Addressing the issue of abusive families


There’s something that’s been on my mind a while that I don’t have an answer to, but I want to think about it and get your thoughts as well. Namely, how can we in youth ministry and Christian formation address the issue of abusive family systems?

In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on the need for parents to be the primary models and teachers of spiritual formation. This is a hugely important shift and a necessary counterbalance to the Sunday School/leave it to the experts model. But to the best I can recall, everything I’ve read acts under the assumption that the parents are not abusive and that the family is a safe place for children and youth.

With Confirm not Conform, too, I’m not sure we’ve taken that into account. We tell parents that youth are allowed to make a choice about whether or not to be confirmed. But what if it’s not safe for youth to say no to a parent? What if the family is a place that emphasizes parental control?

I’m learning about how subtle some forms of abuse can be. In fact, it is often the youth who are doing everything right who live with abuse, because doing anything wrong invites disaster. We may think of them as our Good Christian Kids; what if, in fact, they are suffering at home?

And to make matters even more complicated, what if the abuser is well-liked and likeable? An active member of your congregation? A generous giver? A Sunday School teacher? Someone people look up to? Someone you cannot believe would be abusive?

Add to this the likelihood that children and youth may not recognize that their parents are being abusive either. After all, for them, this behavior is normal. And when we’re talking about the more subtle forms of abuse, such as neglect, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, alcoholism or other substance abuse, gaslighting, shaming, or narcissism, it’s even harder for them – or you – to recognize.

The chances are high that there’s someone in your congregation right now who lives in an abusive household. It’s not going to be obvious. It’s not going to be easy to resolve.

And so now, with fear and trembling, knowing I am no expert, I offer these suggestions for what we can do to reduce the possibility of abuse in our congregations. But for most things, I refer you to ChildHelp, a national child abuse hotline with webbased resources at

Be healthy: We need to deal with our own crap. Full stop. And no matter what, there’s always going to be crap. How are our boundaries? What pushes our buttons? What was our own family system like? Were we abused? Can we recognize any abusive patterns in ourselves? How do we get help to change them?

Learn what you can: Take the required trainings. But do not stop there. Read. Attend workshops. Talk to family therapists, adult survivors, child abuse organizations. Contact ChildHelp, the National Child Abuse hotline, for resources and information at

Be a safe place: One of the things I’ve heard in more than one place is how important family sitcoms have been for children in abused families. It gave them an opportunity to see that there’s something different. When church is a safe place, it gives abused children and youth another opportunity to see that there’s something different.

Select and train adult mentors carefully: Again, having another model of how to be an adult is something that can be incredibly important for a child or youth from an abusive household. By the same token, a mentor who perpetrates abuse with of course be catastrophic.

Listen and believe: Even if you don’t know what to believe. Even if you can’t believe that Congregational Stalwart would do that. If you are a safe person who has dealt with your own crap and a youth chooses to confide in you, the chances are very good that this is because they need someone to believe them. Be that person. There’s excellent information on handling child abuse disclosures on the ChildHelp website that will be helpful for mentors as well as for you.

Report out: And when they do, it is not the time to go to the parent and figure this out. Do not get the family together to resolve things faithfully. We are mandated reporters.  Report out. If you want help in walking through the appropriate next steps, contact the National Child Abuse hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

Again, this is a topic about which I feel strongly, but I’m not sure how qualified I am to speak. If you have further comments, information, or recommendations, please do add them in the comments or let me know. And thank you for all you do to support our children and youth.