The Elephant in Families

Abuse is often invisible to outsiders; those who are aggressive may look like upstanding community members outside the family. Confiding what is happening may be met with disbelief. Family may also feel they need to protect the people they love.

Abuse may also be invisible or unnamed within the family. Children may grow up accepting the treatment as “normal.”

Naming this elephant in families involves examining healthy parenting as well as abusive practices.

Healthy parenting involves some control, especially with young children. Control in this context isn’t good or bad; it’s the form it takes that makes it positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy.

Which is better?A parent:

  • Expecting a young child to fend for herself and care for the parent or
  • Never allowing a child to choose what she wants to do.


We call the first neglect, which is a from of abuse. Young children become overwhelmed if expected to do things that are beyond their capabilities. They may develop anxiety and poor confidence, retaining a sense that they don’t know how to do things right when they become adults.  If they are able to have some success in managing this neglect, children can develop resilience and confidence, but they may also learn to expect too much of themselves and others.

The second represents intrusive control. This results in children developing poor self-confidence since they can’t exercise any autonomy. They may become dependent on others to take care of them as adults. They may even have trouble knowing what they think or want.

Neither of these examples represent healthy parenting. They demonstrate that examining control in families means looking at both inappropriate lack of guidance and heavy control.

Children need parenting that nurtures, has reasonable expectations, sets firm limits, and models healthy ways of settling conflict.

Having a good balance of these encourages them to:

  • Learn about the world,
  • Develop self-confidence,
  • Learn from mistakes,
  • Discover who they are and what they like to do,
  • Observe their world,
  • Express themselves, and
  • Disagree in healthy ways.

The seeds of aggressive control are often sewn in our families. Behaviors  such as:

  • Name-calling,
  • Put downs,
  • Questioning what someone feels,
  • Isolating from friends,
  • Restricting extracurricular activities, and
  • Beating and other physical abuse

are all forms of abuse that damage children’s psyches.

Growing up in a controlling family often leads to more vulnerability with other controlling people. Effects like:

  • Poor self-esteem,
  • Lack of confidence,
  • Difficulty setting limits,
  • Fear of anger, and
  • Problems with assertiveness

make it harder for people to set boundaries. This may trap them in controlling work or intimate relationships. Another result is learning to protect against control by walling off and limiting closeness to others. Either of these restricts freedom to live the lives we want.

Another result of growing up in a controlling family is learning to control others. Experiencing it and identifying with the aggressive one occurs since it’s often a way of protecting themselves from victimization.

We bond to what is there for us – if it’s healthy, great. If it’s not, we still learn what is there and take it into adulthood unless we are exposed to healthier alternatives. These may come from playmates’ families, teachers, ministers or other caring adults. Or absorbing new strategies may wait until the person seeks therapy to learn about boundaries and non-aggressive forms of relating.

I encourage people not to blame themselves for the results of what they received as children. Taking responsibility as an adult and seeking opportunities for change is honorable.

There are entire books written about how abusive control affects children. One such is If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World byDan Neuharth.* I encourage readers who would find this information helpful to seek this or another book out.


  • Neuharth, Dan Ph.D. If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World.  HarperCollins, New York, 1998.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.