I am in my thirties, and it was not until a few years ago that I realized that I had been a victim of emotional and psychological abuse my entire childhood and young adulthood. In cases of physical abuse, there is typically physical, objective proof of the abuse. Although victims may have a difficult time separating themselves from their abuser, the abuse is more blatant. In the case of emotional or psychological abuse (including spiritual abuse) there is no physical proof of abuse, and the victim or survivor may question whether the abuse is real, or if they are being “too sensitive.” Many survivors of emotional or spiritual abuse, like me, do not realize that what they experienced as children was abuse until they are well into adulthood.
In simple terms, emotional and psychological abuse is non-physical abuse (although it is sometimes coupled with physical or sexual abuse) intended to control a victim. Guilt, gas-lighting (i.e. saying something to the victim and then denying having said it), anger, yelling, and excessive criticism can all be a part of a system of an abuse. What makes it abusive is that it is not a simple moment of failure (i.e. a normally healthy parent having an isolated incident of yelling at her children), but rather a series of events, happening over the course of years. In the case of emotional and psychological abuse, the intent is to subdue and control the child (or adult child). Occasionally, this takes the form of spiritual abuse, in which a parent uses religion to control a child (for example, a parent telling a child that he must listen to her or he will go to hell).
We know that abuse of any kind goes against the teachings of our faith. What makes emotional and spiritual abuse so damaging? It goes against the very essence and vocation of parenthood.
The Vocation of Parenthood
All parents are called to care for the basic needs of their children — physical, emotional, and spiritual. The child is not the property of the parents, but rather a separate entity. Parents are entrusted with the care of the child and are obligated to provide healthy nurturing. This nurturing is focused on helping the child develop into a healthy adult. The focus of healthy parenting is the well-being of the child. The parent meets the child’s needs, not the other way around.
In Catholic parenthood, there are additional responsibilities. The Catholic parent is called to help his or her child to grow in holiness. This includes pointing the child to heaven and to sainthood, praying for their vocation, and exemplifying God’s unconditional, merciful love.
By its very nature, healthy parenthood is oriented toward selflessness, not selfishness.
Honoring the Toxic Parent
Most abusive parents are not evil. Typically, they were abused as children, and are only continuing to participate in the cycle of abuse. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it is important to acknowledge, because it puts the magnitude of your task in perspective. If you are reading this article, you are likely trying to stop the cycle of abuse in your own family. Blessed are the peacemakers! You are bringing peace into your family.
When juxtaposing abusive parenting with the vocation of parenthood, much is lacking in abusive parenting. Often, to heal from an abusive childhood, an adult child needs to set firm boundaries with his or her parents. This may even include needing a period of (or indefinite) “no contact” with the parents — i.e. no calls, texts, emails, or visits from the adult child.
But wait…what about honoring your parents?
I have not been in contact with my parents for two years, taking this time for my own healing and the strengthening of my own marriage and family. During this time, I have spoken with wonderful priests, therapists, and friends, who have helped me see that honoring parents does not mean allowing yourself to be abused.
For years, my parents told me that I had to do x, y, or z because, “God tells you to honor your mother and father!” But do you notice something about that commandment? God asks that we honor our parents — not necessarily visit them, or call them, or buy them presents, but honor them. A healthy parent/child relationship will include visits, calls, etc. But these things are not necessary to keep this commandment.
Honoring means loving and desiring “the good” of another. Sometimes love involves separation. Sometimes love involves suffering and pain. But ultimately, love desires wholeness and healing.
An adult child, realizing that his or her parents are abusive, can set firm boundaries (or even cut off contact with parents) and still “honor mother and father.” How is that possible?
By removing yourself from a situation of abuse, you no longer give the abuser an opportunity to abuse. Establishing boundaries or cutting off contact with parents can be a merciful thing, because you are removing an opportunity for them to abuse. This does not mean that the abuse is ever the fault of the victim. What it does mean is that it is not selfish of the abused to protect him or herself.
How can you love and respect a parent who you are no longer in contact with?
The Freedom of Forgiveness
Once an adult child is no longer in contact with abusive parents, she may begin to heal. She may begin to learn what healthy relationships look like. She may begin to break the cycle of abuse. As this healing begins she may also begin the process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not based in feelings, but rather in no longer wishing the offender ill. In the case of an adult child healing from an abuse, this process of forgiveness cannot really begin until he or she is safe from abuse. Once healing has begun, forgiveness can be a very long process. It can take decades to fully forgive hurt that occurred over the course of decades.
The survivor of abuse must be patient with himself. Healing and forgiveness cannot happen overnight. They happen over time. But while the healing begins and the adult child is working toward forgiveness, that adult child is truly honoring her parents. It is work and suffering to break the cycle of abuse. However, the abuse survivor who breaks the cycle saves her family. As a priest told me, the survivor becomes “the filter” through which the love of generations may pass. She filters out the abuse and passes on any goodness.
Although an abusive parent may see this as a threat to their control, rather than as honoring…it is honoring. It is honoring any good and working to forgive years of bad.
Coupled with that is the opportunity to pray for the abusive parent. This prayer is more for the survivor than for the abuser. In the face of so much hurt and pain, the survivor cannot heal or forgive without grace. God alone can provide this healing and grace. This might not be something that a survivor can immediately do, but this prayer — rather than allowing further abuse — is what forgiveness and honoring look like.
What God Wants for the Survivor of Abuse
If you are an adult child who has been abused, know that God truly loves you. The love of your abusive parents is not representative of God’s love for you. God’s love — unlike the love of your parents — is unconditional, merciful, and self-giving.
God calls you to healing and to real love. You do not need to feel guilty for separating yourself from abusive parents. You can allow yourself to run to the arms of the Father who loves you with endless love. He is waiting, and His arms are safe.