What if our parenting tactics are mirroring abuser tactics?

Parenting tactics that mirror abuse – a blog discussing common parenting tactics that mirror the tactics used in domestic and sexual violence.

Jessica Eaton


Working in trauma and abuse often causes you to reflect on everyday, seemingly normal behaviours that replicate and reinforce abuse, control and violence. Sometimes you notice a behaviour in a family member, or you become intolerant to some forms of language. Sometimes you notice a behaviour or value you hold yourself, that you then have to confront and unpick.

This blog will be challenging for many. It was challenging for me to write. I’m a parent too, of two children who are growing up quickly. I’m not a perfect parent. I often joke that parenting is a lot like having a personal social experiment at home. A social experiment that you conduct for 18 years and see what you produce at the end of it.

When you become a parent, you have no idea what you’re doing. You go from being a single or couple of adults that can just about cook dinner and not poison yourselves, to being totally and utterly responsible for a tiny human life. At some point, that realisation hits us and we sit there thinking, ‘Oh shit. Can I do this?’

We all go at it from completely different angles. We all try lots of tactics. We read parenting books. We ask other parents. We copy our own parents. We ask google. We go on forums and ask for advice. We all find things that work and things that backfire. Parenting faux pas are common. Parenting mistakes are common. Parenting regrets are common.

Know what else is common?

Sexual and domestic abuse. Super common. As a human, you’re more likely to be abused and raped in a relationship than to have green eyes. Think of all the people you know (even yourself) who might have green eyes. Billions of people. Well, technically you are around 10 times more likely to be abused or raped in a relationship than have green eyes (Eaton and Paterson-Young, 2018) – and we see green eyes as pretty common, right? Yet we still think abuse is rare or something that people make up for attention. You don’t catch people saying ‘Woaaaah green eyes are so uncommon. You must be making it up. There’s no way you have green eyes.’

Anyway, abuse is common. Parenting is common. What have our parenting tactics got to do with abuse?

Well, I’ve been thinking and maybe it’s more related than we think.

I’m not talking about parents who actually abuse, rape or harm their children, I’m talking about the ones who don’t. Or the ones who think they don’t. The ones who are using accepted, socially normalised parenting styles that mirror abuse – without even knowing it. Loads of us. Maybe most of us.

What would that mean for us, as a population of parents, if we realised that some of our chosen tactics to bring our kids up, were actually mirroring sexual and domestic violence and abuse?

Are we normalising abusive relationships in our parenting?

Should we be surprised that children and young adults can’t identify abusers if we behave like them too?

Here are some behaviours and tactics commonly used by parents that mirror abuse.

Physical assault and violence

Okay well, let’s start with the obvious. Arguably some people will feel this is abuse anyway, and that’s justified. But what about the parents who tell you that kids just need a good smack to keep them in line? The parents who slap, pinch, grab, shove, smack and drag their children and adolescents are mimicking exactly what a violent abuser would do to them. How will these children know that they are in an abusive relationship when they are older, if we have always used these behaviours on them ourselves? If we have spent their whole childhoods hitting them every time we got angry and lost control, why would they ever leave an abusive partner who hit them when they got angry and lost control? How can we tell children that it’s not okay for their boyfriend or girlfriend to do that to them, but it’s okay for us to do it to them?

And how can we teach our children not to become violent abusers to their own children if we have role modelled that behaviour to them? How can we say to our children ‘do not hit that other child, that’s very naughty!’ if we hit our kids?

Shouting at children

Shouting at children is pretty accepted all over the world. Parents do it, carers do it, general public do it, teachers do it, police do it. Shouting at children is seen as some sort of right of an adult. Children are not allowed to shout at each other, or shout at adults, but we are allowed to shout at them.

Some people shout in childrens’ faces, shout in rage, shout in frustration – some even say they shout as some sort of ‘shock factor’ to ‘get through’ to children.

The reality is that we are teaching children and adolescents that if their partners or friends shout at them, that’s a sign that they are in an abusive relationship. However, why would they recognise shouting as abusive at all if they had spent years being shouted at by us? Would they think that people who love them shout at them? Would they think that shouting at their own children is normal? Would they think that shouting at someone is a good way to get their point across?

Name calling

With similar effect to physical violence and shouting – name calling is going to change the way the child understands themselves and their relationships. You might be wondering what I mean by name calling, as many parents would probably tell themselves they’ve never done it.

However, I’m talking about calling our kids ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’, ‘idiot’, ‘little shit’, ‘bad’, ‘a nuisance’, ‘waste of space’, ‘doing my head in’, ‘sick of the sight of you’, ‘thick’… and a lot more words and names that I know some people use about their kids and to their kids.

The issue here is that reading these terms in black and white will make you feel a bit sick. But how often do parents lose control of a situation and resort to name calling and shouting? Probably quite often. How many of us have said this or had this said to us? Loads of us.

And then how will those same children react when they find themselves in a relationship with a partner who tells them they’re stupid or a waste of space? What on earth makes us think that those same kids would identify and escape an abuser who mirrors the way their parents treat them?

But what about the more subtle things we do as parents? The threats, the grooming, the control? How might that mirror an abuser?

Threats: empty and real

Lots of abusive relationships contain threats. Some threats are empty and some are not. However, living under threat in a domestic or sexual violence situation is extremely stressful and traumatic. As an adolescent or adult, it might mean living with someone who constantly threatens to break your things, take your phone away, stop you from seeing your friends, telling your secrets, stop you from seeing your family or threatening to stop you from going out or doing something important to you.

It might even mean threatening to leave you, threatening to find someone else or threatening to report you for something. Some people know that the abuser is using empty threats to control – and some never really know if the threats are real or empty. Either way, they serve to control the victim and keep them in check. They utilise their favourite or most important things to threaten them with.

This got me thinking. We do a lot of this in parenting. How many parents threaten children with removing their favourite thing, stopping them from seeing their friends, stopping them from going to their clubs, taking away their most treasured possessions? How many parents threaten their kids with the police or a care home? How many parents threaten their teenagers with kicking them out or leaving them?

The reality is, parents are using empty and real threats against their children for control tactics. They are very common ways of parenting:

If you don’t do this, I’ll take away/ break/smash your xbox’

‘If you don’t behave at school, we will kick you out.’

‘If you don’t get better grades, we will stop you from seeing all of your friends.’

‘If you don’t eat all of those vegetables, I’ll tell your teacher how bad you are at home.’

People don’t realise how much these tactics mirror abuse. This is exactly what thousands of victims of domestic and sexual violence live through every day.

‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll stop you from seeing your parents.’

‘If you don’t stop doing that, I will leave you.’

‘If you don’t do what I want, I’ll snap that phone in half.’

‘If you don’t do what I want, I will tell all your friends that you are a liar.’

It’s all the same tactic. It might be being used in a slightly different way, but it’s the same human mechanism being used. It’s the threat of something horrible to control another person. To keep them in fear of that horrible thing happening to them in order to make them do what we want them to do.

Obviously, the problem here is that we teach children to live in this context for years. And then for some strange reason, we expect children and adults to be able to recognise this an abusive behaviour when they are in a relationship. We tell them that anyone who threatens them to control them is abusing them… but it’s only what their parents and teachers have been doing to them for 18 years. So how come it’s okay for them to do it but not a new partner? Why would anyone see this behaviour as abnormal or abusive?

And how can we tell those same children NOT to use these tactics on each other in their relationships? Aren’t we supposed to role model healthy relationships?

Rewarding children when they do what you want

This final one is interesting, because it is seen as a positive parenting and professional technique to use with children and adolescents. However, we have to see the parallels between positive reinforcement using rewards and praise – and the grooming process in sexual and domestic abuse.

It doesn’t mean that positive reinforcement with our kids is wrong, but it does mean that years and years of controlling and raising our kids using rewards and praise primes them for relationships and grooming processes that use gifts, rewards and praise.

For example, if our kids don’t want to do something at all and we manipulate them by offering a gift or praise, that mirrors exactly what some abusers and offenders will do. Look:

Child of 8 years old who hates vegetables

‘If you eat all of these vegetables, I’ll give you a cookie. So you have to eat all of them. Then you will get a cookie for being so good.’

Child of 12 years old who is being groomed

‘If you try this vodka, I’ll buy you some new headphones. All you have to do is try this vodka. It’ll be fine. Then I’ll buy you those new headphones.’

Child of 14 years old who is being groomed

‘I’ll give you everything you want and need if you just touch me. All you gotta do is give me what I need and I’ll give you what you need.’

See how it’s exactly the same?

It’s identifying what the child or adolescent wants and then using it as an incentive to do things they don’t want to do. The agenda might be different (getting your kids to eat carrots versus trying to get a child drunk so you can abuse them) – but the tactic is the same.

And when the tactic is the same, and it’s been used every day for 18 years, why would we expect children to notice or identify this in the grooming process in child sexual abuse, domestic abuse or sexual violence as they get older?

Final thoughts

Millions of our children will be abused, raped or harmed in relationships. Millions of us already have been. There are charities, governments, experts, academics, activists and scientists trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent and why people cannot identify abuse. The same groups are still scratching their heads as to why children and adolescents can’t get themselves out of child abuse and child sexual exploitation.

One thing I always say when I’m teaching is that we need to stop seeing grooming and abuse as a monstrous, rare, sick thing that only a handful of humans do.

We have to start seeing grooming and abuse as a common extension of normal, every day tactics and mechanisms humans use to communicate and manipulate each other. The outcome might be different, but the tactics and approaches are all the same. And millions of people are abusing children using those normal, everyday tactics.

What if we are missing the point? What if we are expecting children (and therefore adults) to spot behaviours and tactics and approaches in abusers that are completely normal in parents and teachers?

What if we are laying the foundations for abuse and control from birth?

What if the way we talk to and manipulate our children in an effort to bring them up, is actually teaching them that abuse, control, threat and bribery is normal?

Aren’t abusers just using the exact same tactics as parents, carers and teachers that kids spend 24 hours a day with?

Isn’t it strange that we have such high expectations of children and adolescents to notice, recognise and act on behaviours and tactics that we tell them are abusive and manipulative – but have featured in their lives since birth?

Written by Jessica Eaton

Web: http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Tweet: @JessicaE13Eaton

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jessicaforenpsych

2018: My year in review video is here


110 thoughts on “What if our parenting tactics are mirroring abuser tactics?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this and agree 100% will all your arguments. There is way to much abuse being inflicted on children especially form their parents. I also would love to hear your methods of how you raised your children. I have 3 kids, 2 daughters 21 and 18, and a son who is 13. Not one have them has ever been hit and since my son was born they have all been raised peacefully with mutual respect and negotiation. I applaud your courage because I know how difficult it is to have these conversations.

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  3. Yes I agree. I’ve always felt that the parent-child relationship is the primary relationship where one person begins to learn about power – and how to negotiate dynamics where there is unequal power, in a healthy vs unhealthy way – and that has broader implications for shaping societal dynamics eg oppression, hierarchical relationships as well.


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  7. I would love to hear how you would recommend disciplining or correcting behavior and attitudes. I don’t disagree with your article just curious what the solution or different options would be. It’s great to see the problem but how can we change?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I perfectly agree with your thoughts on parenting and ways we abuse our children without knowing and as such they can’t identify when they are been abused in their relationships.

    But I have a problem here, if all those things parents do are abusive, and manipulative, how then can we relate with our children without abusing them and as well without making them develop negative behaviors?

    What is the place of discipline in raising up children? Or do we say no need to discipline children?

    If I get you rightly, you mean the rod in raising up children is abusive! But permit me to make reference to God’s word which says, “spare the rod and spoil the child!”

    How can we get a balance in raising our children without abusing them because we( parents, teachers, and caregivers )often use most of this parenting methods you mentioned above in order to curb our children of negative behaviors and excesses not necessarily with the heart deposition of abusing them as the ‘actual abuser’ will

    Looking forward for a reply from you.


    1. I agree that I was hoping to see some of this fleshed out.

      But in the meantime, I’d refer you to LR Knost’s littleheartsbooks.org which addresses both the “spare the rod” discussion and the ways to use genuine connection and communication to “train up a child”. Another great resource is ahaparenting.com

      The reality is, that (unless a child is deeply broken because of previous abuse, or because of some other physiological imbalance), children WANT to connect to their caregivers, seek out relationship, try to please and have an innate desire to learn and model their behavior after the people who raise them. Understanding that you are not “training” a child the way you would train a dog, but helping a young person grow into the full and healthy expression of their self changes the way you deal with them. It starts with respect for the person, even when they are tiny immature people. 🙂 (And, if they HAVE been broken, or are truly ill in some other way, even more patience and careful interaction is important)


  9. I love this post 😭😭 I’m from a small city in India and here people r so narrow minded and life is full of rules of regulation. I am 18 but I still need to follow hundreds of rules of my parents.. I’m not allowed to go out after 8 pm I can’t stay out after 8 pm, if I go out at Daytime I need to tell my parents full details where I’m going with whom, and also phone number of my friends so my mom can call them and ask if I’m with them😞 my friends laugh at my life. they think I’m looser.
    I can wear dress evrytime if my parents approved it . I have never ever buy any dress till now of my choice. My parents control everything. Everyday they abuse me verbally and so often physically too . And evrytime they ask me to do something. First they explain what I need to do and the next things they will say what will happen to me if I don’t do it like break my mobile or stop my food or beat me etc… While I was young I thought it’s normal for parents to beat and shout at childrens but now I’m almost 19 still o have no freedom. My parents also stopped my studies and forced me to work in a mall and I need to give my mom Everything I earn . I get $20 per month but I need tell them everything what I did with that money. Now I’m just saving up money and studio secretary and preparing for a university entrance exam. If I pass it I’ll run away from home Bcos I have lots of dream in life. I hate to live in India 😭😭 here nobody cares. But I talk to many people from ENGLAND and Europe they r so nice to me .I will go to Europe someday 😢 I hate my monster dad .


  10. Wow wow wow. Mind boggling. So whats the solution? How do we get kids to behave well if all the tactics we use are failing?


  11. This is an interesting post and brings up some important issues but I admit that I’m not so keen to see all the parallels to abuse that you describe. The fact is, there are many different relationships in life, all with distinct purposes unique from each other. The way we relate to our parents will be different than the way we relate to our lover. The way we relate to our boss will be different than the way we relate to our best friend. Etc. The way we relate to our children is an especially unique relationship because we start with them from the beginning of their lives and have a very specific


  12. You bring out a lot of valid points. I would like to see possible solutions and alternatives or even a link to those resources!


  13. This article is over the top. If we lived with (can’t say “raised”, because that would imply dominance 🙄) children in the manner you are implying we should, they would become psychopathic criminals. It is laughable that you think threatening to take away a device is akin to grooming for abuse. Totally ridiculous. I hope my kids never have to encounter yours. I’ve taught them boundaries, which is an essential part of parenting.


  14. I thought you offered some excellent insights here. Maybe you were trying to keep this short because of it fitting into a word count limit, but I feel the article stopped short. I don’t agree with simply saying that “we are laying the foundations for abuse and control from birth” without a follow up bit about how to change some of the parenting tactics. To my relief, I didn’t identify with any of the examples of parenting comments, but still I think you can’t leave parents who want to do better just holding the bag. Is there a follow up to this?


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