Is My Abusive Parent Mentally Ill? Or Just Mean?

The agony of this question will likely haunt you forever

For the kids of abusive parents, the question of whether or not your abusive parent is (or was) mentally ill, or just plain mean, will be one you consider the rest of your life. I can’t even begin to guess the number of times I’ve wondered: Do my abusive parents do what they do because they can’t help it? Or because they like hurting my brother and me? Unfortunately, when you really don’t know, when you’re still hanging in there, trying to salvage the relationship, hoping and praying that there’s some bit of unselfish good in your abusive parent, that’s when they can still manipulate you. Whether they mean to, or not.

Even when you think you’ve finally figured it out, you’ll probably go on to second-guess yourself many, many times, and that’s okay, because it’s totally normal. You’ll wonder, because you care. It’s normal because you’ve been conditioned to worry about your abusive parent.

In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking myself how much of my parents’ abuse stems from from mental illness, and how much is can be attributed to conscious decisions they’ve made. After many years, lots of therapy, putting boundaries in place for one parent and cutting off contact with the other, I know for sure the answer to the question Are my abusive parents mentally ill or just mean? is:


Eventually, I came to understand the answer is something else, as well:


I genuinely believe most abusive, toxic parents are toxic because they are mentally ill, and the reason they’re mentally ill is probably the result of having been abused themselves. This abuse affected their physical brains, their thinking and their responses to stress. It also means the model of parenting they took in every day of their formative years is completely outside the realm of healthy. So when they had you, it may not have been their intention to be abusive toward you; it’s just that their brains are hard-wired for it, and they probably don’t have many examples of loving, effective parenting to draw from. It’s a combination of nature and nurture.

Still, it’s a tough reality to deal with: The notion that your abusive parent is unable to stop themselves from hurting you, whether it’s mentally or physically or emotionally or all three.

What abused kids must understand is two ideas at once, ideas that seem almost in conflict with each other:

-Abuse causes real, and lasting, mental and emotional problems for people that may cause them to parent their child in inappropriate, even violent, and harmful, ways

- Your parent’s experience with trauma still doesn’t excuse their abuse of you

The fact is, your abusive parent was very likely terrorized as a child by someone else, and that has caused them to do whatever it is they’ve done to you. But that doesn’t excuse their resulting behavior. You do NOT have to be around anyone who causes you mental, emotional or physical pain. You do NOT owe it to your abusive parent to take care of them as they age. You do NOT owe your very sanity, and your life, to your abuser.

It’s a ridiculous trade-off, when you think about it. And yet abused kids have been raised to think it’s their duty to put up with it.

You will feel guilt

If you can make the decision to refuse to be your parent’s punching bag, either by setting up boundaries or walking away, will likely cause you to feel guilt. This is normal, and it’s part of the enmeshment problem with abuse. We’re often emotionally tangled up with, or enmeshed, with our abusers. But here’s the thing: It’s okay to feel pain, sorrow and guilt and still walk away from your abusive parent. Yes it hurts. Yes it’s hard. But it’s worth it if it hurts less than staying in the abusive relationship.

Obviously, if you have the financial ability to at least send money to your parent, this can help (maybe) alleviate some guilt. But even if you don’t have the capability to help your parent out with money — and many people don’t — that’s okay. You do not have to tolerate their abuse just because you don’t have money. You are not required to carry their burdens.

It’s also okay to make the choice to stay in contact with your abusive parent, if that’s a better solution for you than to cut off contact. Abuse is complicated. People are complicated. Our situations are complicated.

Understanding their mental illness is their problem, not yours

Kids of abusive parents have often been forced to act as the caretaker in the home, something your abusive parent will expect you to continue, for the rest of their life. (That’s right. Even after you’re out from under their roof, they’ll think they own you.) And abusive parents often don’t understand that they’re the problem. They don’t want to understand they’re the problem. Often, they’ll tell you YOU are the problem, because that means they don’t have to do any work to change.

If your abusive parent wants to have a relationship with you, it behooves them to get the help they need to become a better person. Whether or not they’ll ever understand this is also not your problem. It’s not up to you to fix them. Only they can help themselves. Remember: They are an adult making a choice, and their choice is to be abusive. It doesn’t matter why they’re making that choice, and it’s not your responsibility to figure out how to fix it. Additionally, your abusive parent probably won’t listen to you if you try to enlighten them about their mental illness. It’s something they have to see on their own, and you need to remember the chances of them ever seeing it are pretty low.

Ultimately, the answer to the question “Is my abusive parent mentally ill or mean”? doesn’t matter. Because you don’t deserve to be abused by anyone. Not even by the very people who gave you life.

Writer, Kansan, wife, mom, essayist, journalist, reproductive rights activist, Jayhawk, dork. Support me on Patreon! amberfraley. com @KSAbortionFund

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