Abusive Parents

Can Abusive Parents Change? If So, What Does Change Look Like?

Can Abusive Parents Change? | Hopeful Panda

I think many of us hold onto the hope that our abusive parents can change, at least, if under the right circumstances. But can abusive parents actually change? If so, what does it take for change to happen? And when change does happen, what does it look like?

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My Abusive Mother Hasn’t Changed (Yet?)

Media love showing redemption arcs, especially when it comes to abusive people that miraculously recognize their toxic behavior after going through something life-changing. But we all know real life doesn’t work that way.

I’ve always thought, or at least hoped, my mother would change or at least acknowledge her abusive behavior if she suffered the consequences. But I was wrong.

She lost custody of her children and had social workers, lawyers, and a judge told her she was an unfit parent. She incriminated and completely humiliated herself in court. Yet she still believes she’s a good mother, that it’s the rest of us conspiring with the government against her.

Her children being estranged from her and even her own relatives avoiding her doesn’t seem to set off any light bulbs. She even listed me, the “psychopathic, narcissistic ugly, fat c*nt who called CPS on her”, as her emergency contact, which just shows how alone she really is in life.

Yet, she still believes she never did anything wrong and that karma will eventually get everyone else. With everything and everyone she has lost, she never stopped to think, “Maybe I’m the problem”.

So in my experience, my abusive parent has not changed and likely never will, unless maybe something seriously life-altering happens to her. But I’m confident even the ghosts of Christmas can’t change my mother.

Even after suffering the consequences of her behavior, my mother remains delusional and abusive as usual. And if she’s not changing or even attempting to change after everything she’s going through, she’s most likely never going to change. But hey, who really knows?

Besides, just because my abusive mother didn’t change doesn’t mean all abusive parents can’t change. But it does kind of mean that change is highly unlikely, especially for narcissistic parents.

So… Can Abusive Parents Change?

Whether an abusive parent can change depends on what caused them to be abusive in the first place and how much responsibility they’re willing to take for what they’ve done.

Parents who have personality disorders, for instance, are highly unlikely to change since personalities tend to remain relatively the same throughout one’s life.

They may be able to modify their behavior through therapy or other interventions. But it’s unlikely that they can completely change their core personality traits. So even if there seems to be change, it’s likely only surface-level.

And since narcissists tend to believe they’re always in the right, it is very unlikely for narcissistic parents to acknowledge they have a problem, which means very unlikely for change to happen. It will take a LOT to jumpstart any sort of desire to change, let alone go through actual change.

As for other types of abusive parents, sometimes a life-changing experience may trigger some form of redemption. But unfortunately, that’s few and far between.

First off, change is incredibly, incredibly difficult, not just for abusive people, but for people in general.

Take us for instance, undoing all the effects the abuse we experienced had on us will take a lifetime. Changing what we’re programmed early on to believe, do, and feel takes a LOT of effort.

So imagine all of that effort, but for abusive parents who tend to have deeply ingrained beliefs or attitudes that justify their behavior. It takes a lot to even acknowledge their harmful behavior. Imagine going through the whole painstaking process of actually changing for the better.

It took many years to form the abusive patterns. It’ll take many years to undo them.

So for the most part, I believe abusive people can’t change, at least not enough to make a difference.

What Will It Take for Change to Happen?

I think it’s in the adult children’s best interests to let go of the hope or idea that their abusive parent can change. As much as I strive for the idea of hope, hope in this case is actually toxic and harmful to us.

For change to actually happen, the abuser must want to change. But even wanting isn’t enough. They have to be willing to put in the effort. And that’s where a lot of abusive parents fall short.

Some might claim they want to change, but wouldn’t put forth enough effort or will revert back to how they were once it feels too difficult, which it will.

However, I think change is possible for certain toxic parents, like my father for example.

Enabling Parents Has the Most Potential for Change

Growing up, though my mother was the main perpetrator, my father still participated in abusing me as the enabling parent. However, the difference is that if he wasn’t with my mother, he likely wouldn’t be abusive.

Enabling parents are oftentimes abused themselves. This is by no means an excuse. Even if they were victims, it is NOT okay for enabling parents to play a role in abusing their children or failing to protect their children.

However, because enabling parents are oftentimes influenced by the abusive parent, they have the most potential for change as long as the abusive parent is out of the picture.

My father has his moments, but once he was away from my mother, I no longer considered him an abusive or even toxic parent.

And although he never truly acknowledged the role he played in the abuse, his current actions show that he’s trying to be better. His idea to involve CPS shows his desire to change the abusive situation we were all in.

So while it may be difficult for most abusive parents to change, I think enabling parents have the most potential for change as long as they are away from the main abusive parent.

But again, it depends on the person. They need to want to change for change to be possible.

What Does Change Look Like?

Abusers can get really good at apologizing or pretending they’ve changed just to suck their victims back in. Like me, you’ve probably experienced that before.

Therefore, them saying “sorry” is not enough. Even listing things they’ve done to you isn’t enough because it might just be an act. There has to be more than an apology to demonstrate actual change and a desire of wanting to change.

The following signs that may indicate an abusive parent is making progress toward actual change are inspired by author Lundy Bancroft in her book, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.

They acknowledge their abusive behavior and accept responsibility

The first step to change is to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

  • Your parent fully admits and acknowledges all the abusive and hurtful behavior they’ve done to you.
  • They’re able to identify those behaviors and understand the attitudes and beliefs they have that drive that behavior.
  • They no longer make excuses, shift blame, or play the victim in an attempt to justify their behavior.
  • They accept the consequences of their actions without complaints.

They are committed to change

Change is only possible if the person wants to change. And again, it takes work.

  • Your parent recognizes that change will be difficult.
  • They accept that overcoming their abusiveness will be a long, difficult process.
  • They sought or are seeking therapy to help them understand and improve their behavior.
  • They’re learning healthy coping skills to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

They treat you with respect

Parents who demonstrate positive change will treat you with respect, kindness, and support.

  • They’re willing to listen to your concerns and make an effort to understand your perspective.
  • They respect your boundaries.
  • They don’t force or pressure you to forgive them or have a relationship with them if you aren’t ready yet.

Their positive behavior is consistent

Some abusers get really good at “changing” to suck their victims back in. They know what to say and how to seem genuine that victims keep falling back in only to be disappointed all over again.

So make sure that your parent’s positive behavior is consistent rather than isolated incidents. It’s important that they’re continuing to make an effort in changing their behavior, whether that’s respecting your boundaries, seeking therapy, or keeping their emotions in check.

Of course, setbacks are bound to happen. And when they do, notice whether they’re remaining accountable for their actions or making excuses.

How your parent reacts to setbacks should be a telling sign of whether they’re actually progressing toward change or just pretending to be.

They don’t expect credit or praise for their improvements

If your parent is expecting or demanding credit or praise for their improvements, then that’s a likely sign that they’re not genuinely changing, but just doing so for some other gain.

It’s also a telling sign that they’re not changing at all if they treat their improvements as vouchers to be spent on occasional acts of abuse. Just because abuse is less frequent does not make it okay! That’s just another way to excuse and justify their abusive behavior.

And if your parent ever declares themselves as “cured”, “fixed”, or “changed”, then that’s a red flag and a likely sign that they have not changed.

People committed to actual change would not be so quick to claim those things. Change takes time. And most importantly, it’s up to the people they’ve hurt to determine whether they’ve actually changed or not.

Can Abusive Parents Change? What Does It Take for Change to Happen? What Does Change Look Like? | Hopeful Panda

What Can You Do to Change Your Abusive Parents?

If you have abusive parents, there’s nothing you can do to change them. It’s all on them. I’m sure you’ve tried all you can to get your abusive parent to acknowledge their actions and possibly change. I know I have.

But we can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change. We can’t make someone acknowledge a problem that doesn’t exist in their reality.

Your abusive parent’s change or lack thereof is not your responsibility. What you can do is take care of yourself and focus on your healing.

And for healing to be possible, you have to accept your parent as they are. This means accepting them for who they are right now and accepting that they will never be different. While there could be exceptions, it’s better for our well-being to let go of the hope that they will change.

If they do end up changing, great. But we can’t spend the rest of our lives hoping for that. So we have to let go of that idea and focus on ourselves instead.

Rather than hope for the parent your abusive parent can never be, try to focus on being the parent you wish you had, whether that’s for your children or for yourself. Be determined to break the cycle of abuse.

Having an abusive parent means there’s a chance of becoming abusive yourself. One of my biggest fears is becoming like my mother.

I’m not a perfect parent or partner. But as long as I acknowledge my toxic behaviors and take full responsibility for them when they happen, I will not end up like my mother.

We can’t change other people. But we can change ourselves.

What If My Abusive Parent Did Change?

If your parent did change, whether you want to forgive your parent or accept them back into your life is up to you. It’s completely within your right to reject them, even if they’ve shown genuine change.

They’ve hurt you and you have every right to feel how you feel about it. You have the right to choose who you want or do not want to have a relationship with.

You can be a part of their journey if you’d like but know that you don’t have to. And if you choose to, please remember that change is difficult and ongoing. There will be setbacks along the way.

So while you can support your parent’s journey, please don’t forget about your own. Don’t let their journey overshadow yours.

Some Final Words

While people do have the capacity to change, they need to deeply want to and be committed to all aspects of change to be able to truly change. And it’s oftentimes in our best interests to not expect anything for our sake.

Try to work towards acceptance of your parent for who they are – whether they’re abusive or working towards change. Either way, know that it is not your job to fix them. Meanwhile, focus on the changes you can control to improve your own life.

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

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