How to Honour the Mother or Father who Abused You

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Bible says to honour our mother and father. But what does that look like if our parents were toxic? How do we honour our abusive parents?

In 2017, I made the hard decision to have zero contact with my parents.

When I was a child they were physically and emotionally abusive, and often neglectful. As an adult their toxicity shifted to manipulation, gossip, and lies.

But like many Christians, I stayed in the relationship far too long because the fifth commandment was used by both my abusers and onlookers to shame me into submitting to the abuse. A misunderstanding of this commandment was the source of a lot of bad fruit in my life.

Yes, the ten commandments say to honour your mother and father. This is reiterated in Ephesians 6:2-3. But I wholeheartedly believe that the God of love we see in scripture doesn’t ask us to keep breaking bread with our abusers as if none of those awful things occurred.  He doesn’t ask me to lay down at their feet, begging to be kicked again.

For my own well-being, and for my kids, I had to walk away. What followed was a long journey of discovering how to honour my abusive parents from afar. This is what I have learned.

1. Be discerning about who you share the gory details with, and why.

I am not suggesting that we should all stuff our abuse and neglect deep down in order to preserve our parents’ reputations. Our secrets keep us sick, and it is healthy and good to give voice to our most pained places. And sometimes we will have a moral duty to warn people about the dangers our parents may pose. But not everyone needs to hear about the specific reasons my parents are no longer a part of my life. I wade through that stuff with my therapist, my mentors, my best friends, and my spouse.

It is okay to need validation. To need someone to hear your stories and agree that they are awful, that the sins committed against you were atrocious and that you did not deserve to be treated that way. Sometimes in order to begin healing we need people to confirm that our wounds are real. But that is very different from spilling our stories from a place of hate or anger or vengeance.

The difference is our motivations.

In the past I have shared with people about my parents’ actions, not because I needed to for my own healing and growth, but because I wanted that person to know how awful my parents treated me. I wanted to punish my parents by spilling their secrets. This doesn’t honour them or aid in my own healing. It is vengeful and keeps me stuck in a place of victimhood.

So speak your truth. As Anne Lamotte says in her book Bird by Bird: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But know why you are telling your story. Be honest with yourself about your motivations.

2. Seek your own healing

The abuse and trauma (whether it be physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual) that we bore at the hands of our parents was not our fault.  But seeking healing and restoration of our own mind, body and soul is our responsibility.  Part of honouring my mother and father is to stop wishing for a better past, to stop blaming them for my current suffering. 

With a host of wise and loving advisers (therapists, mentors, friends) seek to acknowledge the ways you’ve been wounded and begin healing.  Break the cycle of abuse.  Be a walking example of grace, especially in situations where you hold power over another person, like as a parent, boss or teacher. Not perfectly, but increasingly. 

Honour your abusive parents by releasing them of all responsibility for your future. Choose to heal, despite the ways they failed you. Honour your parents by stepping boldly into the life God has for you.

For some of us, that also means to resist the urge to self sabotage. To fight the temptation to stay small and broken. We think we are retaliating against our abusers when we sabotage ourselves, but really the only people getting hurt are ourselves and our loved ones. Choose, if you can, to thrive.

3. Avoid turning them into caricatures

It is tempting, especially when we are estranged from someone, to remember only certain aspects of them.  To remember the anger, the neglect, the lies, or the violence.  But your parent is a whole person, complicated, full of contradictions.  Surely they did some things right. Did they feed you? Put a band-aid on a scraped knee? Take you for haircuts? Tuck you in? Yes, it wasn’t enough.  It doesn’t make up for the toxicity and abuse of power over you. It doesn’t earn them a place in your life.  But do your best to paint the picture in your mind as honestly as possible.  Nobody deserves to be caricatured by their worst moments.

4. Pray for them if you can.

Early on, it was suggested to me that I pray for my parents all the things I want for myself. At first, I couldn’t. I would try to take my mind to a place of compassion and I could not. It was as if a wall went up between my mind and my heart and everything went blank. But eventually, over time, I began to ease into it. I could pray that they would feel loved. That they would feel safe. That they would grow in faith.

What I have learned about prayer is that it changes me, not always my circumstance. The act of praying for our enemies, for the people who have hurt us most, humanizes them. We begin to see them as broken people in a broken world. It softens our heart towards them because we cannot simultaneously pray that God reveals His magnificent love to someone but also wish bad things for them.

If you cannot pray for your parent yet, give it time. Try again. Keep trying. Not for their sake, but for yours. Our bodies and minds and souls aren’t designed to carry resentments forever, you deserve respite from the deep wounds of resentment.

5. Know that it is not your job to heal the relationship.

You can simultaneously honour your abusive parents and also limit or end your relationship with them.

My old therapist used to remind me regularly that the burden of reconciliation always rests on the abuser.  If the abuse victim tries to fix things, we are just laying down at the abusers’ feet to accept more abuse. In fact, honouring our parents as fellow image-bearers of God, humans with free will, sometimes means allowing them to experience the relational consequences of their actions against us.
Bottom line: If your parents are toxic, you get to decide how much of their poison you are willing to drink. You don’t need to feel guilt or shame for protecting yourself and your family from the toxic forces of your upbringing. And you don’t have to have a relationship with them in order to honour your abusive parents.

It was never your fault.

Abusive people have a way of making us feel it was our fault. We were told that we were too sensitive, or too dramatic, or too needy. Or maybe that we were bad, or wrong, or difficult. But even if we do identify with some of those terms, the abuse was still undeserved.

What happened to you and me, whether the abuse was physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, or took some other form, is wrong. It is in direct opposition to God’s design for parenthood, and nothing you did or could have done made you deserving of that kind of treatment. You deserved better. Period.

All the best on your journey of healing. Please know that you do not walk this road alone.

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