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How should parents respond to abusive adult children?

translate abusive adult children

It is easy for parents to excuse the attitudes or behaviors of their children, no matter their age, because of the long histories and dynamics parents and children have. Situations can become even more complicated if an elderly parent is dependent on the care of an adult child. If that relationship is abusive, the parent is in a difficult situation and may not know how to respond.

If you are experiencing verbal, mental, emotional, or physical abuse, wait for a safe opportunity and contact a trusted family member or friend to remove you from the situation as soon as possible or call 911. Many states have call hotlines for elder abuse. If you are unsure if you are experiencing abuse, go to the National Institutes for Health Elder Abuse website for more information and guidance:

At the heart of abuse is selfishness, a sin we all struggle with in one way or another. Anger and mistreatment of others are symptoms of the underlying selfishness. Understanding this can help us in knowing how to respond.

First and foremost, pray about the abusive situation (Philippians 4:6–7), asking God to direct in word and deed. God promises to generously give wisdom where needed and asked for (James 1:5). If the adult child is a Christian, pray specifically for the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the intervention of the body of Christ (Galatians 6:1–10).

If it is safe, consider confronting the adult child who is perpetrating the abuse. Jesus is our best example for this in how He handled confrontations with those closest to Him, the disciples. He did not sweep anything under the proverbial rug but addressed sin in individualized ways.

Caroline Newheiser, co-author of When Words Matter Most, writes, “Christians love each other well when they address one another’s sins with Christlike love. Think of how Jesus dealt with the sin of his disciples: the anger of James and John, the fear of Peter, the doubt of Thomas, and the pride of all twelve as they debated who would be greatest in the kingdom. Christ confronted, instructed, and restored. He always spoke the truth in love, although sometimes sternly. But his disciples knew that he loved them, even in their weakness and sin” (, accessed 2/8/22).

Scripture repeatedly encourages open, loving communication about sin in passages such as Proverbs 27:5–6, Luke 17:3, Galatians 6:1, Hebrews 3:13, and 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Above all, rebuke must be done in love (1 John 4:11), which means preparing one’s heart beforehand through repentance, prayer, and meditation on Scripture.

It is especially important in abusive relationships to have an advocate during the confrontation for safety purposes. It could be another family member or two, a trusted friend, or a pastor, someone who will help communicate what is being experienced by the elderly parent. Ask God for the right person, timing, and words.

Scripture is our best weapon against sin and evil, as it is sharper than any double-edged sword, able to judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). The Holy Spirit can use His Word to convict in ways that we cannot (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

God is the defender of the fatherless and widow, those who are vulnerable and often mistreated (Exodus 22:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:6). He will bring justice to those hurt by others.

If you suspect elder abuse or are experiencing it, please consult these resources with the help of a trusted family member or friend to safely end the abuse and get help:

Eldercare Locator

National Adult Protective Services Association

National Center on Elder Abuse

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How should parents respond to abusive adult children?
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This page last updated: February 16, 2022