Is it Child Abuse if the Mother is Abused, but Not the Child?
To abuse a child's parent is to abuse the child.
This post was inspired by a comment from one of my subscribers. After reading “Under My Thumb: Coercive Control and the Sensitive Victim,” she sent me an email to tell me that her ex-husband used to blare that same song as often as he could, laughing in a tauntingly cruel way. He’d encourage his children to sing along as if he was playing a carefree, fun game with them. They often did exactly what their dad wanted, not realizing how much they were wounding their mother—after all, they didn’t know he was purposely tormenting her, and they simply wanted his approval.
After all, they didn’t know he was purposely tormenting her … even if they did feel, deep down, that there was something cruel with what their father was doing.
This sent a double-message to the confused and vulnerable children. First, their father made it clear that they’d only get approval from him if they went along with his “teasing,” which sent the bewildering message that if they didn’t antagonize their mother, they wouldn’t get his admiration or love. They were also being taught that a woman’s place was “under the thumb” of her superior husband.
This particular man never hit his kids. He never called them ugly, or stupid, or worthless. So, he never abused his children, only his intimate partner. Right?
No. Quite wrong.
To abuse a child’s parent is to abuse the child. Even if not in a direct and overt manner, this is still a form of emotional and psychological maltreatment. The trickle-down effect is enormous, extending far beyond childhood and potentially tainting future adult relationships. A child forced to live his or her most vulnerable years in such an environment is likely to bear a lifetime of wounds, unless they seek active healing.
Often the child of an abusive parent will unwittingly be used as a “flying monkey”—a tactic of manipulation and control in itself. Named after the hypnotized creatures in The Wizard of Oz who flew around fulfilling the evil errands of the Wicked Witch of the West, an abuser’s flying monkeys act in concert with him (or her) to antagonize, wound, and stir up the intended target. Some flying monkeys are devoted to the manipulator, and do his bidding without question, making themselves a sort of “co-abuser.” Others—such as innocent children—have no idea they’re being brainwashed into complying with the abuser’s manipulation. They fully believe what their parent tells them because, after all, parents are to be trusted.
Parents are to be trusted. Aren’t they?
It’s cruel to turn a child into a flying monkey, and it creates enormous psychological turmoil within the developing brain. On the one hand, the child desperately wants to please her abusive parent and gain approval (not realizing, of course, that the parent is manipulating the entire family). On the other hand, the child intuitively knows something is amiss.
It’s obviously wrong to insist someone isn’t very smart, is naïve, useless, cold, ugly, or controlling, yet if a beloved and trusted parent is saying that about the other parent, then …
Then what? What is a child to think—let alone do?
A child who has never heard of “cognitive dissonance,” and wouldn’t understand the phrase even if it was said to him, can still understand the effects of such extreme psychological and emotional trauma.
This brainwashing—one parent convincing a child that their other parent is a monster, a liar, a cheater; an idiot, inexperienced, rigid, or just plain wrong (or whatever preferred labels he uses)—tends to taint the parent-child relationship well after the child becomes an adult. One victim of this type of childhood abuse recently confessed to me:
It was a difficult thing for me to admit to myself, but for three decades—until my father’s mask slipped and I saw him for the abusive man he is—I believed his lies. He convinced my siblings and I that my mother was too naïve to be able to make good decisions, too stupid to raise us properly (even though, in actuality, she raised us single-handedly, with little help from him). We were taught to view a highly intelligent, loving, open-minded woman as silly and forgetful, controlling and closed-minded and rigid.
And I believed it. I believed all the lies. I’ve always loved my mother, but I certainly didn’t respect her. I’d been brainwashed. After all, she was a bit ditzy. And she admitted it! Because she, too, had been brainwashed by him.
I realize that now. I realize it all now!
It’s difficult to break free from such deeply ingrained gaslighting. After all, I trusted my dad. I never imagined he’d lie to me—especially in such a cruel way.
Yet evil is always exposed. Cruelty can live long, but not forever. Admitting the truth is harsh, yet so freeing! Even after 38 years!
Healing from manipulative brainwashing of this type of child abuse takes great effort and a conscious adjustment of thought. It requires an honest assessment and an uncritical look at the past. For the adult child of an emotionally abusive parent, coming to terms with that parent’s manipulative personality and realizing that one’s own perceptions, beliefs and experiences of the past have been built on a series of progressively brutal lies can be a harsh reality to take in. Yet it’s a reality that must be admitted if true healing is to be accomplished.
Facing these difficult truths can also break generational abuse. Children of abusive parents often end up marrying similar spouses, because that type of personality is familiar and even comfortable to them. They’ve been conditioned to accept abuse as “normal”—and therefore they don’t recognize a manipulative personality when they engage with one.
Other victimized children grow up to become abusive themselves. They act what they know, and perpetuate the sad cycle.
It’s time to take control.
It’s time to take control: of our lives, our selves, our memories and perceptions, and of our ability to authentically love—without borders or boundaries, without any controlling strings or conditions attached.
By facing the truth, we face healing. We end the cycle, and create a nurturing environment so the next generation can flourish.
We can end the cycle so the next generation can flourish in faith, hope, love, and peace.
“One of the most abusive and damaging things a father can do to his children is to abuse their mother.” (Charlie Donaldson and Randy Flood, Stop Hurting the Woman You Love)