Knowing a loved one is being abused, whether it’s emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical, can be overwhelming. Anger, guilt, and feelings of helplessness are common, and though we want to help, we don’t always know how. Especially when the person being abused is a parent.
When abuse is happening between people we love, it can be hard to know what to do, but there are steps you can take to navigate this unhealthy situation and provide support to those who need it most.
1. Talk with the Abused Parent
It’s important to understand, people in unhealthy relationships usually have a low self-esteem. Abusers thrive on control, so their partners are made to feel powerless, often living in a state of constant fear and anxiety. The first time you bring up your concerns, your parent may not be ready to talk. Be sensitive and respectful of their boundaries.
Begin by reaffirming your love in a private space, then gently express your concern. For example: “I love you, which is why it upsets me when I see (unhealthy behavior) happen to you. You don’t deserve that, and I’m worried about your safety and wellbeing.” This is more effective than negative, emotionally-charged statements, such as, “I can’t believe you put up with that! What are you thinking?”
Avoid confronting or putting down the abuser. Statements that place the abused parent on the defense or make them feel bad will act as a barrier to establishing trust. Remember, victims of intimate partner abuse (IPV) usually harbor a deep love for their partner; you cannot be dismissive of that if you want to reach them.
2. Listen Without Judgement
After voicing your concern, listen to their response with open ears and an open heart. Ditch judgment and resist the urge to interrupt. Now is the time to show you care by being a stable, calming presence.
This may be the first opportunity they’ve had to open up about their situation- don’t be surprised if they’re resistant or have a strong, emotional reaction. Both are natural. Be kind, and above all, patient.
It may feel awkward or difficult in the beginning, but rest assured, it does get easier. Each time you broach the subject– as this will need to be an ongoing conversation, not a one-time event- be mindful so that you can identify the right approach that puts both of you at ease for next time. And if your parent needs more time before they’re willing to share, respect their wishes. The best thing you can do then is to make yourself available, allowing them the opportunity to approach you when they feel more comfortable. Either way, never give up.
3. Offer Support
Just as the abuse isn’t your fault, it isn’t your abused parent’s fault, either. The partner displaying unhealthy behaviors is responsible for his/her own actions, so while we may want to swoop in and fix everything, this isn’t a realistic expectation. As the National Domestic Violence Hotline website states, “It is not your responsibility to ‘rescue’ your parent(s).” It’s easy to forget this when someone we love is being disrespected.
4. So What Can You Do To Help?
We can make small daily efforts that will help our parent in meaningful ways. Here are a few suggestions for supporting your parent through an unhealthy relationship:
- Encourage your parent to talk to someone- the authorities, a counselor, an attorney, a trusted friend or family member, etc.
- Provide them with resources, such as a domestic abuse hotline or websites like www.thehotline.org
- Remind them to take care of themselves; too often, people who’ve been in an unhealthy relationship don’t feel worthy of basic self-care
- Abusers often monitor phones and computer usages, such as texts and emails. Suggest they memorize a domestic abuse hotline and let them use your phone or a prepaid phone when they need it
- Remind them on a regular basis that you’re there for them and love them no matter what
- Ask what you can do to help
- Spend quality time with them- take a walk together or have a coffee date
- Encourage them to participate in self-empowering activities outside the home- join a gym, yoga studio, book club, cooking class, etc.
- Clean the house; a friend once told me that even when life is in disarray, an orderly home can promote peacefulness and a sense of control
- Volunteer to mow the lawn or help cook dinner
- If you don’t live with your parent, a loving phone call with no agenda can work wonders
- Give a gift that costs nothing- hand-picked flowers or a sincere compliment can brighten the darkest of days
5. Accept Their Decision
This is often the hardest step. Because you want your abused parent to be safe, you may believe the best solution is for them to leave, but leaving can also be dangerous; it requires a plan. According to www.domesticabuseshelter.org, “Approximately 75% of women who are killed by their batterers are murdered when they attempt to leave or after they have left an abusive relationship.” Also, it takes an average of seven attempts before the abused partner successfully leaves the relationship for good.
In other words, if your parent is going to get out of the abusive situation, it must be their decision. We can’t push them into it.
And while staying can be just as dangerous, it may be the option they choose. They will have reasons you may not agree with or understand. There could be a financial dependency and “honeymoon” periods where the unhealthy partner promises to change. They may stay for “the sake of the children” or out of fear. Whatever the explanation, avoid shaming, blaming, or begrudging them. Leaving can feel impossible to the person stuck in the cycle of an unhealthy relationship but you can support them through it.
Should frustration arise, remind yourself that you’re a supportive daughter or son, not the head of the “rescue squad.” Being a strong, loving presence is sometimes the most effective way to lend strength and help in times of need.
Take Care of Yourself
Abuse impacts entire families. Members who witness it may experience stress, depression, or anxiety, turn to drugs, isolate themselves, or develop social and/or emotional issues down the road. Left undealt, they may also lash out in other unhealthy ways, including emulating the abusive behavior.
Before we can help others, we must first learn to help and heal ourselves; as they say, we cannot give what we lack. That’s why it’s vital to maintain a positive mental state even in seemingly “hopeless” situations. To do this, we must learn to control what we can control, so when bad things happen that aren’t within our power to stop, we’ll be better equipped to handle them.
How to help yourself:
- Maintain healthy hobbies and resist harmful options that disguise themselves as quick fixes, such as substance abuse or unsafe sexual behaviors
- Read good books that take you on adventures
- Journal to understand your feelings
- Nurture your body with nutritious food and drink plenty of water
- Exercise daily, even if it’s only a walk after dinner
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Spend time with friends
- Confide in someone you trust when times get tough and don’t be afraid to go to a counselor or trusted adult about your home situation
- Remember, you are not alone; you are loved and this, too, shall pass
There’s never a perfect moment to talk to someone about the abuse. Tough problems never have easy answers, and some situations may require further intervention. If you believe your parent is in immediate danger, do not be silent. Contact the authorities.
Remember: we can reach out with loving hearts willing to help, but we cannot force the outcome. Maintaining a healthy sense of separation from the result is crucial to avoiding compassion fatigue or feelings of resentment. Should our loved one decide to stay with the abuser, we must be mentally and emotionally prepared to love them through it.
Rest assured, if you voice your concern and start showing support now, the impact you have could lead to positive change later. Listen, be patient, be kind, be present, and never give up hope.
If you believe your parent is experiencing relationship abuse, or if you just have questions about your own relationship, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline via their website, or by calling 1-800-799-7233.