing in common – despair. Abused parents are parents who have lost the ability to parent their teens/young adults and who need support to regain a leadership role in their families.

Parent abuse is any act of a teen/young adult that is intended to cause physical, emotional or financial damage to gain power and control over a parent and/or any behaviour that is deliberately harmful to the parent. The abuse usually begins verbally and emotionally and then may become physical. A recent Canadian census showed that 42.3% of children aged 20-29 live with their parents. An adult child living with their parents can put a lot of stress on family relationships and in some cases play a role in parent abuse, especially when there are drug and/or alcohol addictions and financial problems.

Parent abuse crosses all social, cultural and economic lines – poor and rich, educated and not. Women who are single parents are often the targets of abuse and mothers are more often and more severely abused than single fathers. This may be because women continue to be the primary caregivers in most families and often have closer emotional and physical connections to their children.

Parent abuse can affect single and two parent families equally. It is usually the mother (or the main caregiver) who is most affected but other members of the family suffer too.

Children as young as eight or nine do abuse their parents, but it appears more prevalent during adolescence and in young adults (under 26 years of age). Senior parents are often abused by their adult children. This is considered Older Person Abuse (OPA) or Elder Abuse. More information on OPA is available here.

Both males and females abuse their parents, although most research shows that males are more physically violent than females. There is no specific sex or “type” of child who abuses their parents. Some abusive teen/young adults may participate in socially defiant behaviour and activities such as substance abuse and theft. Others may be straight “A” students who excel in school and extracurricular activities.

Types of Abuse

Abusive children have one thing in common – when they rage in an attempt to CONTROL their parents, they say and do similar things, such as slamming doors, throwing things, yelling, hitting, uttering threats and name calling.

  • Verbal abuse includes yelling, arguing, challenging, being sarcastic or critical, belittling, laughing in the parent’s face, name calling and swearing at the parent.
  • Emotional abuse includes playing mind games, trying to make the parent think they are going crazy, threatening to harm the parent, someone else, their pets or themselves, continuously running away from home, manipulative threats such as suicide (without intent to attempt), controlling the running of the household, expecting the parent to drop everything to meet their needs.
  • Physical abuse includes throwing things, breaking objects, punching holes in walls, and personal physical attacks such as hitting, punching, slapping, spitting, shoving and pushing. This is the most visible form of abuse.
  • Financial abuse includes stealing or “borrowing” the parent’s belongings without permission, damaging the home or possessions, demanding things which parents cannot afford and acquiring debts that the parent must pay.

Effects on Parents

Parents being abused by their teen/young adult may experience physical harm resulting in medical treatment, damage to property, theft and bullying at the hands of their child, and tragically, even death.

Experiencing a teen/young adult behaving aggressively, abusively and self-destructively, instead of being the healthy child the parents want them to be, leaves many parents in a state of despair. This is especially so because they feel they have no control over the teen/young adult and are helpless to stop their child’s hurtful actions.

It is difficult for parents to admit they are victims of abuse by their teen/young adult. Perhaps the biggest obstacles to overcoming parent abuse are shame and blame. If your teen/young adult is acting out it’s tough to even think about getting help because acknowledging or naming the problem is painful.

To make matters worse, once parents that are suffering from abuse find the courage to reach out, they often do not find the help they need. It is no wonder that parent abuse – an increasingly common problem – is not often talked about or adequately addressed.

You do not have to suffer in silence. There is support to take back control. You do not have to give your power away and you can put a stop to this abuse. As with any form of abuse, you must recognize that you are not at fault and do not deserve this.

Why Do They Abuse?

Not all teen/young adults abuse their parents, but there is an increasing number that do. Many teen/young adults feel vulnerable and isolated and their anger is often directed towards their parents. The teen/young adult that abuses often has poor communication skills, wants to control, always places blame on others, has little control over impulses, and suffers from low self-esteem. Quite often, the teen/young adult who is abusing their parent, does it willfully and for enjoyment.

In a number of ways, society plays a role in creating, accepting and perpetuating abusive behaviour. While parents play a major role in their child’s development, other people, such as family members, friends, peers, teachers, police and church leaders influence our children. The media and advertising are also strong influences and children are exposed to violence at every turn. Even world leaders and Disney films sanction violence by the “good guys”.

How Friends and Relatives can Support Parents

  • Listen
  • Be non-judgmental
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Look for strengths
  • Don’t give advice
  • Give helpful messages, “You don’t deserve to be abused.”
  • Be aware of community resources that will provide support to the parents.

Helpful Suggestions

There is something you can do – rely on your inner strength and wisdom to guide you toward the best answers for your family. Consider all available resources. Some of these include: therapy or counselling, evaluation and medication, temporary respite, drug/alcohol testing, mediation (if your teen/young adult is willing to acknowledge that they are responsible for their own abuse), anger management and parenting workshops.

Remind yourself that you might not feel like you have the strength right now, faced with what seems like such an insurmountable problem, but you do. Gathering your strength will help you do something; it might be learning more about parent abuse, seeking a counsellor, finding a support group, etc. Doing something can help you get rid of the feeling of powerlessness that often comes with parent abuse.

Many parents who experience parent abuse think they have done something wrong while raising their children. When you start beating yourself up about the way you are being treated by your teen/young adult remind yourself of the following: You may not have a part in causing what is happening now but you do have some power to direct how your relationship will be going forward. The first step to ending abuse is to recognize it and name it.

  • Seek help from a professional who will support you in gaining a leadership role in your family.
  • Educate yourself. Working on the issue, instead of being passive and feeling helpless, often gives parents strength.
  • Everyone has a right to be physically and emotionally safe. Have a safety plan that includes calling a relative, friend, or police. Calling the police, if necessary, does not mean you don’t love your child. We all want to protect our children but that protection cannot be traded against personal safety for yourself and your family.
  • Present a united front with family and friends to work together on solutions for managing the problem of parent abuse.
  • If your teen/young adult is open to it, offer to help them find someone they can talk to.
  • Get support. Ask your friends and relatives to help you. Everyone needs support.
  • Refuse to do battle when provoked by your child. If you react emotionally or physically, so will your child.
  • Think before acting, don’t just react. If you mean no, say no. Don’t give in, you will eventually regain power.
  • Never threaten or yell.
  • Consider taking assertiveness training.
  • Walk away when you are angry and when you are feeling less upset, discuss the issues calmly and assertively.
  • Model good non-abusive behaviour.
  • Be clear and consistent about rules, boundaries and consequences.
  • Acknowledge respectful, non-abusive behaviour.