When Parents Still Abuse Their Adult Children
The first time I became aware of adult children being abused by their parents was when I went on my fifth date with Ken, a guy I met when I was in Bible college. I was meeting his family for the first time at a bountiful and delicious Sunday dinner his mother prepared.
I was concentrating on getting a forkful of creamed peas into my mouth without disgracing myself when Ken’s head snapped back, and I heard the distinct and grotesque sound of bones and flesh colliding. For one second, he just let his head rest where his father’s punch had landed it, back and slightly to his left side. And then slowly, Ken steadied himself, wiped at the blood streaming down his face, and let his face fall into a stony mile-long stare.
Ken never looked me in the eye again, not that night, not the next day, not ever. And I understood why. I was now privy to his darkest secret, that as a man pushing 30 he was still a victim of child abuse.
After that family dinner with Ken, I fell into one of the darkest depressions of my life. I was a young adult, still living in my parents’ home and still trying to find my feet while I was constantly being pushed under by abuse. What kept me going was my belief that at some point the abuse would end.
Watching Ken’s family, it dawned on me that the abuse I was still enduring at 19 would probably go on for the rest of my life. It was as if I saw the entire course of my life flash in front of me. My mother would never let me go. She would keep abusing me, never allowing me enough autonomy to leave her, until the day that she finally pushed my soul so far under water, it drowned.
As it turns out, some of my dark thoughts that followed my date with Ken were wrong. Within two years, I slipped my leash by getting married to my first husband. And while I continued to be abused by my parents until well after I was 40, I still managed to have a lot of good moments.
Ken and I are not alone. Many adult children of abusers continue to deal with ongoing abuse long after we have reached the age of maturity.
We have a serious problem with how we think and talk about child abuse. Many people seem to think that child abuse ends when the abused child becomes an adult. But if we talked to adult survivors of child abuse, the abuse they survived in childhood was their parents’ way of laying the groundwork so that they could continue tormenting and manipulating their children for the rest of their lives.
I have searched in vain for a single book or support group that acknowledges that child abuse often continues or even gets worse after a child reaches adulthood. Child abuse is always spoken about as a thing of the past. We either deride adults for being unable to “overcome” it or we encourage them to deal with their “wounded inner child.”
Do we think that a timer goes off and somehow disengages the abusive nature of the abuser? Do we believe that once their victims have the theoretical right to leave, abusers will actually let them go? Or do we imagine that, at 18, a fairy visits abused children and bestows on them the ability to stand up to their abusers?
Imagine applying that same logic to survivors of spousal abuse or rape.
I am sure that some abusers change, and become less abusive or even nurturing to their adult children. But in my experience, that is the exception, not the rule. What happens more often is that the abuser adjusts the type of abuse to suit the new circumstances.
In writing this article, I asked people on social media to send me their stories of ongoing parental abuse. I could not believe how many people I heard from, and each story was more horrifying or sad than the next.
I was surprised by how many people wrote to tell me about ways in which their parents financially abused them. Without any hesitation or feelings of regret, these parents took from their children as if it was their right. And when they couldn’t guilt their children into handing over money, many parents have stolen from their children’s bank accounts, have taken out second mortgages on their children’s home, and run up credit cards they took out in their children’s names. Every time that these children crawl out from under the oppressive debt their parents place them in, the parent starts burying their child all over again.
If the stories of financial abuse shocked me, the stories of new or continued sexual abuse left me bereft. Now I know that Mackenzie Phillips is just one of many adult children who has had a parent initiate or continue sexual abuse well into their adult years.
People sent me stories about parents who have beaten their adult children so badly they had to be hospitalized. Others kept their abuse more strategic, mostly to keep them from feeling strong and independent.
And then there are abusive parents who force their children to care for them. They call their children at all hours of the day and night threatening suicide. One man told me that his father repeatedly put himself into financial jeopardy so that his son would have to let him move in with them. Once ensconced in his son’s home he would claim the role of patriarch and begin verbally and physically abusing everyone right down to the family dog.
The fall-out from continued abuse in the lives of adult survivors is colossal. And the shame of being abused by a parent when you are an adult is overwhelming.
I am grateful to all of the people who are still enduring abuse who have written to me. I wish I could tell you all of their stories.
What I can tell you is that there are many, many child abuse survivors who are still dealing with daily ongoing abuse. Their suffering is very real, and begs to be acknowledged.
Above all, adults who are still being subjected to child abuse need to be able to tell their own stories. And they can only do that when we acknowledge that it is not only possible for parents to continue abusing their adult children, it is a likely outcome. Our default assumption should be that abusive parents never stop abusing. They just change their tactics.