Passive Parental Abuse and Its Effects: Two Examples

People who strive to live a more fulfilling life eventually realize that in order for them to get better, they need to connect what went wrong in the past with why they have the problems that they have.

For most people, it’s not that difficult to eventually identify physical or sexual abuse as abuse, yet when it comes to more covert forms of trauma, they may feel confused and either stay in denial or make justifications for the people who hurt them—which eventually paralyzes them in self-blame, self-doubt, confusion, and other unrealistic and unproductive mental states and irrational behaviors.

Here are two common, hypothetical examples.

Example #1

“I would say my father was really bad and my mother was the good one. My father routinely beat me, and I feel really angry at him because of it.

My mother wasn’t violent, though. She was constantly anxious about everything. I remember as a child sitting in my room alone for hours and feeling pity for her. I felt worried about her and around her. I still feel I should help her.”

Example #2

“My mother is very controlling. She used to nag me about every small thing. It used to drive me nuts. She still does it; I can’t stand it. So I try to spend as little time with her as possible.

My father was a quiet man. He used to go to work, come back, go to his room, turn on the TV, drink a few beers, and fall asleep. I think he loved me, but I don’t think he knows who I am because we never talked and he didn’t show any interest in me. Sometimes it feels that perhaps he doesn’t even hear me because he doesn’t respond to what I am saying or acts as if I didn’t say anything. Sometimes I feel as if I am invisible around him.”

In the first example, the person recognized that the father was abusive and is even able to feel angry about it. Yet, they are unable to identify the mother’s passivity, dependency, and helplessness as harmful.

Therefore, the person can’t connect their emotional enmeshment with her and her lack of quality parenting with the unwarranted responsibility and chronic worry they felt as a child and still feel as an adult. And so they feel stuck, dependent, and unhappy.

In the second example, the person realizes the active harmful treatment where their mother is nagging them and trying to control them. So their instinctive, self-protective reaction is to feel annoyed and stay away from her because of her poor sense of boundaries. But because the father is “not doing anything hurtful,” it’s much harder to pinpoint what is going on and how it is harmful.

As a result, the person doesn’t see how the father’s parental neglect, emotional unavailability, the use of alcohol, and lack of engagement shaped certain aspects of their personality. And so they feel chronically lonely, or try to constantly prove themselves to get approval of others, or start a relationship with emotionally unavailable people, and so on. It continues until the person recognizes the connection between their early environment and current situation, and resolves it.

Closing Words

Identifying and resolving trauma that stems from parental passivity is much more difficult than recognizing active abuse. But the fact that something is not overt and doesn’t physically hurt doesn’t mean it’s less impactful. 

There are two reasons for that. One, because the physical or sexual abuse is usually more momentary and in your face, while passive, mental abuse is more continuous and hidden. And two, because physical pain is a strong indicator to us that there is something wrong, while inner pain is much more complicated, especially when you are still developing.

Childhood hurts leave a life-long trail of inner pain and haunts us in our adulthood—until we are slowly able to face and overcome it.

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