Professional Development

Abuse and Neglect

Characteristics of Abusive Families

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Abusive parents often lack the skills and abilities necessary to provide emotionally for themselves. They have not learned to identify and obtain the emotional support for themselves. They have not learned to identify and obtain the emotional support they need from others not have they leaned how to cope with the anger, fear frustration they feel, in relation to these unmet needs. As a result they experience a severe lack of self-esteem or sense of self-worth. Abusive parents feel unloved, unappreciated and unwanted. This negative self-image often leads to perceptions of themselves as insignificant, unattractive or stupid.


Low self-esteem can lead to low expectations. Abusive parents are likely to expect, even to provide rejection. They create a vicious cycle in which their negative self-image may lead to behaviors which denies satisfying or fulfilling relationships with others. Some of these behaviors are focused on avoiding most social interactions as a method of avoiding rejection and failure. Other, more aggressive or offensive behaviors may actually provoke rejection—abusive parents may actually make themselves difficult to like.


While they still desperately need the support and reinforcement denied during childhood, they are at a loss as to how to achieve it, and may, in fact, act in ways which serve to deny them the sense of belonging and worth they so strongly need.


In addition, many abusive parents were themselves physically or sexually abused as children. They tend to accept extreme forms of physical punishment as normal aspects of parent-child interactions.




Abusive parents expect very little from others in the way of friendship or support. They avoid rejection and anger by breaking off close personal relationships. They avoid rejection and anger by breaking off close personal relationships. They avoid committing themselves to caring relationships with neighbors, friends, and even family. They are afraid to reach out to make contact. If both parents have a sense of personal isolation, the problems is compounded. They family will be cut off from all outside sources of support and will have only family members to turn to fill their needs. This internal dependency exerts added pressures on the family unit which may further increase the likelihood of abuse.


Lack of Support Systems


Frequently, abusive parents are emotionally unable to establish or utilize outside support systems even when the opportunity is available. They have not leaned how to ask for and receive the kind of help they need to provide for themselves and their children. This inability becomes particularly crucial in times of crisis. With outside lifelines cut off, the abusive parent has nowhere to turn during periods of heightened stress. Often, it is during these periods that the potential abuser becomes the actual abuser.


Marital Problems


Unfortunately, the lack of support systems often extends to spousal relationships. Abusive parents too frequently find themselves locked into a non-nurturing, non-communicative marriage in which neither parent is able to support or adequately meet the other’s needs. Children are often involved in the process of the parents’ acting out of anger and frustration. The child may be ignored or abandoned because he constitutes a painful reminder of marital dissatisfaction. If the child reminds one part of the other, he/she may become the target of displaced anger. The parents may use the child as a seesaw, tugging and pulling at both ends of attention. Mutual abuse of a child may represent the only common ground established between parents. Regardless of the dynamics, the child becomes a conduit for indirect, often angry communication between two frustrated adults. If physical violence is part of parental interaction, this violence is likely to extend to the child as well. A pattern is established in which frustrations are dealt with physically and restraint of impulses to physically violent behavior is diminished by all family interactions.


Life Crises


External stress is frequently a contribution factor in abuse. Loss of employment or housing, lack of food or clothing, or indebtedness, any domestic crisis which precipitates fear or anxiety can push the parent into abuse. Significant personal loss such the death of a close relative or the relocation of a friend or neighbor can strip the parent of precious support mechanisms, heighten the sense of futility and create a feeling of inability to control one’s own life. This loss of control can in turn lead to abuse.


On the other hand, external stress can be a way of life for some abusive families. Some families are crisis-ridden; it is a life-style posture. Everything is a crisis; the parents are unable to deal with daily pressures or control their environment. These parents actually seem to generate crises, perhaps even define themselves by them.


Lack of ability to Care for and Protect a Child


The abused child may fill one of many roles in the family and in the parents’ life. She/he may represent an attempt on the parent’s part to fulfill needs for love, acceptance and dependence. This situation constitutes a type of role reversal in which the child becomes the nurturer of the parent, the life-giver. When the child is unable to fulfill the parent’s emotional needs, the resulting frustration and disappointment can lead to abuse.


The child may also be perceived by the parents as an extension of self. The parents’ lack of self-esteem and negative self-image may be projected onto the child as well. The child becomes a scapegoat and is made to pay for the parents’ sense of inadequacy and failure.


The special child—one who is mentally, physically or developmentally handicapped and many have special needs or require extra parental attention –may provoke feelings of resentment in the parent. In these cases, parent-child bonds may be too week to protect the child from parental frustration and anger. In additon, these children may react to abusive dynamics in the family by developing personality or behavior traits that are unattractive. These traits may actually heighten the likelihood of abuse and place these children in constant danger.

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