Nobody agrees on everything all the time. Nobody goes through life without some screaming or arguments. And if a parent says, “I can’t believe you did this! How stupid can you be?” to their child, it’s not automatically abuse. Neither is spanking a child. On the other hand, if a mother slaps her twenty-year-old daughter, then maybe that is abuse. And although taking your mother to court is not something to do immediately or without weighing the consequences, if the slap is not an isolated incident (and let’s face it, slapping a twenty-year-old rarely is), then maybe the daughter should think about it. Because that slap is either harassment or abuse.
So where do we draw the line?
Let’s leave the question of corporal punishment aside. Instead, let’s focus on verbal and emotional abuse.
I think one of the easiest ways to tell if something is abuse is to talk to the family. There are a few classic characteristics to abuse:
– The victim is always wrong; the abuser is always right.
– If the victim were to have behaved differently, the abuser would not have responded in such a fashion.
– The victim is afraid of the abuser.
– The abuser doesn’t see anything wrong with his or her actions; to the contrary, they are always justified.
– The abuser may feel that the victim ‘made him/her’ act in a certain way. “You made me hit you.”
– The victim will often take responsibility for the abuser’s behavior: “If I were better, s/he wouldn’t have hit me.”
– The abuser is under so much pressure that the victim should have known better
– The abuser’s behaviors are often inconsistent and may change dramatically in a short span of time.
What’s important to remember is that abuse is a pattern, not an isolated incident. If you get frustrated one day and slap your kid on the hand, as long as it is only once a year or once every six months, you’re not abusive. But if it becomes a habit, or happens once in a while after you’ve been yelling at your kid for half an hour straight, every single day – then maybe you are.
Okay, that probably wasn’t a good example. But point made.
If that is abuse, then what is a fight?
A fight happens when two people of equal power disagree. Abuse happens when one person wields more power than the other. It may be husband and wife, with either one being abusive. A friend may be abusive, or a coworker. Usually, though, a child can’t abuse a parent – simply because they are not in charge. They cannot throw the parent out. They cannot hit the parent without getting seriously injured. They cannot refuse to feed the parent. They might bite the parent, or hit the parent. But do you think that will go unnoticed? Probably not. Unless the biter or hitter is a toddler or preschooler who is just learning (and sometimes even then) the parent will usually strike back. Children cannot abuse their parents until the roles switch and the parents become dependent on the children.
There is a fight, where we are both equal. And then there is abuse, where one person wields their power in an unhealthy way over another person. And if the less powerful person asks for help from family or close friends, they can usually expect to be told that the abuser is right, and they should apologize.
Because that’s the way life works. No one wants to get on the wrong side of the more powerful person – especially when that person has a temper and a tendency to be abusive . . . even if the person in question doesn’t realize that it’s abuse.
*This post was inspired by my sister, who told me to write about [burning] bridges, and the importance of building bridges in our lives. Since I don’t like to think that I burn bridges just for fun, I started thinking of what I could write instead . . .