Relating to adult children — 12 January 2009
Tread gently when helping an adult child in a controlling/abusive relationship

Some parents are unhappy about the relationship between their adult children and their spouses. None do so as much as parents of those involved in a controlling/abusive relationship. Though this assessment has to be made very carefully, when it is a correct, it leaves the parents fearful, alienated and powerless to affect any changes in their adult child’s life.

A controlling/abusive relationship is one between a threatening, persuasive, controlling and harsh mate and a less secure, fearful partner. The controlling/abusive individual professes love and concern for the abused as justification for the demanding and punitive behavior. The controller persuades the abused that he/she is safe and protected as long as the victim complies with the abuser’s demands. Any digression from the expected conduct merits severe punishment. It can be emotional taunting, yelling, shaming, angry outbursts, lectures lasting at times for hours, name-calling, food deprivation, and in some cases physical abuse. The abuser isolates the victim and convinces him/her that all others are against them.

Surprisingly enough, some victims emotionally “bond” with the abuser, a common strategy for survival by the fearful and intimidated individual. This bonding is common for battered women, who fail to press charges against their offender, return to them and protect them from the law and may even attack police officers who arrive to rescue them from their abusers.

This perplexing reaction by abused individuals has been termed the Stockholm Syndrome (SS). It dates to a 1973 incident when two criminals with machine guns entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden, held four hostages for 131 hours as they were strapped with dynamite, before the victims were rescued by police. In their media interviews the hostages reported that they believed the captors were protecting them and felt hostile to the police who tried to free them. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another helped create a defense fund to pay for the abusers’ legal fees.

The reactions of the abused individual toward the abuser/controller in SS include: positive feelings, support of the abuser’s reasons and behavior and at times, actual help, collusion with the abuser’s view of the abused and others, assuming responsibility for upsetting the controller, perceiving positive feelings from the abuser, inability to engage in conduct that may help the victim become free from the controller.

In 1974 the heiress Patricia Hearst demonstrated the Stockholm Syndrome after being captured by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. When she was given the opportunity to leave, she decided to stay and carry on their fight. In 2002 Elizabeth Smart, the fourteen year old who was abducted from her home, reacted similarly. She developed a bond with her captor that interfered with her responding to her uncle’s calls to save her and refused on several occasions to provide her true identity believing her captor that others were a threat to her.

• Realize that your adult child knows that he/she is loved by you but must reject you for emotional/physical survival.
• Realize that your child deals with “cognitive dissonance” (knowing that his /her behavior does not match one’s basic beliefs) by creating new beliefs that help reduce the abuse.
• Understand that the abused low self-esteem (at least in some areas) enabled your child to enter and stay in this relationship.
• Express your love and availability through scheduled phone calls and cards on holidays. Avoid asking questions, labeling the abuser’s conduct or demanding time and attention.
• Your child is told that you are trying to ruin their wonderful relationship. Any offers of help, kindness or generosity are viewed as intrusion and sabotage.
• If your child hints about leaving, abstain from rushing to help. Say, ”You know we support you in any decision you make. Let us know how we can help.”
• Seek professional help to assist you with this difficult, hopefully, temporary situation.

Related Articles

About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

(0) Readers Comments

Comments are closed.