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Episode 3: My Parents are Emotionally Abusive. What Do I Do?

“My parents call me names and berate me daily. My mental health is struggling. What can I do?”

“How do I support a friend who has an emotionally abusive parent?” 

While answering these kinds of questions is no easy feat, there is hope and support for those who think they or a loved one may be struggling with parental abuse. That’s why we sat down for an interview with one of The FYI’s clinicians, Maryam Khwaja (LCSW), to discuss how someone struggling with parental abuse can better navigate the difficult relationship with their parents and find space for coping and healing. You can listen to the audio episode above, or read the blog below.

 

What exactly is emotional abuse?  

Emotional abuse can also be called psychological abuse. It’s a series of behaviors in which a person will subject someone else to bullying, gaslighting, name-calling, false accusations, jealousy, or humiliation. This behavior takes advantage of a power dynamic, which is when a person in power subjugates someone with less power to harmful behaviors. Emotional abuse can also open the door for other forms of abuse like physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and more. 

 

Why is emotional abuse in a parent-child relationship especially difficult to identify or deal with?

We think of our parents as our first protectors, supporters, and sources of guidance. They have known us longer than anyone else, so, in theory, the things they tell us about ourselves should be the most accurate reflections of us. That isn’t always the case though, especially when our parents may be abusive – even if they don’t realize this about themselves. Emotional abuse from our parents is made even more complex due to the high degree of respect that we have for our parents as Muslims (See the resources at the end of the blog post for more on this). 

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that parents are imperfect beings just like us. Our parents had their own childhood experiences, their own relationships with their parents, and personal traumas that shaped them. Oftentimes,  our parents’ behavior stems from their own experiences, ways of seeing the world, or even unaddressed traumas that have little to do with us. For some parents, it’s incredibly difficult to navigate the line between fostering growth and belittling their children because of cultural beliefs about what it means to be a good parent (ex: “tough love”). 

What can help a person cope with verbal or emotional abuse from a parent?

First, it’s important to recognize and accept that what our parents say isn’t always factual or inherently true. Remember that how your parents view you or a particular situation can stem from their own way of seeing the world, or their own traumas. For example, if you’re resting after a long week of finals and a parent calls you lazy for watching TV, it doesn’t mean you are lazy; you’re simply responding to your body’s need for rest. “Rest” may not be something that your parents value because it was simply not an option for them, or it was looked down upon in their culture. Or they may not see watching TV as an appropriate use of your time. 

Here’s another example – you are speaking to your parents in their mother tongue, which is not your first language. Without knowing, you misuse a word in a way that offends your parents, and a fight begins. Especially in immigrant or bilingual households, it’s not uncommon for a fight or hurtful statement to stem from linguistic or cultural misunderstandings. These examples don’t necessarily indicate emotional abuse if they are isolated incidents, but they illustrate the fact that what your parents say or believe about you is not always accurate. Either way, how should you respond in such situations? 

    • When you’re being heavily criticized or yelled at by your parents, responding with anger – as may be your first instinct – likely won’t be effective. However, you do not need to subject yourself to that aggression and remain in the line of fire. Before all else, try to create space between yourself and the confrontation. For example, you might calmly suggest to your parents, “This isn’t productive. Can we revisit this conversation later when we’re both calmer?” Taking a walk to cool down, finding a moment alone, or even mentally retreating to a calming thought or dua can give you the space you need. 

    • When everyone calms down, you can try addressing the issue at a later time. You might ask your parents, “Can we talk about what happened last week? It really bothered me.” 

    • For some people, having conversations like this is not safe or feasible. In that case, it’s okay to seek help from other family members, mentors, or even national hotlines that offer support. Trust your instincts and be cautious if you feel that addressing the issue directly could put you in physical danger.

    • When you are in a better state of mind, it can also be helpful to visualize the perspectives or experiences that led you parent(s) to believe, say, or do the things they do. What experiences might have shaped them? This is not to diminish your pain but to help put some distance between you and your parent’s behavior, and to realize that it’s often not about you but about your parents’ perspectives, issues, or traumas.

I believe I could be experiencing abuse, and I’m feeling very isolated and worn out because of it. What can I do?  

Remember that while we can’t choose our biological family, we can choose the people we surround ourselves with. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself faced abuse at the hands of his uncle and other family members, and he found support in his chosen companions like Abu Bakr (as) and Omar (as). Consider your network – including teachers, mentors, mosque leaders, and especially your religious community. Find ways to spend more time with supportive individuals in your life – by volunteering, attending circles at the mosque, or spending time with extended family who can support you. Seeking help is one of the most important things you can do in situations of abuse. It can protect you from psychological trauma – a lingering and overwhelming mental and physical response to a distressing event – and from perpetuating the cycle of abuse in the future through generational trauma. (See the resources at the end of the blog post for more on this).

Keep in mind that internalization is not the only option. Internalization is common in situations of abuse, as people feel that they have nowhere to turn to. Internalizing abuse can lead to patterns such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and in some cases, instances of substance abuse or getting involved in other abusive relationships. Find ways to process and regulate your emotions in healthy ways (see these tips for help). Therapy, in particular, provides a safe and confidential space to process your experiences and find support both internally and externally. If you are attending school or university, you may be able to access therapy free of charge through your school or a university counseling center. 

Most importantly, maintaining a strong connection with Allah can be incredibly helpful during these challenging times. Remembering the depth of His care and His ultimate plan for you can provide comfort and patience, even if you can’t understand the wisdom in what you are experiencing right now. That’s okay. Ultimately, your family members were decreed for you by Him, so turn to Him for help with this test. Find ways to nurture healing, meaning, and growth through this challenge. Take steps towards Allah ﷻ and thus towards healing: make the intention that everything you will do to cope, adapt, and heal is for His sake, whether or not your parents change their behaviors. Nourish yourself with spiritual reminders, a connection to the Quran, and people who help you keep a good opinion of Allah ﷻ. 

I know someone who is being emotionally abused at home. What can I do to help?

The number one rule in this scenario is not to gossip about the situation. If someone has turned to you for support, gently affirm that what’s happening to them is wrong. Give them the space to vent and express their feelings. Work together to find resources like this blog post, apply tips and recommendations, and keep encouraging them especially when things are challenging. Help them find further support within their network among mentors and teachers, and professional support from a therapist. 

Coping with emotional abuse from parents is a complex and challenging journey, but it does not have to be a hopeless one. Remember that seeking help is one of the strongest things you can do in situations of abuse. Visit our therapy guide to learn about getting started with therapy and what to expect. For even more on how to cope, heal, or remain steadfast during difficult times, visit more of the FYI’s resources on resilience and well-being. Learn more about debunking mental health myths in Islam here

Additional Resources:

This blog post was compiled from a conversation between intern Hana Mahyoub and clinician and community educator, Maryum Khwaja, LCSW. It was reviewed and edited by Issra Killawi and Huda Khwaja. 

Speakers:

Maryam-K
Maryum Khwaja

Maryum Khwaja, LCSW is a Community Educator with The FYI with over twenty years of mental health experience. As a licensed clinical social worker in New York and Massachusetts, she has worked in child protective services, mental health clinics, and as a therapist. She co-founded Nasiha Counseling, a private practice specializing in Muslim clients, and currently provides mental health support at Boston Medical Center’s Adult Day Health program.

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The Prophet (SAS) said, “There are no days in which righteous deeds are more beloved to Allah than these ten days”
(Bukhari).

Guarantee your blessings!

Zakat eligibility of The FYI

The Family & Youth Institute, or The FYI, is a well-known Muslim organization in the United States. It works to promote mental health and wellness by strengthening and empowering individuals, families, and communities through research and education. It has been working for many years to bring Islamic perspectives to understanding and promoting mental health in our communities.

It is dedicated to serving and supporting Muslims – safeguarding our deen, our families, and our future generations. Therefore, the work of The FYI comes in the category of ‘fi sabeelillah’ or the Path of Allah, within the eight categories where Zakat money can be used.

Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed for it and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah, and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah, And Allah, is Knowing and Wise.”
(Al-Tawbah 9:60)

According to scholars who widen the meaning of fee sabeelillah to include any activities that promote Islamic growth, The FYI is indeed eligible to receive part of the Zakat funds for its programs and services. I urge Muslims in America to support this organization through their donations, general charity, and through their Zakat. I ask Allah swt to strengthen and guide The FYI to continue its good work in supporting Muslims.

Shaikh Ali Suleiman Ali, PhD

About Shaikh Ali

Sh. Ali Suleiman Ali was born in Ghana where he spent his childhood studying with various Muslim scholars. He then moved to Saudi Arabia and enrolled in the Islamic University of Madina.  He graduated with a degree in both Arabic and Islamic Studies. Dr. Ali went on to complete his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Sh. Ali serves on the Advisory Council of The Family & Youth Institute. He is the Senior Imam and Director of the Muslim Community of Western Suburbs in Canton, Michigan. Additionally, he serves as the Director of Muslim Family Services in Detroit and is a council member of the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA). He is also a member of the North American Imams Federation (NAIF) and the Association of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA).