There’s a type of domestic violence or family violence that often gets overlooked—it’s when a teenager or adult child abuses a parent. As with other kinds of domestic violence, this type of abuse can take many forms, but at its core, the purpose is to exert power and control over the parent. Children can abuse their parents:
Adult children are often adept at exploiting their parents’ weaknesses. “Adult children are more mature and sophisticated. They know where the vulnerabilities are, and they pick up on them,” says Karen Roberto, Ph.D., the executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment at Virginia Tech and a member of the American Psychological Association.
Roberto says you might see signs of aggressive behaviors as young as age six or seven when children start to lash out at a parent, especially if family relationships are strained. That’s because children who behave aggressively may be reacting to family interactions. Children who act aggressively toward a parent may exhibit aggressive behavior across relationships, such as in school or sports.
For some children, the abusive behavior drops off in their mid-teens. Children who learn better-coping skills and anger management strategies and have some interventions are more likely to stop the abuse. “But others continue that behavior well into adulthood,” Dr. Roberto says.
Children who are abused may become abusers. “I’m involved in a study now that has been tracking children who were abused as young children, and now, they’re mid-life, adult children. A lot of them show great resilience, but in some, there’s this tendency of intergenerational transmission of violence,” Dr. Roberto says.
Many teenagers exhibit some undesirable or offensive behavior, such as yelling and slamming doors. But abuse goes further. “If it seems like a consistent pattern, we’re probably not talking about the typical hormones that we like to blame everything on,” Roberto says. And children and teens who are abusive tend to exhibit that behavior in various areas of their lives. “Look at how they’re treating themselves, others in the family, objects, and pets,” Roberto says.
“We need to not ignore signs or attribute problematic behaviors as just part of being a teen’s life. You don’t want to hover and smother a person, but you need to pay attention to what’s happening. Sometimes there are mental health issues that, if attended to earlier, can be managed in a much better way,” Dr. Roberto says.
According to Brian Spitzberg, Ph.D., parental abuse often occurs in the following sequence:
It’s also possible that children who have been victims of domestic violence may begin to mimic abusive behaviors. Children who act out may be doing so as a reaction to their trauma. Adult abusers may also encourage children to be abusive toward their protective parent or another adult. It’s important to know the difference between aggression as a trauma response and calculated abuse tactics, however, aggression can escalate into abuse if there is no intervention.
If abusive behavior continues unheeded into early adulthood, it often escalates. “People get stronger, and they understand better what buttons to push so that it can become a much more intensive type of abuse,” Roberto says.
In cases where an adult child is abusing a parent, the child often relies on the parent for the same things young children and adolescents do—shelter, finances, support, etc. “If the parent pulls back or the resources run out, that propensity for violence increases,” Roberto says.
Parents may blame themselves for their children’s behavior. Parents of adult children who are still dependent on them often think of themselves as failures or ask themselves what they did to create the situation. The affection parents typically feel toward their children can make it hard for parents to admit that their child is abusive. “Parents make excuses: ‘They have a temper,’ or ‘They need help, so it’s OK if they take my things,’” Roberto says.
There are several steps parents can take if their child is exhibiting abusive behavior, depending on the actions and how long it’s been going on. The biggest challenge for most parents is acknowledging the problem. To get help, parents need to admit they are in a situation that could be harmful physically, psychologically, or financially and that they need help.