Parental Abuse Help Guide

The words abusive and parents are two words that should never go together. Sadly, though, all too often, they do. And, if you happen to be the child of abusive parents, you can find yourself living a life of fear and pain instead of a happy, healthy childhood.

The children of abusive parents often suffer emotional, psychological and even physical damage that can stay with them into adult life. Abuse in childhood can colour and ruin your ability to establish happy, healthy relationships of your own, and can even lead you to become an abusive parent yourself. Children who are abused by their parents may even become so depressed that they commit suicide…or, in extreme cases, be killed by their own parents. It’s a bleak picture. But, if parental abuse is picked up and acted upon, it can be stopped and the children can be helped to recover.

Also see our child abuse help article.

What is parental abuse?

An abusive parent is someone who mistreats their child. The abuse may be intentional or unintentional, and may take various forms or occur for a variety of reasons. Parental abuse of children can be categorized into the following forms:

  • Physical Abuse: Physical abuse usually involves an injury or the intentional infliction of pain, but it doesn’t have to be high level violence to classify. Physical abuse may be a slap, a shove, kicking, beating, punching, burning, scalding, shaking or cutting. It can be said to be any abusive action that touches a child physically and causes harm or distress. It is often intentional, but not always. A parent who is emotionally unable to cope with the demands of disciplining a child may lash out in anger and frustration. Or, a parent who has themselves grown up in an abusive environment may be blindly following the pattern of their own upbringing. Some parents are unable to draw the line between abuse and normal discipline.
  • Emotional/psychological abuse: Emotional and psychological abuse is far harder to see from the outside than physical abuse. It can, however, be even more damaging. Emotional abuse of a child can lead to a deconstruction of a child’s personality as he or she loses all confidence in the world. A parent, carer or person in authority is the center of a child’s universe, so when this relationship is abusive the child really feels he or she has nowhere to turn. A parent who is emotionally abusive towards a child can remove the child’s perception of normality. The child is unable to follow a normal set of rules and never knows when he will have pleased or displeased the parent, nor understands why. Emotional abuse may take the form of belittling or name calling, shouting or  threatening. An abusive parent may also withdraw affection from a child, refusing to speak to him or her or withdrawing physical comforts like hugs and closeness. It also, sometimes, means forcing a child to live in an abusive environment where he is witness to acts of violence or emotional abuse towards his mother or other family member. As a result, the child sees the world as an unpredictable and unsafe place from which he has no escape. A child who is constantly told by a parent that he or she is worthless, stupid, fat, lazy or ugly quickly begins to believe this. The parent is the center of a child’s world, and they are easily led to believe that what a parent says must be true. And, as it’s much harder for a child to find avenues of escape or support than it is for an adult, they tend to remain in a secretive, abusive world for far longer.
  • Sexual child abuse: Sexual abuse of a child is another form of physical abuse, and will always impact on a child’s emotional/psychological well being to some degree. It can happen to boys and girls alike, and to children of any age. When the sexual abuse of a child is perpetrated by a parent, the child can feel that it is something that they have to endure in order to be loved, or to prove their love.  The sexual abuse of a child can involve physical contact, such as inappropriate touching, forced oral sex or penetrative sex, but it can also involve non contact forms of abuse. A child who is made to witness sexual acts or view pornographic material is also being sexually abused.
  • Neglect: Neglect is a very common form of child abuse. Neglect is a failure to provide for a child’s needs, be they emotional or physical. It may involve not providing enough food, warmth, shelter or clothing. It may also be a case of not giving the child a secure and safe emotional base. Neglect may or may not be an intentional abuse. Some abusive parents may use neglect to control a child’s behavior and emotions. However, it can equally be unintentional if a parent lacks the emotional maturity to understand a child’s needs. Neglect can also result from poverty.

Why does parental abuse happen?

To most parents, the very idea of abusing one’s own children in any way is abhorrent. All parents make mistakes, of course, and few would claim to be perfect, but abuse is rather more than the occasional moment of inattention or a snappy response in a moment of stress. Abuse is prolonged and deeply damaging.

A parent may abuse a child because he or she is themselves damaged, perhaps by an abusive childhood or experience of their own. A child who is abused by their parents and untreated can grow into an adult who has no understanding of healthy, normal relationships between adults and children. They approach child rearing in the only way they know, which may be violent, insensitive or neglectful. Even the sexual abuse of a child by his parent can be caused by the parent’s own childhood abuse by his parents. Depression, personality disorders and mental illnesses are other causes of parental abuse, as can be drug or alcohol addiction.

The fracture of a family can also be a factor in initiating parental abuse. As couples divorce and remarry or move in with new partners, new instant families are created. It can be difficult for an adult to love or cope with their partner’s children, and equally difficult for the children to fit into a new family headed by an adult who they may resent. Behavioral problems can ensue, and a frustrated step parent may begin to behave in uncharacteristic ways. This is often referred to as ‘The Cinderella Effect’.

A common form of parental abuse is also neglect. Neglect often occurs because a parent lacks the skills, education or the financial means to care properly for a child. Immaturity is another factor, when parents have children far too young and are ill equipped to cope. In many of these cases, help can be provided for both the parents and the children, and recovery is possible.

Then, sadly, there are some individuals who are simply abusive by nature, and should never be left in charge of children.

How to recognize the signs of child abuse

Because children are so vulnerable and less able to recognize the abuses perpetrated on them than adults, it is vital that those who are around them are able to spot the signs of parental abuse. The different forms of parental abuse may result in varying symptoms, but knowing what to watch out for is essential.

  • Signs of physical parental abuse: A child who is being physically abused may have obvious signs of injury such as cuts, bruises, burns or welts. If these are seen regularly, abuse must be suspected. It can be a tough call, as children do fall or hurt themselves in the normal way of things, but regular injuries of this type need to be noted. Asking the child how he obtained the injuries can be telling. If he is unable or unwilling to explain, or seems uptight or gives an unrealistic explanation, abuse may be behind it. A child who wears long sleeved or high necked clothing even in warm weather may be trying to cover up injuries. Another warning sign of physical child abuse is flinching from sudden movements by others as though expecting to be hit. If a parent avoids coming into the child’s school to discuss his progress with the teachers or appears evasive when asked about the child’s injuries, abuse may be suspected.
  • Signs of emotional parental abuse: A child who becomes withdrawn, anxious or fearful may be being abused emotionally by a parent. Sudden changes in personality or behavior can also be signs. It is also worth noting that a child who appears to regress to babyish behavior, thumb sucking or rocking, perhaps, may be experiencing psychological damage from emotional abuse at home.
  • Signs of sexual child abuse: If a child is being sexually abused he or she may show obvious signs of discomfort sitting or walking. They may become reluctant to undress or change in public. Conversely, child victims of sexual abuse can become excessively interested in sex, talking about it, looking at pornography or even becoming sexually active or sexually abusive to others.
  • Signs of neglect: A neglected child may be dressed in ill fitting, dirty or inappropriate clothing. They may give off body odor, be excessively hungry or lose weight. A child whose needs are not met at home may be frequently absent from school, or clearly left unsupervised for periods of time.

What to do if you are a child who is being abused by a parent

If you are suffering abuse, there may be a trusted adult that you can turn to in the first instance. However, if you are being abused by a parent, it can be difficult for another member of your family to accept or believe the situation, so it may be better to turn to a teacher, a friend’s parents or your doctor or minister.

If you are a victim of parental abuse who feels that there is no-one in your immediate life who you can turn to, it is important for you to know that there are organisations and professionals who will help you. Phone numbers and website addresses are given under the Resources section at the end. However, there may be extra services in your area that you can find by doing internet searches. You will not be judged or ignored. No one will belittle your fears or concerns and you will always be taken seriously.

It’s also important to understand that when you turn to a help organisation for a problem of child abuse, your safety will be treated as paramount. You will be advised on how to protect yourself, and can be given a place of safety to escape to if necessary. Counselling can be provided for you too, to help you to recover from the effects of abuse.

Children at risk can also call emergency services or go to the police or their local accident and emergency department of the hospital.

What to do if you suspect that a child you know is being abused by a parent

The role of the outsider is more important than ever when it comes to cases of parental abuse. This is because children may be too young to be able to find help themselves, or may be too frightened. They may also feel a misguided sense of loyalty to the abusive parent and be unwilling to report the abuse. So, being on the lookout for signs of parental abuse can save lives.

If you suspect that a child you know is being abused by a parent, there are several things that you can do. If the child is old enough and you have a good relationship with her, you can make time to talk to her and let her know that you are always there to listen. If the abuse is mild and seems to stem from poverty or lack of education you may feel able to speak to the parent herself and explain how she can find help. In some cases, simply being around and offering your help to give the parent a break and ease the stress can make a difference.

However, if it is apparent that abuse is taking place, it is best to contact the professionals who can handle the case safely for all concerned. You can, of course, make sure that the child knows that she can find a place of safety with you while things are resolved.
For help and advice, you can turn to your doctor, social worker, domestic violence or child helplines and websites (given under Resources below). Or, if the danger is immediate, call emergency services. Your anonymity will be protected if you wish, in most cases there is no need to give your name.

Treatments and solutions for parental abuse

Children who have been abused by their parents may need to be taken into care or placed in foster homes. However, if the abuse is not severe and the authorities believe that it can be resolved within the family with professional help, this is also possible. Treatments for abused children usually involve specialist counselling sessions.

Help for parents who may be being abusive without intending to be so can include parenting classes and financial support where appropriate. Parents who are exhausted by the demands of raising a disabled child, for example, may neglect their other children as a consequence. Cases like this can be sympathetically dealt with, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if this is what’s happening in your family. Respite care may be offered and can make all the difference.

  • Sierra

    My birthday is the tuesday after next. That is the day I turn 18. The day I am free. From abuse, from suffering, pain, my parents. I grew up always trying to seek help, but whenever I turned to get help, people were blinded by my moms charms, unable to see what life for me. I work a minium wage taco bell job, I work 6 days a week. Trying to get prepared to leave the house, so I dont have to spend another min there. I have a little less than 1000$ but im afraid that wont be enough for me to move out by my birthday. Lately I’ve been crying myself to sleep, from stress, from, over working. And I just need help I dont know what to do. If anyone knows how I could get help let me know.

    • mari

      Hey Sierra. I’m in the same exact situation. I go to college full-time, but it’s a commuter school so I still live with my abusers. Along with going to college full-time, I also work full-time to make enough money to finally move out. I’m in a terrible situation because not only am I saving for my future living situation, I also have to save to pay for the many years I have left of college. It is so incredibly stressful. And we’re both adults now. It’s hard to get help when you’re not a child — you kind of have to help yourself. If you need someone to talk to, you can let me know. I’ll add you on Facebook or something. You shouldn’t go through this alone.

      • Tiffany Schettle

        Pls see my post, too. If ur in school, there is probably free counseling. That’s super important to heal and avoid repeating the cycle!

        You are not alone. Message me anytime.

        Prayers, Love, and ((Hugs)) ♡

        • mari

          There is. But I’d rather figure myself out financially before I sort out my feelings. It’s too tricky to get others involved before I’m ready to support myself… just in case. My abusers may be notified or reported and I still need them for the free housing while I go to school lol.

          • Tiffany Schettle

            I understand your concern as I was in a similar situation. In my experience, they didn’t report them but you have to do what you feel is best for you. I wish you all the best! <3

      • Kathryn

        Hi Mari! I’m a Senior in college and go to a commuter school too, so I still live with my abusers as well. Something that really sucks, though, is that I currently don’t have a job and that makes things a lot more tricky in some ways. If I could somehow connect with you, that’d be great. I could really use someone to talk to about this!

        • mari

          Hey Kathryn 🙂 Here’s my temporary forwarding email. Just email me before 8 AM EST May 13th and we can exchange numbers or something. Thanks for reaching out. [email protected]

      • Clarissa Contreras

        I’m in the same situation. I’m an adult living with multiple abusers. I just want out of this already. 🙁

    • Tiffany Schettle

      Please see my previous posts.

      If I were in your situation I’d go to Alanon (if addiction runs in your family), get a good counselor, call IMPACT/211, and call an abuse/crisis hot line (Google for more info). I’ve done all of those and they’ve helped.

      You are not alone. Message me anytime.

      Prayers, Love, and ((Hugs)) ♡

    • Clarissa Contreras

      I know how that feels. I ran away to California when I was 18 because I was overwhelmed by abuse. I eventually came back home because my family begged me to be home for Christmas (my friend thinks it was guilt and the fact that my great grandma had just passed). When I came home the abuse resumed and I became a mother. The environment was not child friendly so I left again and moved in with the father. We were forced to split up and now I’m back and I’m still miserable. I just want out for good. I’m 20-fucking-seven! I don’t want to be here anymore 🙁

  • Liza Shy

    No one helps me… I have told the school… I have contacted every single organization in my country… But no one helps… Even after I tried to kill myself… they just abused me more… And if they do something radical again… There will be consequences… I will talk all the time about how horrible my parents and this country is… I hope I die….

    • Tiffany Schettle

      Please see my previous posts.

      You are not alone. Message me anytime.

      Prayers, Love, and ((Hugs)) ♡

  • baileigh

    I am emotionally abused by my father and step mother. My mother is on drugs and I’m not allowed to speak to anyone on her side of the family. I have no one to turn to. I don’t know what to do.

    • Tiffany Schettle

      Looking back, I wish I would’ve gotten help at an earlier age. If I went back in time I’d have asked a teacher to help me find a counselor to speak to about personal issues at home. Then I would have shared my fears of telling the truth about what was going on (fear of foster placement, etc.) before giving details. I’d try to find a counselor that could help me without causing even more trouble by involving my parents. That’s the tricky part. I’d also call crisis and abuse hot lines that are confidential for anonymous support and information. Do you have other friends or relatives you can stay with if things get worse?

      You are not alone. Message me anytime.

      Prayers, Love, and ((Hugs)) ♡

  • Nobody

    It has only been recently I read about parental abuse. I realized I fit into many of the categories. I was locket in a closet when I was 6 for an hour. I was let out when my mother pitied me. After that I wasn’t allowed to eat any food. Back then
    , I considered this normal. Physical abuse and emotional abuse are aspects of my life. Now I am more secretive and keep high mental shields. Though my friends know that I sometime fear my parents, though I make sound sarcastic. I am a straight A student. I try to keep good grades to keep my parents happy and not yell or hit me. They forbid me to play sports, even if its just volleyball, and when I do they tell me that I suck at it, though they have never seen me play. One of my peers straight up asked me if I get hit. I lied, I told him no. He still suspects me, he’s asked me twice of the fear of my parents. I don’t know what to do, I am good at keeping my emotions hidden so that anyone else won’t suspect. Should I tell my friends, they may not believe me, I am always the happy go lucky kid so they wont suspect. Should I tell a teacher, they are always nice to me. Sometimes I prefer school as a safe haven than home. What should I do?

    • Tiffany Schettle

      Looking back, I wish I would’ve gotten help at an earlier age. If I went back in time I’d have asked a teacher to help me find a counselor to speak to about personal issues at home. Then I would have shared my fears of telling the truth about what was going on (fear of foster placement, etc.) before giving details. I’d try to find a counselor that could help me without causing even more trouble by involving my parents. That’s the tricky part. I’d also call crisis and abuse hot lines that are confidential for anonymous support and information. Do you have other friends or relatives you can stay with if things get worse?

      Message me anytime.

      Prayers, Love, and ((Hugs)) ♡

  • Victoria K

    I’m 13 yo and living with my sister with my parents. My dad is awesome but my mom is always angry. She’s really (physically) sick all of the time and takes lots of medications. She has a really short temper and I’m always scared around her, even when having a casual conversation. She’s hit me before and choked me but less than 10 times, so does this count as abuse? If so, I’m so terrified of telling someone because I don’t want this to blow up in my face. It would ruin our family and I don’t think some people would even believe me. I have 1 person I really trust; a teacher at school; but they’re legally required to tell the police and I’m so scared of the police finding out and having the rest of my family and friends know. What do I do?

  • Clarissa Contreras

    Ditto. Every time I did something extreme to outcry what was happening to me I was chastised for it and no one believed me. I was treated like a brat. To this day no one believes me.

  • Abby

    Hello. I’m a 19 year old teen mom to a wonderful and beautiful 4 month old girl. My parents have been abusing me left and right since I was 11. At first it wasn’t something I couldn’t handle on my own but now it’s too out of hand and I have no way of escaping it. If I leave my daughter and I will be homeless and I’ll have nothing. I am nothing but an emotional punching bag, and since I can’t go live with my fiancé until his brother moves out, I’m screwed. Now, my fiancé and I both come from abusive families, I just didn’t know I could call it abuse until a while ago because I thought it was “normal” for kids to go through this with their parents sometimes. I don’t know what to do. I can’t go anywhere right now. I can’t get through a week without panicking over weather or not my parents are going to try to take my daughter from me the moment I try to leave. I don’t know what I can do get out of here. I can’t stay here anymore. I’m sick of the bullshit and the deciet and going back on their words and no one living up to what they say they’ll do. I’ve been side stepped by my aunt who is living with us more times than I can count and I can tell just by how I’m treated how much they favor my sister and aunt more than me. I don’t… Know if I can take it anymore and I’m going insane trying to. I can’t get a new job because I can’t even trust them with my daughter and my fiancé is bending over backwards to get me out of here. And I don’t want to put any more stress on him because I can’t take it anymore. I cry myself to sleep most nights because I don’t know if one day I’m gonna wake up with a note on my door that says “get out, and don’t come back.” Not that I would in the first place, but this is a living nightmare that I can’t wake up from. I feel like a failure in every aspect of the term but mostly I’m heart wrenched because I can’t even call them my parents or or my sister a sister anymore…