Honoring an abusive parent

Jeff Olson —  March 24, 2011 — 32 Comments

Someone recently asked me how can an adult child “honors” an emotionally abusive parent. Sadly, it’s an important question that many face. While there isn’t a blanket answer because each situation is different, there are some general thoughts to think through that apply to nearly every situation.

There is no question that the Bible teaches the importance of honoring our parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:2-3). It is not a matter to be taken lightly. To honor our parents, however, does not mean that we should ignore or tolerate their abusive behavior. In fact, ignoring and tolerating abuse would be dishonoring and unloving.

Unfortunately, many adults who have been abused by their parents as children allow emotional abuse to continue for fear of being completely cut-off and abandoned by their parents. It seems that some would rather put up with their parents abuse than to be ignored and abandoned by their parents. To be abandoned by one’s parents seems to be a greater pain and therefore is avoided at all costs, even if that means allowing the abuse to continue.

When a person continues to tolerate emotional abuse from their parents by ignoring it and maybe hoping things will improve, they are neither loving nor honoring their parents. If that person were to honestly examine their motives, they would most likely see that they are not motivated by a desire to love their parents but rather by a desire to keep themselves safe from the deeper pain of being abandoned. And without even knowing it, they are actually contributing to the problem with their silence. Their silence enables rather than stands against further emotional abuse. That’s not what is best for themselves or their parents, therefore it’s not love.

The Bible calls Christians to a love that is without hypocrisy, that is to hate what is evil and cling to what is good, both in ourselves and others (Rom.12:9). In a situation where a parent is emotionally abusive love often asks the question “What is wrong within the person that needs to be disrupted so that good and life can start to emerge?” In almost every instance, this involves drawing strong lines that say “It’s no longer okay for you to abuse me.”

Check out the following video insights by Larry Crabb and Gene Getz on setting boundaries and honoring difficult parents:





Jeff Olson

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eff is a licensed professional counselor in the State of Michigan and has worked for Our Daily Bread Ministries as a counselor and a writer since 1992. He has authored a number of Discovery Series booklets (www.discoveryseries.org) on such topics as addictions, grief, depression and marital abuse. He also maintains a part-time private counseling practice in the West Michigan area. Jeff and his wife, Diane, have been married since 1986 and have raised two lovely daughters. He is an avid outdoors man who also enjoys sports, music, boardgames, books, and movies.

32 responses to Honoring an abusive parent

  1. That is a very tough situation indeed.It is one that I have had to deal with my entire life.Before my journey with God began seriously,I went to several professional people for advice.The all told me to keep my distance and move on with life.
    This did work but now I have empty feelings from those lost years.
    God has helped me to show tolerance and given me understanding now.
    They have not changed a lot,but have gotten older.Roles have changed for sure.
    God teaches to forgive.That is what I must do and am doing.

  2. My father was a very abusive man to all 4 of his daughters and my mother. It wasnt until I was 14 that my mother found a way out of the realationship. Neither one of my parents had a relationship with God. I went through a very self destructive life style and blame it on the absence of love in my life. I accepted Jesus as my savior at age 21. I forgave my father and always felt really sorry for him. I am so glad that God has healed me from all my wounds and that I now know what unconditional love is!

  3. Al, I’m sorry to learn of the abuse you went through a that hands of your father. I was glad to read how you have found that God can and wants to father you.

  4. What about a dishonoring child? One that has put us in a very dangerous situation
    I have approached my son to talk to him about the situation, and he has blown me off. He says that he is now an adult, and is a respected member of the community. He has told one of my other son’s that he is not mad at me about anything. He has become a Quaker and is very well off financially.
    I don’t need his money, nor do I want it.
    He hasn’t spoken to us in over two years.
    We have no support in this area of the country, and he lives only 6 miles up the road.
    I am now 77 and my wife is 75, He wants nothing to do with us.
    We moved here 5 1/2 years ago to be near him.
    There is no public transportation in this town. No body speaks to us.
    We have ourselves an God to look after us.
    He doesn’t even call us to ask if we are still alive.
    He is a very prominent citizen in the neighboring community.
    We have friends back in N.Y State but the housing market her in N.J. is very low. We are counting on Jesus to get us back home to our friends where we could get a bus or a taxi.
    Even so called Christians here in this town ignore my requests for help.
    Ken Lefferts

  5. Is there any place for a parent who knows they need to seriously alter their parenting style but fears being labeled an abuser? Or worse, losing their career making it impossible to provide financially for their children. This parent needs someone to come along side them to teach them how to be a better parent. Also to encourage better parenting skills because these skills are foreign to their habits and are unlikely to be trusted as effective.I cannot find a safe resource for such parents who know they are wrong but don’t know how to change.

  6. I have lived all my 55 years of life with an abusive mother. Her circumstances were difficult although not unique and there can be no justification for abuse. I now care for her (she’s 90) and she has recently been diagnosed with chronic Paranoid Personality Disorder which the psychiatrist tells me she has suffered from all her adult life. I am obviously marked by a life time of abuse – by the person who brought me into this world. The natural tendency is to hate and to distance oneself. However, Christ commanded us to love one another. That didn’t mean, “Love those who deserve it” or “Love those who love you back”. Respect and honouring your parents is about loving them. I’m not excusing abuse or mistreatment or neglect. BUT, if we are true to Christ’s teaching we must be open to His grace and perform acts of love especially in these circumstances. One of the ways we can respect an abusive parent is by getting them help. This may not always be possible – but we have to try. Other ways would include praying for them, forgiving them, healing our own wounds and rising above the sin inflicted on us.

  7. Shar Ptasz, you ask a good question…let’s think about that carefully. Yes, there are safe places (like a counselor’s office or parenting programs) that can help parents alter their parenting style, where they won’t be condemned and written off for their actions. But depending on what they have done, it may not be safe in the sense of protecting parents from the consequences of their actions. I don’t mean to downplay the concerns you raised for parents in this situation, but if a parent uses that as an excuse not to seek the help they claim they need, then maybe they are not ready to change. It has been my experience that those who are ready to change are willing to bear the consequences of their behavior, whatever that might be. It is often one of the first step towards not making it all about them.

  8. Ken, sorry to hear about the breakdown in the relationship between you and your son. Sadly, there is not much a parent can do when an adult child refuses to talk and doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. At the same time, it is important to guard your heart against letting bitterness settle into your heart by reminding yourself that no matter how he may treat you, he is still no less of a person. He is still important and valued in the eyes of God.

  9. Ana, it’s great to see how you are caring for your aging mother in her time of need. Despite all the abuse, you still see her as a human being with legitmate needs. I have prayed that she will let the compassion of Jesus expressed through you begin to touch her soul.

    Sometimes, as you say, this is not possible. Sometimes, people have to distance themselves, not out of hate, but out of love. Sometime drawing lines is the only way to help people see they have a serious problem that is hurthing others and themselves.

  10. I not only had emotionally abusive mother, but physically and emotionally abusive father. At the age of 25 my mother, who was then an alcoholic just disappeared, and moved to another state. My sisters were 15, 17, and 21 and all living at home. My father moved out and left them alone till he decided to kick everyone out, throw all of our stuff out, even mine, sell the house, and also move to another state. The only contact we had were phone calls from a drunk mom all night long. Now 35 years later, no longer an alcoholic, my mother still criticizes everything I say and do, even though she still lives out of state and has never been a mother basically my whole life. My father moved on with his life too, and the children were not part of it, and still are not. I am 57 years old now. I have just recently realized how devastating my mom’s word are to me, whether on Facebook, the phone, or email. I can do nothing right in her eyes. Being a Christian I tried to keep the relationships going, but right now I feel my mother is just too toxic for me. I can’t deal with the put downs and criticism any more. She even did it on Facebook for all to see. I don’t know what to do. Thank You so much for listening. I gave you the brief version, otherwise it would be as long as a book.

  11. Donna, it was so sad to read the brief version of your life-long story of severe abuse. Please know that we have prayed for you.

    From the sounds of it, you may have draw some lines with your mother. For further guidance, you may find it helpful to read a book like Bold Love by Dan Allender.

    Given what you’ve gone through, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been hard to imagine that parent can truly love you. Yet your Heavenly Father loves you more than you know. May you come to know His love in a more rich and deeper way during this time of year we remember how He showed His amazing love for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  12. Jeff, Thank you for your prayers. You are right, I am trying to draw lines. I guess I just don’t know how to do it without hurting her, and her hurting me. I will check into the book you mentioned. I have been looking for Christian counseling lately, but so far they are all too expensive. You are right, none of us feel like we were or are loved by either parent. I think it’s also why I have a hard time accepting my Heavenly Fathers love. I seem to be on a self destructive path. Thank You so much, you really don’t know how much your answer and direction mean to me.

  13. Both of my parents are emotionally abusive. They are Christians. I was raised in church. I am 42, and a wife and mother. Last year, my father told me to “Honor your mother and your father”. I feel that this was said in order to put me in my place…as a manipulation tool.
    How do I honor the very people that the Bible says that I have to honor, but I have no respect for? I don’t even like my parents. And I have had to move away from them and have very little contact with them.
    It just feels as if my parents interpetation of “Honor your mother and father” translates to, “Bow down and kiss our back sides and do as WE tell you to do”. I refuse to live my life that way.

  14. eckraemer1989@hotmail.com,
    The situation you described is tough…sadly some parents twist the truth around and make it impossible to “live at peace” with them (Romans 12:18).

    Outside of extreme circumstances, completely cutting an abusive parent(s) completely out of one’s life is not called for, but putting some healthy distance between yourself and abusive parents out of love for them and yourself is often one of the things that is necessary.

  15. Darla Edwards-Glilbbery May 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Sometimes the only way to honor an abusive parent IS to distance oneself from said parent. The book “Stormie” by Stormie Omartian is a very good example of this, and i am following in Stormie’s footsteps. After 40 years, i have had enough. i can no longer have my mother in my life and honor her. When i have no contact with her, i am able to remember the good things about her, and at least be able to pray for her. i am so terrified of her that i don’t even want to talk to her, and when i do, i retaliate to try to protect myself. i don’t want to do this, as she is now elderly and in a nursing home(but still fully in control of her mental faculties).it just makes me feel worse. So the only way to honor her, for me, is to stay away. i hope that God understands.

  16. Darla, your mother sounds like a person who is unwilling to see how she mistreats you. That is truly sad for you and for her. I believe God understands that being around abusive people can bring the worst out of us. That is another reason why keeping is our distance is sometimes the best thing for all parties involved.

  17. Man I thought I was alone in this. I am 33 years old and mother of 2. I live in a very small town near my abusive mother. My mother has verbally abused me all my life. When I was a teen she even got physical, she say she was in pre menopause for 15 years! Even to day she said my children hate me. I know that is not true, but she says things like that to hurt me. I can do nothing right, She says I can do nothing right. She screams at me in front of my kids, the whole town thinks she is wonderful no one knows how she really is. I cant talk to any one about it, I cant move (no money) I am stuck and the abuse wont end, she even tries to make me feel guilty when I stand up to her, says I am mean!

  18. Carla, hope it helps to know you are not alone.

    By the way, abusive people are good at “flipping the script” when you stand up to their abuse, accusing you of the very thing they themselves are doing.

  19. I am 27 and had an abusive childhood with my dad beating me and my mum most of the time for no reason of ours. He gets angry and needs to vent it out on someone. 5 yrs ago he tried the same, but i stood up so he dint quite raise his hand. ever since he has been very quiet. recently my mum and dad had a quarrel, ( i usually never interfere ) where dad asked me a question, which i answered, but stood up to ask ask him to talk softly as it was really late at night and he was drunk. For which he started hitting me,pulling me by my hair and throwin me around the room. I hit him in retaliation and to defend myself and mum.
    i have forgiven him for all that he’s done. Do i need to approach him personally and apologise??

  20. Maria, it’s hard to say if you need to apologize as we were not there. You may if you used excessive force. But please understand that there are times where self-defense is called for. Christians aren’t called us to passivity. We are called not to take revenge (Romans 12:19).

  21. Luke 17:3 Titus 3:10-11 Proverbs 14:9 Proverbs 23:9 1 Corithians 7:15 These verses along with http://www.luke173ministries.org
    webiste have been a godsend to me. God expects us to honor our parents and parents are commanded to not bring their children to wrath. I personally don’t believe that an all good God would expect us to allow for wickedness to operate unchecked in our families and lives. We are told to rebuke wrongdoing and if the person will not listen, then we are to turn away. I don’t believe this is only for people who are not blood-related. I don’t believe in a God that would require me to submit myself to emotional terrorism again and again all for the sake of “honoring” my parent or loving them “unconditionally”. I believe that natural consequences should be allowed to play out and if that means an abuser is no longer allowed contact with the abused.. then so be it… no guilt.

  22. I’m glad I’m not alone. I have been gradually distancing myself from my parents. 9 years ago, I had to place my daughter for adoption and it has affected me. My grandmother calls me a whore with a bastard child and that I’m too fat and that I’ll never find a decent man. My mother is never happy with anything I do and picks on me about every flaw because she hates my father. My father and brother like to make fun of me as well. I had to move away to get away from them. I didn’t tell my mom and grandma, but my brother did and all hell broke loose. They accused me of being pregnant and my mom turned my family against me saying I abandoned her and my grandmother. My dad likes to pick on me about my mother bullying me and when I saw my daughter in person last year, my father was so mean to me. Didn’t offer to help or comfort me. He just asked me if I was on anti-depressants and to not take it personal. I tried asking my dad for help with the whole adoption thing and he knew that it was really affecting me, but he chooses to turn a bilnd eye and ignores me. How can I be around these people? I can’t even do what makes me happy in life without my family fighting. I have to keep everything a secret. I should not have to put up with this. I didn’t do anything to them to make them want to treat me this way. I am a very loving easygoing person. They are so negative that I had to distance myself from them.

  23. I am 32 years old and married with 4 children. Recently I sent my mother a letter telling her how I will no longer take her abuse or the abuse of my children due to her alcoholism. Enabling her was doi g her nor I nor my children for that matter any justice. Now my brother and his wife say I have no morals, my father and step mother say I am cruel and should not talk to the person who gave me life this way. I feel like I am losing everyone around me but I refuse to continue to allow her to treat me this way. Thank you so much for your advice

  24. Christina,

    Sorry to read of your difficult situation. Sometimes the people around us turn on us when we stand against unhealthy family dynamics, especially if those dynamics have been in place for years. Some just want to avoid conflict at all cost. Others are unknowingly conditioned to see things through the self-absorbed eyes of the one who is source of the dynamics.

    May you continue to seek God’s wisdom about the difficult trial you are going through (James 1:5).

  25. I am glad I found this article. I have lived with a mother who has been a raging and irrational alcoholic all my life. She is still angry at her own mother and overreacts to everything. I can’t stand living with her anymore. I am 45 and can’t afford a place of my own in this economy. I pray and strongly believe Jesus has kept me sane all this time. My parents went through a nasty divorce in high school and I am afraid of marriage and didn’t have kids because my self esteem is so low. My mother when drunk constantly told me who would want to marry you. I have asked God why did this happen to me. Why couldn’t I have a normal mother? But God is here and this life is short and although our parents forsake us He receives us. I admire the strength in the stories here. It makes me cry because I grow so weary and ask God to make her sober. I ask the angels to protect me. I ask Jesus’s mother to pray for me. My mother has said kind words to me but they are few. It is very hard for her to tell me she loves me. I know she does but I can’t cope with the words of venom and control when she’s drunk. That is not my mother. I wish I could move so I go out all the time just to avoid her at times. I walk on eggshells. I pray for a miracle. Jesus suffered too and He was God. Help me Lord to have the patience I need. My mom is very sick but God is stronger. Have faith.

  26. It was a comfort to read these posts and know I’m not alone. I’m dreading Christmas as I do every year. At 50, I still become nauseous with panic attacks thinking of having to spend half a day with my abusive parents and belittling younger sister (their golden child). Since my parents are in their 70s, I feel I need to tolerate visiting them (as cold and superficial as it is), because that’s the only way I know to honor them…basically until they are gone. I am still scared to be around them or my sister without another person, to be there with me as a witness – usually my grown son. They find fault with everyone, and constantly criticize and insult me. They keep a tally sheet of how much I cost them since birth, and send me an invoice each year – partially to remind me what I owe them, and to prove what a burden I’ve been to them. They blame me for my son’s father being unfaithful and abusing me while I was pregnant with our child. No surprise, I was attracted to violent men just like dear old dad. I’m an embarrassment to them, because I raised my child as a single mom. When I lost my home in a fire, they did nothing but send me a nasty letter, reiterating what a disappointment I am in their eyes, and how I got what I deserved. Reading God’s word has been my only recourse. It took me a long time to comprehend the gift of God’s grace, but I believe it now. The toughest part of life, was not being a single parent, or constantly having to move after floods and fires, or finding a new job every other year, as companies went out of business – nothing is as toxic, or negatively affects one’s health and outlook on life, as dealing with a hateful family of origin, who do not follow Christ. My sister won’t allow me to see my three nieces, and has chosen three non-family member godparents for her daughters. I raised a loving young man and have been a youth leader at my church for the past several years. I’ve had Christian counselors tell me I need to accept that my family does not love me and to move on for my sanity. I still struggle with whether it’s more “honorable” to keep in touch on holidays, or cut off all contact. I have to be honest, when I think of them dying, I know I’ll continue to grieve the love that was never there, but can’t help feeling I’ll also be relieved to not have to listen to their lies, complaints and put-downs. I’ve always wanted to be married and have a “family” to love, who might love me back – but thanks to my parents, I don’t trust any relationship – no matter how much I read and want to believe that God loves me, and I’m worthy of being loved.

  27. Brenda, God loves you and wants you to be all that He made you to be. That is all that matters. You’ve tried to honour them which is commendable but you are still in their shadow. I’ve just turned 41 and suffered systematic physical and emotional abuse throughout my childhood. I have spinal damage caused by the beatings but the worst pain of all is that in our hearts – the pain of rejection. Have confidence that you are a brilliant mother and although the Bible teaches us to forgive we cannot do that until we have acknowledgement or apology from those who hurt us. Maybe we will never receive this but remember – You have a right to be respected and loved! God made you perfect in His image – be you and be proud x

  28. Brenda,

    I want to reaffirm Leigh’s encouragement to you. The longing to be loved and to love is a reflection of the image of God that you bear. God has equipped you with a rich capacity for love. Unfortunately, your family is more like a terrorist organization than a family. I shuddered to read of their methodical cruelty towards you and your son. As a parent, I can’t fathom that level of wickedness towards a child who is a gift from God. And that IS WHO You ARE. By faith, you are a precious daughter of the King of Kings. And that makes you His Princess. Yes, I know you have a lot of data from your family that says otherwise, but it’s the words from your Heavenly Father that are true. Remember, He’s the God who can’t lie (Titus 1:2).

    A book that I highly recommended to my clients who are dealing with difficult and especially abusive people is Dan Allender’s Bold Love. He talks about how to be as “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove” when dealing with people with evil intentions. Check it out. I think you’ll find it deeply encouraging.

    And remember, you are God’s Princess. And your son is privileged to have such a courageous and loving woman as his mother. May God continue to you encourage you as you seek to honor Him in your journey.

  29. At 6 my parents divorced i turned the confusion and anger inward & began overeating.
    My mother being a single parent worked all day and whenever she came home she would call us (3 of us kids total) names just to vent her anger. She would call us names such as: little pieces of S)&@, pigs, white trash, bums. This would literally be what she would scream at us kids ages 6,7,10 through present 22,23,26 ages respectively. I’d say it happened twice a week on the best weeks (her outbursts).
    I wrote my first note saying i wanted to commit suicide @ the age of 9. She found it, nothing happened, the abuse simply continued. I understand now why she did it, she wanted people to feel as miserably as she does about her life. My first suicide attempt was @ age 16. I attempted to down a whole bottle of Benadryl (50+ tablets). I somehow survived the ordeal. I turned to girlfriends for feeling worth (horrible place to lean) my mother allowed me to move my gf into the house with us @ 16. Having no value for my life at all i turned to drugs. First just weed and tobacco. But then my mom caught me with weed once. From then on “drug addict” was added to the list of names i personally was called, although at this point my mother stopped receiving child support checks; so her stress induced name calling became more intense and daily. When the person who brought you into this world calls you something enough times you become it (especially the person your identity in life is relative to). I started doing lsd, shroom, dmt, all the harder psychedelics. I proceeded to take upwards of 10+ tabs of lsd w/2grams ecstasy and dmt in attempt to lose my mind. That’s enough drugs for more than a week of recreational use and i was doing it in one sitting because i inherently had no value for my life. I did not want to live.
    On my 21st birthday my mother asked me if i could get her some weed to smoke… she in no way saw anything wrong in asking this…
    I am now 22 and it hasn’t changed much from her end, but oh, how God has saved me from her! @ halfway through 21 my heart became Christ’s. Now less than a year later and God has revealed to me her abuse in it’s entirety, i have accepted to draw the line and seek assistance from my father (complete opposite of her). I’m off the drugs, getting my finances straight, and leaving her in the dust for the sake of my sanity. You may ask why i didn’t attempt to move in with my father sooner, i tried @ 14, she said if she lost my child support she’d lose her house (this is a way of infantilising one’s child, she made more than 50k a year so she was fine, she just didn’t want to “loose” to my dad, it was a guilt mechanism to keep control). She now blames me and my brother for everything wrong in her life right now namely her finances, but that is her fault she made 100k a year starting in 2005 and can somehow be in constricting debt. Based on her actions i inherently believe all women are evil (not that i want to, i yearn to feel otherwise, but after my childhood i cannot, at least at the moment, trust a woman). Christ has revealed to me that it isn’t about gender but rather sin, although that doesn’t really immediately reverse 16 years of programming. I just wanted to give my story, know that Jesus Christ saved me from my literal hell on earth, and he’ll do it for you too. Cling to Him for life! A parent working the will of Satan is worth distancing oneself from. I may or may not talk to my mom again in her lifetime, God knows i wish i could have a relationship with her, but she is such a source of negativity and destruction in my life that i am now violating my conscience by associating with her at all.

  30. I have to add all i ever wanted to do was make her proud. I got A’s and B’s in school. Even with the suicide attempt and drug addictions i came out with a 50% collegiate scholarship. Nothing was ever good enough. I understand now: “Wherever there is a variance between a parent’s expectations and God’s, the parent’s expectations cannot be met.” I couldn’t have made her a happy mom even if i’d killed myself trying.

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