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My Escape from Child Abuse

My Escape from Child Abuse

Setting boundaries with abusive (or difficult) parents.


My parents announced they were coming to stay with us for an extended visit. That would be fine except that I'm barely speaking to them. My father is abusive both verbally and physically. He took every opportunity, privately and publicly, to insult me and humiliate me. If I fled to my room, he would grab me and pull me around the house, continuing to rant at me. He had to have the last word, and he had to make sure I was listening. My mother is a passive abuser, an enabler. She made empty threats to my father whenever she reached the limits of what her own psyche could tolerate. She never once took action to defend me. I lived in constant terror. When I finally went away to college, the thought of going home for the summer gave me six weeks of migraines and bouts of vomiting. I moved far away from my dysfunctional childhood home to build a new, healthy, Jewish-oriented life (I am now happily married with three wonderful children).

I moved to escape my parents, but now they were making demands. It felt like an invasion.

At first, I tried to convince them not to come, and tried my best to be respectful. "We're sorry, but it's not such a good time for us." That didn't work, so I tried to persuade them at least to shorten their trip. But they were unstoppable. I felt like I was being steamrolled. I sought advice from a Torah coach who is an expert on abuse. She made everything sound ridiculously simple:

We were not willing to discuss money, politics or religion.

"They respect no boundaries. As a child, you were unable to set boundaries and enforce them. So now you need to work on this. State your limits and boundaries very clearly: 'Due to the circumstances, we are unable to visit with you in our home.' And for yourself, decide what to do if those boundaries are violated.'"

With my husband's help, we sent them a letter that clearly stated our limitations: "Due to our circumstances, you will have to find other sleeping accommodations during your visit. We will only be able to meet with you a few times, and only for a few hours each time, only outdoors in public places. We are not willing to discuss money, politics, religion, or the details of our private situation."

Related article: “Abusive Mother”

Yes, their feelings were hurt. But with people who are overtly controlling and abusive, our only healthy choice (short of shutting them out completely, which we hope never to do), is to place our own safety, and especially our children's safety, first.

I thought their reaction might crush me, but instead I felt empowered. I couldn't make them be more reasonable; they are free to make their own decisions. But I don't have to passively stand by and be victimized. Instead, I can set up my boundaries and defend myself. I never realized this before. Also, I don't have to waste my time and energy worrying, "What will I say if they say this..." My answer can be simply, "I can't discuss this right now. If you continue, I'm going to hang up the phone." This was a new level of freedom for me, a new level of emotional health.

Guilt-Free Daughter

In doing all this, however, am I being disrespectful to my parents? Do I still have to honor them? Abusive parents know this part of the Ten Commandments: "You must listen to me because God says so! Ha ha ha!" Hard to argue with that, isn't it? Especially if you're a child; you really want to do what's right, to do what God says.

I have now learned that this (and every) mitzvah is much more sophisticated than I thought as a child. From the moment of infancy and beyond, the way a parent acts toward their child forms in the child's consciousness a paradigm for how God relates to us. The primary role of a parent, therefore, is to communicate to the child: You are loved and cherished. You are unique and special, creative and talented. You are cared for and protected. You are never alone.

The emotional handicap can be difficult to overcome later in life.

If a parent is untrustworthy and uncaring, it subconsciously sets into the child's mind that God must somehow be the same. This is an emotional handicap that can be difficult to overcome later in life.

I don't have to reimburse or compensate my parents for raising me, I don't need their permission to follow my dreams, and I certainly don't have to put myself or my children in danger, physically or emotionally, because of their insensitivities. To the contrary, I need to protect myself and others. In short, I could be guilt-free for the first time in my life.

As a child, I felt trapped by the abuse and insensitivity. As an adult, I can learn to cope differently. I yearn to have a relationship with my parents on adult terms, on healthy terms. Someday, with God's help, this will be possible.

This article was prepared in collaboration with Yaffah daCosta-Sacks, a director of a Jerusalem high-tech firm who has been a business coach and management consultant for 30+ years, and more recently has been involved with Torah Life Coaching and Torah Transition Coaching (for the terminally ill).

The author is writing under a pseudonym.

January 22, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 69

(63) Anonymous, May 13, 2015 9:16 PM

I have an abusive Father

I too grew up with an abusive Father, and a helpless Mother who was as much as a victim of him as I was. Mother had the courage to divorce him, but not much more than that; she had lost her Father, aged 7, so she wanted me to have a Father who "even though was a little ill on the mind, loved me dearly". Every weekend, every vacation, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, for 20 years. Until recently, the last thing my Father did was to threaten to kidnap and torture me. That was it. I apologized to Mother's memory (she passed away a year and a half ago) and cut him off from my life. I wrote him a letter explaining why I was cutting him off, I changed my email accounts, cell and land phone numbers, everything. It's one of the best decisions in my life. I am finally safe and free.

(62) Anonymous, May 13, 2015 4:52 PM

What happens when abusive parents have aged & need us?

I, too, grew up with abusive parents. My sister was verbally & physically abusive - many times she attempted to stab me; she succeeded a couple of times. She also beat me up. But this was in early 1960's, when abusive behavior "stayed in the home". My mother was especially verbally & physically abusive; she never protected me from my sister. I wasn't THE daughter. As an adult, I maintained a friendly yet distant relationship - I wasn't THE daughter - and that was fine. But in 2011, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and my father's health was declining, too. They asked ME to be their power of attorney. I always figured it would be THE daughter, not me. I did a lot of soul searching & I simply could not "walk away"; my ethical neshama (soul) wouldn't let me. My father passed away in 2014; my mother's Alzheimer's disease has progressed rapidly. I nevertheless have ensured they have had excellent medical care, lived in appropriate facilities, & I have visited frequently. It's the ultimate irony of my life that my mother, who told me so often when I was young that I wasn't her daughter (I am biologically) now says "I love you so much, I care about you so much, I'm so glad you're my daughter." The skeptical part of me says, "Yeah, right, you need someone to take care of & you feel that you better say those words so I will continue to care for you." The other part of me says, "Well, perhaps her Alzheimer's disease has changed her personality so much that she truly loves me." I don't know the real emet (truth) & I probably never will. But, I could not, as a religiously observant Jew, abandon my parents regardless of their parenting skills (or lack thereof). It's an ongoing emotional struggle for me, but ultimately, I know that taking care of them was & is MY responsibility; I could not "live with myself" if I did not.

(61) Anonymous, May 13, 2015 3:11 PM


My mother was extremely verbally and occasionally physically abusive. my father was emotionally absent. a wonderful psychologist helped me with several ways to shut her down. My mother had a habit of saying "Well, that's just your opinion" in a very nasty, derisive manner, to discount my thoughts. I learned to say calmly, "yes it is." the second things was her habit of telling me that whatever I said or did was "wrong". I would reply, it's not wrong, its just different. and to try to either change the subject or go into another room. it took a lot out of me. she never changed although we had each moved half a continent away from my home town, the phone calls and very intermittent visits were very uncomfortable. When I received word that she had died, all I could do think that she couldn't hurt me any more and that my children (8 & 10) would not be caught in the middle. In my 70's now the memories still hurt. but I was able to know exactly what I didn't want to to do with my own kids. they are good adults now with their own happy children.

(60) anonymous, May 13, 2015 11:18 AM

Yes! Every word is correct. I too, grew.up in an abusive and neglectful home. I have reach out for rabbinic support; laws from torah and what those details are on respecting one's parents as well as professional psychological support in order to deal with my parents. The articles that I have read were never titled "honoring mother and father." They were titled "Honoring abusive parents." They are equipped with abuse and torah law along with conference findings from the notes of Jewish leaders of this and prior generations. I am tremendously grateful to Hashem that He has not brought down point blank "thou shalt honor thy parents- no matter what in the world they do.

(59) Nicky, May 13, 2015 5:45 AM

Thank you

I appreciate this article. In the last few months, I have made the decision that my family is to be communicated with in the light of charity, and not associated with my idea of family. Our conversations are to stay at a surface level and only when my mother feels the need to reach out to me, except during holidays in which it may hurt her if I don't say a very shallow hello. I figure she won't even notice for a couple years, and will think back to this article once she does.

It's making a huge difference in my life. I feel so much more at peace refraining from desiring a mother from her. There are plenty of mothers in my Jewish community that don't yell and scream, constantly blame me for the unhappiness in their life, point out all of my flaws, tell me how they don't understand why anyone would want to spend time with me or why I have to talk (when I'm only trying to engage in normal, healthy conversation), etc. The world got a lot lighter.

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