Abuse Effects

Reactive Abuse to Parents: Meaning, Impact, and How to Cope

Reactive Abuse | Hopeful Panda

During my healing journey, I came across the concept of reactive abuse. And honestly, it made me feel a little hurt and angry.

So my mother has said countless times that I’ve been abusing her for years. I’m aware it’s likely projection. But it did make me wonder, was I technically abusive to her as well?

I admit that I wasn’t the nicest to her sometimes. Actually, I was even pretty mean at points, especially when I was a teenager. I’ve mocked or made fun of her at times, called her the B-word once, and given her the finger maybe twice. And my biggest thing of all, I talked back and argued a lot.

I mean, is that considered abusive behavior? And if it is, does that mean I’m abusive?

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What is Reactive Abuse?

Just because my reactions could be considered abusive, context matters a lot.

Reactive abuse is when you react aggressively or defensively to your parent’s mistreatment. And that reaction could be seen as abusive.

Back when I was still in the fog of self-loathing, I’d say “Yeah, I guess I’m abusive”. I’d blame myself and say that she was only mean to me because I was mean to her. But when I truly think about it, it’s really the other way around. I wouldn’t be this way in the first place if she treated me with kindness and respect.

Due to the dynamics in the parent-child relationship, when a child is seen as “abusive”, the parent is likely the one manipulating the situation to portray the child as the aggressor so they can deflect attention away from their own bad behavior.

My teachers and relatives who aren’t tainted by my mother’s stories would consider me well-behaved and respectful. Meanwhile, in my mother’s eyes, I’m an abusive, rebellious psychopath (her words).

She claims that I was always terrible, even as a child. I constantly screamed and threw tantrums. And my father corroborates her claims. My grandmother though, remembered me as a sweet child who always wanted to help. And I find this very interesting.

First off, I was a child. Even if I was a spoiled, troublemaking brat, I don’t believe it’s my fault. But what’s interesting is that my grandmother’s perspective of little me doesn’t match my parents’. So even as a child, my behavior towards someone seemed to be based on how they treated me.

So I can assume that my parents, my mother especially, are the reason I’m even considered “terrible” to begin with, right?

Signs of Reactive Abuse

So reactive abuse usually occurs in response to constant mistreatment over time. Sometimes, you just reach that breaking point where one little thing your abuser does can cause an extreme reaction from you that could be seen as overblown or abusive.

Here are some signs of reactive abuse. Note that these behaviors are in response to the abuser’s behavior, whether it’s at the moment they do it to you or when you’ve just finally reached a breaking point.

  • Verbal outbursts like arguments, shouting matches, or verbal attacks such as insults or threats
  • Physical retaliation
  • Emotional manipulation like guilt-tripping, gaslighting, or playing the victim to retaliate or gain control
  • Passive aggressive behavior like using sarcasm or subtle acts of sabotage to express hostility or resentment
  • Withdrawal or stonewalling
  • Escalating conflict by being unwilling to compromise, refusing to be “wrong” in an argument, or attempting revenge

The Problem with the Term “Reactive Abuse”

The difference between the parent and the “reactively abusive” child is that the abuser intentionally starts the abusive behavior. Meanwhile, the child is only “abusive” as a result of the initial abuse they’re getting.

The term “reactive abuse” itself is misleading and problematic. It suggests that the victim is also doing the abuse and shifts the blame onto the victim.

In a way, it may also imply that the victim is somehow responsible for starting it or making the abuse worse, which can worsen victim-blaming from others and the victim’s own feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame.

The term also doesn’t acknowledge the existing power dynamics between the abuser and victim. On the outside with zero context, the victim’s actions could be seen just as bad. But when you’re the one in the situation, it’s not that simple. Abusers can be masters at making their victims look like the crazy ones.

While it may be true sometimes that the victim can also be abusive, reactive abuse is oftentimes a form of self-defense or coping mechanism.

Instead of “reactive abuse”, a better term to describe this would maybe be defensive retaliation. It takes the blame away from the victim and acknowledges their response as a defensive reaction to a perceived threat or mistreatment.

The Negative Impact of Reactive Abuse

If you were a child, then your reactions to your parent’s abuse were not your fault. You modeled your behavior after them and never learned the proper ways to cope.

However, any response that can be considered “reactive abuse” is still objectively toxic. Insulting someone because they insulted you first doesn’t automatically put you in the right. But most importantly, it usually makes you feel worse and ends up hurting you.

For instance, there are plenty of times when keeping my mouth shut would’ve stopped the abuse at the moment. But talking back resulted in even more hurtful verbal abuse, and sometimes even a beating.

I don’t blame myself for this anymore because I didn’t know any better. But now that I do know better, it’s better to use methods like gray rocking rather than fight back and potentially escalate the situation.

I believe it’s important to stand up and defend ourselves. But we also have to pick our battles and try to be more mindful of how we react to a situation, especially if we or someone we care about could get hurt.

Not only can your reaction escalate a situation and potentially bring on more abuse, but it can also be used against you. Your parent can use it to justify their abusive behavior or claim that you’re the aggressor. And if your reaction goes far enough, there could even be legal consequences.

On top of that, aggressive reactions can also push away potential sources of support, making it difficult to seek help.

When I talked back to my mother, many people sided with her even if she started it. My siblings were more liked and sympathized than me because they didn’t talk back like I did.

And if there’s enough evidence against you, why would anyone want to believe you’re the victim, especially when your parent can be good at feigning innocence while making you look like the bad guy?

So in the end, is it really worth it to retaliate when it mostly just ends up hurting you more?

How to Overcome Reactive Abuse

Even if reactive abuse may be justified in certain instances, it’s still too risky and harmful. There are safer and healthier ways to deal with your parent’s abuse than retaliating.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should just take the abuse. But it’s important to know when your reactions could be making things worse. Your safety should be the priority, and retaliation will usually just further endanger your well-being and possibly make it even harder for you to escape the abuse.

Being able to overcome reactive abuse doesn’t mean you condone your parent’s behavior or that you’re to blame. But it does mean doing what’s better for your own sake.

You can protect yourself from possible further harm. You can learn coping methods to better deal with the abuse and the strong emotions it might trigger, which brings you closer to healing from the trauma.

Learn to deal with the abuser in healthier ways

Abusive and toxic people can drive us insane. They don’t listen to reason and will intentionally push your buttons just to get a reaction out of you.

But you see, when you do react, especially in what could be considered an aggressive or abusive way, that means they got what they wanted out of you.

It can be helpful to learn their different tactics to abuse or manipulate. Being able to identify them can help you better understand how the abuser works and why they do what they do.

When you can see that it’s all just a way for them to control you, it can hopefully be a little easier to refrain from reacting and use various strategies like the gray rock method to deal with them.

Learn more in Ways to Deal with a Narcissistic Parent and How to Set Boundaries with a Narcissistic Parent

It’s also important to regularly manage stress so it doesn’t get to overwhelming levels. Practicing mindfulness and other relaxation techniques or whatever you prefer can help you learn to stay calm during intense moments like these.

Identify and manage triggers

Any form of abusive or manipulative behavior from your parent can strike a nerve and cause you to react “abusively”. Verbal attacks, boundary violations, baiting, gaslighting, and guilt-tripping can all be extremely triggering.

Try your best to identify what seems to trigger you to react that way. Identifying these triggers can help you better understand your emotions and behaviors, thus better able to manage them.

Learn more in How to Identify and Manage Emotional Triggers.

Find healthy ways to cope with difficult or intense emotions

Feeling controlled, helpless, manipulated, and powerless can also cause one to lash out just to try to gain some type of control back.

Even being stressed out and overwhelmed can cause an outburst, especially when the abuser intentionally pokes and prods until you break.

When I was still living with my mother, she’d constantly push my buttons, cross my boundaries, and test my limits, even when I did my best not to provoke her or escalate the conflict.

But sometimes, that’d just motivated her to try even harder. It’s like she found joy in it. I know the feelings of anger, frustration, and even wrath all too well. I know how hard it can be not to let those emotions take over.

But I always try to remind myself, I can’t let her win. Sometimes, I still do because there’s only so much a person can take.

But finding healthier ways to cope with my emotions has helped a lot, whether it was distracting myself with an activity, expressing my feelings through writing, or confiding in someone I trust.

Learn more about How to Deal with Emotions in a Healthy Way and Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions.

Bottling up everything is harmful to your health. Even if it feels like the most comfortable thing to do at the moment, it’ll only hurt you in the long run.

Seek help

Dealing with all of these – your parent’s abuse, overcoming reactive abuse, managing your emotions – can be a lot.

Having a social support network in place is essential for dealing with abusive parents and for healing. They can provide guidance and validation. It’s also much easier to refrain from acting out when you have an outlet to express your frustrations about dealing with the abuse.

If you can, please also consider seeking therapy to address these issues. A professional can help you identify triggers, develop healthy coping skills, and learn how to protect yourself. You can connect with a certified therapist here.

Limit contact and plan for escape if possible

It’s extremely difficult to heal when you’re stuck in an abusive relationship. You can do everything the best you can or even “perfectly”, but your abuser will still do whatever they can to sabotage it.

When I was still with my mother, no amount of strategies and coping were enough to keep me from lashing out from time to time, whether at her or other people.

The anger and frustration I felt never really went away while she was still present in my life. It wasn’t until I officially moved out and eventually cut contact that I finally felt like a different person.

I was no longer as angry, frustrated, and irritated. And when I am, I find that I can manage it so much better without that source of conflict and toxicity lurking nearby.

So if it’s possible, please consider limiting contact and plan for your escape.

Reactive Abuse: Meaning, Impact, and How to Cope | Hopeful Panda


In the end, recognize that the defensive retaliation you’re engaging in is likely hurting you and hindering your healing. Again, this is not to say it’s your fault or that you should just endure abuse in silence.

But it’s important to recognize its impact. The key is to protect yourself. It might be tempting to fight back, but seriously consider whether it’s worth it. What do you get out of it?

Ultimately, the focus should be on doing what’s in your best interests, even if it means making some tough decisions.

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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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