How does someone become abusive

People who abuse others often come from abusive homes. This article will focus on how people learn to be abusers.

The thinking of children differs from the way adults reason in important ways. First children observe their parents to learn how to do many things. The list is endless. Some things are practical and overt, others are subtle and implicit. For example:

  • this is how to tie your shoes
  • this is how to count to ten
  • this is how to win a fight
  • this is how to start a fight
  • this is how to work hard and have a heart attack
  • Men are ……………..
  • Women are………….
  • Dads do this
  • Moms do that
  • And so on.

Children absorb messages from words and actions. They soak up information from what they see and hear from adults and assume these messages are true. Later they can be examined and changed from an adult perspective, but most of these messages and beliefs are beyond conscious awareness. They act as scripts or guiding principles for life. These scripts guide future behaviour, roles and relationships.

Children also tend to engage in black or white thinking. Things are seen as either/or. They also tend to generalise. The abuser often has developed faulty beliefs and perceptions from childhood which are played out in future intimate relationships.

It must be emphasised that I have the highest respect for anyone who can acknowledge having a problem and behaving in an abusive way. It takes courage to admit that. I also wish to stress that both men and women can be abusive, but it is easier to write focusing on one sex and seeing that the majority of aggressors in cases of domestic violence are men, I will assume that the woman is the victim. This is in no way a generalization about all men, or all women. I have drawn extensively from the work of Susan Forward in this article.


All human beings have emotional needs, to be loved, feel special, feel safe, to feel we are special. As adults we fulfil these needs through physical intimacy, emotional sharing, parenting and friendship. In the case of an abuser, he mistakenly believes that being close to a woman will give her power over him and that provokes deep anxiety. He sets out unconsciously to make the woman less powerful and regain control. He operates from the unconscious premise that if he can make her dependent on him she will be less likely to leave him. The partner becomes an object of passion, rage, love, hate and fear. How do these patterns develop?

Susan Forward (2002) suggests that when children are raised, moms play an important role in nurturing the child and dads help them pull away so they don’t become overly dependent on mom. However, if the father is too frightening, too drunk or too passive to help the boy pull away, mother becomes the centre of his universe. A Mom in a troubled marriage often uses the children to meet her needs, maybe through being overly demanding, smothering or rejecting, but all the same the boy becomes entangled emotionally with her. In adulthood he may transfer the dependency, as well as the conflicts and fear that go with it to his partner. He may perceive women he loves as having the ability to smother him, frustrate him, withhold love from him or make overwhelming demands on him, and he fears and resents this.


Some men grow up in homes where their father assumes rigid, obsessive control. When a parent is aggressive and abusive, the child may internalise the faulty belief “I can only be safe when I am able to yell, hit and scream so I get my way – like dad.” Children tend to think in terms of black and white. It is as if they think “I have two options – to be weak and scared like mom or strong and controlling like dad.” Some choose the former and others the latter.

In homes where the atmosphere is rigid and someone is controlling, children don’t get much chance to think for themselves and form their own opinions and attitudes. They cannot express certain feelings. They are not allowed to develop a sense of self that is different to the parent. Being different is equated with being bad and “badness” is punished. Being unable to express oneself as a unique person is highly frustrating and damaging. The unexpressed anger and frustration lingers and often finds an outlet in subsequent intimate relationships.


Children living in abusive homes often internalise the faulty belief that “the only way to control women is to abuse them.” They are frequently left with contempt for women, who they see as “weak.”

When mom is a victim and behaves more like a helpless child, the children are left with only one grown-up to deal with-the abuser. The children feel unprotected and resentful. Mom may appeal to the child for support. By doing this, she unwittingly changes roles with the child.. She may seem needy and scared and the child is expected to nurture. But the child cannot deal with adult problems and may reach the faulty conclusion “all women have needs that are overwhelming. I will never be able to cope with them. ” Later in life. if an intimate partner expresses any need for emotional support at all, the person becomes anxious and overwhelmed.

Moms may communicate their needs in many ways:

  • Suffering in silence
  • Telling the child she is miserable
  • Telling the child that without his love there is nothing to live for
  • Getting ill,
  • Getting depressed,
  • Drinking
  • Being self- destructive.

The child gets the message he is responsible to make mom happy and when he finds he can’t make her okay he is left feeling guilty and overwhelmed. The child may be pressurised into the role of rescuer, taking care of mother, and feel some sense of power and importance for a while, but also rage at being at someone’s beck and call. The pattern of the mom depending on her son tends to persist as the boy reaches adulthood and the mom seldom assumes responsibility for herself. As stated, he may conclude women’s needs are overwhelming and respond badly if his partner later in life expresses any pain or need.


Mothers in abusive relationships often do not have the energy or ability to meet their children’s needs to feel safe, protected and loved. It is a paradox that to become independent, our dependency needs must first be met. When mothers are too overwhelmed in the abusive relationship, the child’s needs are neglected. The child may take these unmet needs into adulthood and unconsciously believe that “no one can ever love me enough.” He may unconsciously sabotage the relationship to “prove” that he is unlovable.

Children need to feel safe. The need for protection may not be met.

Some women set the child up as a shield between her and the abuser. ‘She may blame the child for things that set the abusive father off in an effort to protect herself. The child is victimised and reaches the faulty conclusion “all women are treacherous, helpless and untrustworthy.”


Many men from abusive homes are attracted to helpless, inadequate or disturbed women. They are unconsciously trying, in adulthood, to achieve what they could not do in childhood, namely to be in the role of a rescuer. When they fail, the anger for the suffering they had before often comes out at the new woman in his life, who usually remains a victim. The man may be trying unconsciously to rewrite his childhood script with a needy, disturbed partner who resembles his mother and become enraged all over again when he can make her no happier or no better than his own mom.


It has long been recognised that people who abuse others often come from abusive homes. Logically, one would expect someone who has grown up in such pain to avoid re-creating it in his own life. It must be emphasised that these abusive actions are generally triggered by unconscious needs and faulty beliefs and perceptions that are internalised beyond one’s conscious awareness in childhood. Through therapy, once these beliefs are recognised, made conscious and owned, they can be changed, bringing a change in behaviour with them.

This article has focused on how abusers may be made by living with an aggressive parent. Next month will focus on how abuse can evolvein interaction with a parent who is smothering.

The ideas for this article come from the following reference:

REFERENCE: Susan Foward 2002. – Men who hate Women, and Women who love Them. Bantam Books. USA.



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Tel: 072 122 4766 / 011 849-7473.
Dr Barbara Wade is an accredited member of Saaswipp (the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice) and practices in the field of individual and family therapy, as well as specializing in all forms of trauma