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5 Common Excuses of Toxic or Abusive Parents

Molly had tried for years to have a stable relationship with her mother. Self-help books filled her shelves, and she had spent years in therapy trying to “work on herself.”

It wasn’t until her mid-forties, with the advancement of social media paving the way for conversations around trauma and unhealthy family dynamics, that she realized her situation was unhealthy.

Molly and her mother tried family therapy with a colleague of mine, who often consulted with me about the family dynamics. Week after week, Molly left feeling defeated at another of her mother’s excuses for her history of unhealthy and even abusive behaviors.

She had heard every excuse from her mother and was sick of the victim blaming she experienced from others in her family when they said things like “She’s your mother, you have to forgive her,” and “You’ll feel bad when she is gone.”

“I don’t know what else I can do,” my colleague said. “She’s not going to change. At a certain point, maybe this is doing further harm to Molly to keep putting her in this situation.”

And unfortunately, they were probably correct.

In my experience working with dysfunctional and traumatic families, toxic or abusive parents often use various excuses or justifications to rationalize their harmful behavior.

In my experience, these excuses leave little room for self-awareness and accountability. Rather, they serve as a means of preserving their self-image, maintaining control, and avoiding accountability.

Excuses and justifications allow abusive parents to maintain control over the narrative and manipulate the perceptions of others, including the victim and external observers. By shifting blame or minimizing the severity of their actions, they can undermine the victim’s credibility and maintain power and dominance within the relationship.

Some common excuses I often hear include:

1. Excusing the behavior: In some cases, abusive parents may justify their behavior based on cultural or familial norms that condone authoritarian parenting styles or corporal punishment. They may argue that their actions are in line with traditional values or customs, thereby legitimizing their abusive behavior within their cultural context.

2. Playing victim: Abusive parents may play the victim themselves, portraying themselves as overwhelmed, stressed, or struggling with their own issues. They may seek sympathy or pity from others as a way to deflect attention from their abusive behavior and avoid accountability. Moreover, many abusive parents prioritize their reputation and social standing, using excuses to present a facade of normalcy and respectability to the outside world. They may go to great lengths to conceal their abusive behavior from others, fearing the consequences of being exposed as an abuser.

3. Blaming the victim: Abusive parents may shift responsibility onto the victim, attributing their behavior to the child’s actions, disobedience, or perceived shortcomings. They may justify their abuse by claiming that the child provoked them or deserved punishment.

4. Dismissing or denying: Some abusive parents may outright deny or deflect accusations of abuse, gaslighting the victim and insisting that the abuse never occurred or was exaggerated. They may manipulate the narrative to portray themselves as innocent victims or to discredit the victims’ claims. Gaslighting is a tactic commonly used by abusive individuals to manipulate the victim’s perception of reality and undermine their confidence and sanity. By invalidating the victim’s experiences and reality, abusive parents can distort the truth and make the victim doubt their own perceptions.

5. Intellectualizing: Well, they are old enough now. Abusive parents may downplay the severity of their actions, dismissing them as “discipline” or claiming that they were “only trying to teach a lesson.” By trivializing the abuse, they seek to avoid accountability and consequences for their behavior

Even when given empathy and support to recognize and change some behaviors, the changes don’t stick. Protecting their self-image helps them to avoid confronting their own flaws or shortcomings. Admitting to abusive behavior would require them to acknowledge their wrongdoing, which can be psychologically threatening and challenging to accept.

Admitting to our flaws is difficult at any age, but it may be especially difficult for a parent who likely has their own internal demons and childhood traumas that result in inner shame. Denying or downplaying their actions allows them to evade activating that internal shame they have worked so hard to push down.

Overall, the use of excuses and justifications by toxic or abusive parents serves as a strategy to protect themselves from accountability, maintain control over the victim, and preserve their self-image and social standing. These tactics contribute to the cycle of abuse and make it more difficult for victims to seek help and escape from abusive situations.

If you are dealing with unhealthy or abusive family dynamics, know that you are not to blame. Unfortunately, often, there is only so much you can do, as we are not responsible for others’ behaviors- nor are we responsible for pushing them to self-awareness. In these cases, seeking support from a therapist or support group who understands unhealthy or dysfunctional family dynamics can help you deal with the stress that comes from these experiences.

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