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Parental abuse by adult children

By Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor, Psychologist/Educator

Almost every week, I hear of reports of parental abuse by adult children, especially against mothers and grandmothers. Is this an occurrence that has been happening of late, triggered by the stresses of the pandemic, or has it been happening in this society for a long time and not acknowledged as another form of domestic violence?

Also known as child-to-parent violence (CPV), “parental abuse is a form of domestic violence and is one of the most under-reported and under-researched subject areas in the field of psychology”.

Many parents who are subject to this verbal and physical abuse often feel a sense of shame and humiliation so that they do not report the abuse or tell their friends or seek help.

Cottrell (2004) defined this abusive behaviour as “any harmful act intended to gain power and control over a parent. The abuse can be physical, psychological, or financial”.

This type of abuse often starts during the teen years, and ongoing parent abuse has been found to impact on a parent’s and other family members’ physical and psychological health, with specific negative emotions such as fear, shame, guilt, and despair.


No excuse for abuse

Many persons may think that parents and older relatives are sometimes deserving of the abuse meted out to them by some children due to experienced earlier trauma.

The wider cultural and policy context may have contributed to the idea that parents are in some way ‘deserving victims’ especially as child abuse is always at the forefront of many issues and the blame-game continues.

Abused mothers and fathers attract less sympathy and support in comparison to children who experience family abuse. However, there is NO excuse for abuse. CPV – child-to-parent violence is clearly a complex phenomenon with issues of power, control and violence, an issue that must take centre stage before the extreme outcomes heard lately of parental deaths by adult children for land and monies.

Some children who have mental illnesses and other disorders such as autism spectrum disorder  (ASD) are also known to exhibit aggressive physical behaviours toward parents from as early as ten years old.

Very nice young men turn ugly when they relate their verbal abuse towards mothers and attempt to rationalise it. Well-dressed young women tell of their “horrible, bi..chy mothers who are not worth sh..t” especially when these mothers discipline them and enforce rules in the home.

They tell all their friends as they seek to justify their verbal and physically abusive behaviours towards parents, and others have even expressed the wish that their parents would die soon and leave them the house and car to inherit. Where has morality gone? What kind of society have we become?

In a world that is often characterised by entitlement, a lack of gratitude and aggressive attitudes towards those who have truly cared for and loved their children, let us be aware of parental abuse.

Report it if you are suspicious that abuse is happening to parents and older relatives and resolve to help parents, families and communities overcome the immediate and long-term effects of a problem that has been hidden for too long—that of parental abuse by adult children.

I never imagined that parental abuse was so common in this society until the Crisis Intervention Team of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists established its hotline and callers could now talk to counsellors free of charge, about situations that disturbed them:

  • “I can’t stand the screaming and shouting all the time! My heart races and I start to tremble! My daughter tells me I am not doing anything around the house…that I need to prepare the meals; walk about more; do this-do that. I am 80 years old. I don’t want to do those things anymore” (begins to cry).
  • “I think that my 23-year-old daughter is abusing my mother, her grandmother. She told us that she’ll look after her, so we allowed her to stay with mammy. Whenever I visit, my mother is quiet and subdued. She hardly talks. I ask her about the bruises on her arm, but she says she fell. What can I do?”
  • “My father (82 years and one of T&T’s musical geniuses) just opens the gate and walks down the road. My son has to follow him and beat him with a stick to come back home. I want to put him in a home as he cannot remember anymore. He [soils himself] often and we have to clean up after him. It is too much.”

In the last example, as the relative was speaking, I knew her father who had once taught me to play classical guitar in my youth. He was a kind and gentle man, now unable to care for himself.

There was silence as I suggested that this was a time for the family to rally around him, to take care of him and give him the best years of his life as he further descended into dementia, not to abandon him into the care of others or abuse him.