Can an Emotionally Abusive Parent Change?

When abuse happens between partners, even in marriage, there’s the option to leave, even if the domestic abuse survivor chooses not to or feels they can’t for various reasons. That option isn’t as easy in abusive families. We can certainly go no-contact or low-contact, but that’s not a simple choice. Because parents play such a big role in our lives, many of us want to maintain a relationship with them. Is it possible to help an abuser change? I think that depends entirely on whether they want to change and are capable of changing.

Can an Abusive Parent Really Change?

It goes without saying that the choice to change has to come from the abuser. Most of what’s been written about changing an abuser refers to domestic relationships, and I think there’s a good reason for this. Society recognizes domestic partners as being equals, and it’s reasonable to assume that abusive partners at least recognize that fact, whether they agree with it or not.

The situation isn’t quite the same with parents. Parents, due to their caregiving role and older age, are recognized as having authority over their children. This is true even when their children grow up. Children are expected by society to give their parents leeway that domestic partners aren’t expected to give each other. That makes approaching an abusive parent about their abuse more difficult than approaching a domestic partner about their abuse.

Barbara Camwell, who maintains a blog called Sanctuary for the Abused about domestic violence, wrote a post in February about why domestic abusers don’t change. Some of what she says applies to abusive parents as well.

  1. Emotional abuse gives your parents a feeling of power, and that’s addictive. Letting go of that power can be very threatening to them. It can make them feel small.
  2. Emotional abuse also meets parents’ needs, for instance for attention and caring. They didn’t learn other ways of meeting those needs, so stopping the abuse means, to them, depriving themselves of those needs.
  3. Emotional abuse is a method of stress relief. If they perceive someone has made them feel bad and they subsequently make you feel bad, that makes them feel better.
  4. Emotional abuse makes them feel important. If they, for instance, manipulate you into canceling a shopping trip with your girlfriends in order to take them shopping, that to them means you willingly chose them over others.
  5. Emotional abuse serves their sense of entitlement. They’re aware of the social belief that parents deserve the respect and gratitude of their children for the material things they gave them in childhood, and if they have to manipulate you to get you to show them this respect and gratitude then so be it.

As far as I know, there are no statistics that show how many abusers actually change, but I have heard from individuals of this happening occasionally. For instance, one woman reported that she got her alcoholic mother to go through an alcohol recovery program and that her abusive ways changed drastically after that. Another reported successfully getting her father to stop putting her down after he admitted that he wasn’t even aware he’d been doing it. The key thing here, though, is that both wanted to change.

When an Abusive Parent Probably Won’t Change

Nevertheless, the reality is that many abusers don’t change because the reasons for abusing go deep. If a parent is willing to go to therapy for the abuse, there’s a higher chance that they’ll stop abusing. The problem is that most abusers don’t recognize that they abuse because they can justify what they do. If your abusive parents demonstrate more than one of the following then it’s best that you don’t get your hopes up too high:

  1. They don’t recognize that they’ve hurt you. They tell you you’re too sensitive or you’re imagining things. If they can’t even validate what you feel then there’s little chance they’ll see their role in creating those feelings.
  2. They don’t validate any of your feelings. This includes both negative and positive feelings. If you’re angry or anxious, they tell you not to be or that you shouldn’t be. They make fun of you if you’re afraid. They tell you the stress or frustration you feel is your own fault. They inject negativity or doubt into your happy moments. Invalidating any feeling includes your invalidating your hurt feelings from their abusive behaviors, giving them little incentive to change.
  3. They don’t apologize for anything they do, or if they do, you know they don’t mean it because they just do it over and over again. This shows lack of awareness that they’re doing anything wrong. We can’t change what we don’t think is wrong.
  4. They demonstrate excessive egocentricity. Abusive parents are people who didn’t get their needs met as children. This is part of the reason why they abuse; they’re searching for us to fulfill those needs. In order to recognize that they need to change, they have to acknowledge your needs. This is difficult, if not impossible, for egocentric parents to do. They’re so obsessed with their own point of view that they just can’t see anyone else’s.
  5. They demonstrate signs of a distorted worldview. This is perhaps the trickiest to catch but, in my opinion, the biggest red flag for inability to change. Listen to their explanations for what they do or believe. Try to view these from the point of view of a stranger who doesn’t know anything about them and is only hearing this explanation. Is it appropriate to the circumstances? Is it reasonably logical? For instance, my father justified his excessive advice-giving by telling me that he knew better because he was older. The problem is that he would do this even when he had no experience with what I wanted or needed to do. To him, the mere fact that he’d lived longer made him an expert on everything and made me obligated to do what he said. Illogical explanations like these for abusive behaviors show a distorted worldview that’s difficult, if not impossible, to change and thus makes it unlikely they’ll change their behaviors.

How to Help an Abuser Change

In spite of the impression I get that the prospect of an abuser changing is slim, you may still want to try. Before doing this, please make sure you have support. You might want to have a spouse, sibling, or other supporting family member present if you think they’re more likely to take you seriously that way. On the other hand, it may embarrass them more to have someone present, but at least your support can be close by in case things get ugly.

Be open about the effects your abusive parents’ behavior have on you. I don’t recommend you refer to the past because that’s not a reality for them. Focus only on their hurtful behavior in the present. Also avoid justifying your feelings. That makes it easy for them to argue against you. Just stick to expressing how you feel.

Listen to what they have to say about why they do what they do. You have to expect them to reject what you say at first. Be honest if what they say has any merit, but don’t get sucked into their egocentric or convoluted reasoning. View what they say from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know them. Don’t argue back. Just keep telling them how their behavior made you feel.

Finally, ask that they seek therapy to get help on having a better relationship with you* and also get any other help they might need, for instance for substance abuse or mental illness, if these are related to the abuse. I really believe it’s important that you insist on therapy specifically for the abuse. First, this will show you how seriously they take what you say. Second, as stated above, the reasons for abusing are deeply rooted in emotional problems that a therapist is best equipped to help them with.

If they agree to therapy then be open about when they’re hurting you in future interactions. Hold them responsible for taking their healing seriously. Try not to be confrontational about it. Just tell them how they’re making you feel, and if appropriate, why it’s not appropriate. If, for instance, your abusive mother expects you to drop everything to go with her to visit a friend then you have the right to explain to her why this isn’t reasonable.

If you go through this process and your abusive parents actually agree to try to change then your job isn’t over yet. Emerge is a Massachusetts organization that aims to educate domestic abusers to get them to stop abusing. They write about signs that an abuser has changed and signs that an abuser has not changed. Though this refers to domestic abuse, it can be helpful in assessing whether an abusive parent has really changed.

As optimistic as I’d like to be in encouraging every emotional abuse survivor not to give up hope that their parents can change, I don’t think it would be fair to be that hopeful. Abuse is a way to cope with some very complex and deep emotional problems, and unless the abuser is willing to deal with those painful emotional problems, change simply won’t happen. It’s not your responsibility to make this change happen, but if you think your parents are receptive to the possibility then you can try. Just make sure you go into it with both eyes open.

* Based on opinions regarding domestic abuse relationships, I can’t recommend that you do family therapy together. The opinion of most domestic abuse survivors is that the abuser uses the therapist to reinforce their reasons why they’re not abusing and why the survivor has the problem, and they can be very compelling. Abuse is because of their emotional problems, not because of anything you say or do, and you can explain that to them if you think it will help.

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