Characteristics of an Abusive Family

This article is primarily a summary of Chapter Four, “Portrait of an Abusive Family”, from Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse by Dr. Steven R. Tracy. This article will highlight the characteristics of abusive families identified by Tracy. Mending the Soul was published by Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2005. This summary was written by Dan Hitz, director of Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. More articles on abuse recovery are available at www.recmin.org/newsletter-archives/.

Just as we learned in the article detailing the characteristics of individual abusers, abusive families tend to look just like other families in our neighborhoods, schools and churches when they are outside of the privacy of their own home. Unfortunately, the similarities can come to a grinding halt when they are behind the closed doors and curtains of their own home. Tracy describes this as the banality of evil – evil people don’t look evil, they look like everybody else” (workbook p. 90). This is the challenge for those of us who grew up in a dysfunctional family. I heard numerous times how nice my mother was from people who knew the healthy side of her.

It is amazing how often I hear from the men and women that I’m counseling how respected their abusive parent(s) were/are in the church and the community. This can leave survivors wondering, “What on earth is wrong with me?” It feeds the denial for those of us who have shut down huge portions of our own hearts and don’t want to believe that our parent really is abusive. One of the most important steps in the healing process is to recognize and admit that our families were abusive. We need to recognize the areas of dysfunction that we were influenced by in order to begin taking the steps of healing in those areas.

No families are perfect. No parents are perfect. In looking at the characteristics of abusive families, we are not talking about the “healthy enough” parent who makes an occasional mistake or handles a situation in a way that causes minor offenses. We’re talking about chronic, severe offenses that leave deep lasting scars in the hearts of those who are impacted by it. Tracy identifies 15 primary characteristics of abusive families in Chapter Four of Mending the Soul. These characteristics can also be found in unhealthy churches, organizations and social groups. We’ll take a brief look at each characteristic here.

The needs of the family members are expendable. God intended the needs of the children to be fulfilled by the parents and the needs of the parents to be fulfilled by other adults. In abusive families, the children are used to fulfill the needs of the parents while the needs of the children go unmet. Where there is favoritism, the needs of the kids seen as “lesser” can go unfulfilled while the “elevated” kids are daunted over.

Reality is difficult to discern. Being at home with our families should be the safest experience we can have. In abusive families, the place which is supposed to be the safest becomes the most dangerous. Children naturally want to believe that whatever their parents do is appropriate. We are taught to ignore our God given discernment and perceptions by abusive parents who tell us that the abuse is a normal “expression of love” or “deserved” because of our own inappropriate behavior.

The victim is made responsible. It is the responsibility of every adult to take care of the children that God has entrusted him or her to parent and provide for. Abusive parents push their own responsibilities onto the children. They may be expected to take care of the younger siblings and perform an unreasonable amount of tasks well beyond their years. Sometimes they are expected to fulfil the sexual desires of evil parents.

The family appearance is deceptive. We have already discussed the banality of evil – the thought that most abusive people and families look very respectable to those on the outside. Abusive people can go to great lengths to maintain a “perfect” outward appearance.

The truth is ignored. Members of a dysfunctional family may be so focused on maintaining their own sense of “peace and calm” that they ignore obvious signs that abuse is occurring. I’ve worked with abuse survivors whose history of abuse was so obvious that it is impossible for me to believe that that other parent had no clue that the abuse was occurring.

Family abusers use force. In some situations, abusive family members may use manipulation and grooming to gain the trust of their victims; however, the “tenderness” of the grooming process gives way to threats and force to ensure that the victim maintains the secrecy of the abuse. Other times the perpetrators begin the abuse with aggression. Because the victims feel helpless to stop the abuse, the amount of aggression may decrease over time and may fall away altogether. Learned helplessness is when a victim is actually strong enough to stop the abuse, but is convinced that the situation is hopeless and continues to comply. This explains why many victims fail to walk away from the abuse, or reach out for help, even when help is readily available.

There is no straightforward, healthy communication. Much of the communication in abusive families is intentionally confusing and manipulative. Abusers may hide behind words that have double meaning so they can quickly deny their ill intent. If they spoke clearly, the destructive motives of their heart would be evident to all.

The victim’s rational response is often futile. Abusers don’t respond to reason. Abusers aren’t interested in the truth. They are champions of denial (refusing to admit or acknowledge the truth), projection (attributing their own negative actions and motivations to others), and blame shifting (claiming their own negative behavior was the result of the victim’s actions). Abusers “twist realty” to match their world.

Power is used to exploit. In healthy families, power is used to protect and empower the vulnerable to reach their full potential. In abusive families, power is used to control and ensure that the weaker remain under the control of the dominant.

Abusive families are emotionally unstable. Victims often feel like they are “walking on eggshells”. An action that was perfectly acceptable yesterday may trigger a violent reaction today; therefore, life is unpredictable and one can never let down one’s guard. They may also find themselves having a wide range of feelings about their abuser who may be beating them one moment, and pretending to love them by sexually abusing them the next. Victims may recognize that abusive behavior is wrong, but find themselves liking the perceived favorable attention they are receiving.

The victim is shamed, blamed and demeaned. I’ve heard from many survivors that their abusers manipulated them with kindness before the sexual abuse, and then verbally assaulted them unmercifully after the abuse. Some are blamed for the assaults by the perpetrators and others who claim that the abuse wouldn’t have happened if they had better character, or that they specifically behaved in a way to provoke the abuse.

Family members are isolated and lack intimacy. Healthy families have nothing to hide. Dysfunctional families are afraid of being found out. It is common for perpetrators and those who enable them to pull their victims away from those who can identify unhealthy behavior. Since abusers are proficient at using the victim’s inner hopes and dreams against them, victims quickly learn to shut off their desires. Ironically, the perpetrators paint a picture where the world is unsafe and dangerous, and that they are the only ones the victims can trust.

 A strict code of silence is enacted. Abusive families follow a strict No Talk Rule. The perpetrators don’t want to be found out and clearly communicate that there will be dire consequences to anyone who tells others about the abuse.

Abusive families deny and distort healthy emotions. Children want the world to make sense. Most abuse victims believe that the abuse was their fault. Many were told so by their abusers. In order for an abusive world to make sense, survivors learn to embrace the idea that the abuse was their fault. This also gives victims a strange, false sense of control. Other victims were told that they were overreacting and/or scolded for having negative feelings about the abuse. Unfortunately, the deeper message is that they learn to distrust their healthy emotions. They either embrace dysfunctional emotions, or shut them off altogether.

The wrong ones are protected. Perpetrators want to prop up their abusive system and maintain a false, outward appearance. They use manipulation, intimidation and violence to achieve that goal. Those who accuse the victims are often shamed and blamed – even within the church. It is important to listen to the hearts of the survivors and pray for discernment to understand the truth of the situation.

Perhaps it was very difficult for you to read this article. If you can identify many of the traits listed above in your own family, don’t lose hope. Remember, the first step in fixing a problem is identifying that a problem actually exists. You can overcome the effects of childhood abuse. Start by reaching out for help to the pastoral care department of your local church. Reconciliation Ministries is also here to help. We offer individual counseling and support groups. If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 586.739.5114.

 © 2017 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given. Images used under license with www.shutterstock.com.

An Expanded Vision: More Lives to Reach


Dear Friends,

Reconciliation Ministries began in 1984 with a focus on ministering specifically to those struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction. Through the years, our focus deepened to include heterosexual issues and the addition of our Living Waters program. We added licensed counseling to our services of pastoral care and prayer ministry, and recently began a new program for abuse recovery called Mending the Soul.

Over the past several months, you’ve been reading how the Lord has been working on our hearts to minister to those with a deeper level of brokenness than Reconciliation Ministries has ministered to in the past. This part of our journey actually began about three years ago, during a conversation with the Lord that took place over four Sunday worship services. I knew He was doing a deep work in my heart. I was shaking during the last worship service as He asked me to pray that He would send me to the bowels of hell on earth, so that we can save people from the bowels of hell for eternity.

We are excited to announce that the Lord has even more plans in store. As we continue to minister to all forms of sexual and relational brokenness in Metro Detroit, we also have an opportunity to touch souls in Ubon, Thailand. Plans are underway for me (Dan Hitz) to minister in Thailand from July through December of 2018. I have been invited to assist in the development of the Living Waters team in this remote region of Thailand, mentor men who are potential leadership team members, and minister to pastors and villagers in the surrounding areas. You can read more about the progression of this vision and calling on the inside of this newsletter.

Reconciliation Ministries will continue to serve the Body of Christ in Metro Detroit even as we extend our outreach to Ubon, Thailand. We would like to invite you to join us in bringing the transformational power of Jesus Christ to those who desperately need Him. You can become a valuable member of the Reconciliation Ministries Support Team through your generous financial partnership and your prayers for the ministry and the participants. No one can affect the lives that we are called to reach alone, but together through Christ we can reach thousands of people who need His healing touch. Please join our Support Team and help bring healing to those who are sexually broken and to those who have suffered the trauma of abuse. You can sign up with the form included in this newsletter, or online at our website at www.recmin.org.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 586.739.5114 or DHitz@recmin.org.

Thank you for sharing this journey with us!

Dan Hitz, Director, Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc.


An Expanded Vision: More Lives to Reach - Dan Hitz

Dan has been the director of Reconciliation Ministries since 2003. This article describes his journey from growing up with sexual abuse and emotional brokenness, to reaching out to others who are hurting and walking with them to Jesus. Dan shares his expanded vision to reach more lives for Christ and invites you to join him in the journey.

I stand in amazement as I ponder the vision the Lord has birthed in my heart to reach more lives with the healing power of Jesus Christ. None of us have the ability to do anything of any eternal value, yet together in Christ we can accomplish great things for Him. I wanted to share my journey from the depths of despair to where the Lord has brought me to now. I also want to invite you to share in the calling He has given. The calling to reach out to those who are bound by sexual sin and the trauma of abuse. You can have a part in seeing the transformational power of Jesus Christ set captives free and restore their lives. Everyone has a story. Everyone can have a testimony of God’s redemption and restoration. Your journey can bring hope to others.

I was the fifth child to a paranoid schizophrenic mother and an overwhelmed father. Before I entered kindergarten I was sexually abused by my mother. My heart was shattered in the process and I dealt with the abuse by trying to turn off my emotions. When I was in junior high school, the abuse started up again and grew progressively more aggressive. I was pretty emotionally and sexually messed up and began to struggle with homosexuality, emotional isolation and bulimia. I was in complete bondage to these things – my mind was constantly fixated on gay images and I couldn’t go more than three days without a food binge. I wanted to be dead, but I was afraid to kill myself.

I got saved a year after I graduated from college. The bulimia ended right away so I thought that the same-sex attraction issues would be gone too. I meant business with God. I was devastated when I realized that the sexual issues didn’t just go away. My heart and emotions were still pretty turned off at that point and I was afraid to let God access my heart. I stuck to the Christian disciplines and the Lord began to do a slow work of change. By His grace, I got married two years after salvation. Marriage doesn’t fix sexual issues, and I was pretty broken for a lot of years. After 14 years of trying to get God to fix me on my own terms, I finally surrendered to Him and admitted that everything I had tried to do to fix myself hadn’t worked. I asked Him to help me His way. Shortly after that I met Tom Cole, who directed Reconciliation Ministries before me. I went through some of our programs as a participant. I finally begin to find freedom from the compulsive homosexual thoughts that caused me to hate myself so much.

The Lord began to convict my heart. He told me that He had given me a glass of water to drink while I was dying of thirst in the wilderness, and He wanted me to give that same water to others. Knowing what it was like to be in such bondage to sexual sin and find freedom in Christ gave me a passion to see others set free.

I became the director of Reconciliation Ministries in 2003. It is a ministry that helps men, women, and adolescents overcome a wide variety of sexual sin and the pain of abuse. I am blessed to see God set people free. I’ve seen guys who spent so much time watching pornography that they lost their jobs and their families break free from sin. I’ve seen other guys who were bound by adultery and sexual addiction and about ready to lose their wives find freedom in Christ. I’ve seen marriages restored. I also seen women who thought the only value they had was to give men sex because that’s what their brothers and fathers taught them learn who they really are in Christ and stand in their true identity as daughters of the King. My heart burns with passion to see more and more people set free.

After a few years of working with people struggling with LGBT issues and heterosexual addictions, the Lord started working on my own abuse issues at a much deeper level. One of my favorite sections of Scripture  is  where  Jesus says  that He came to heal the broken  hearted. In  the original  language,  the phrase brokenhearted means shards of glass as if you broke a mirror. (You can see me during junior high in the picture on the left with my mother.) I began to realize that abuse shattered my own heart into many fragments and I still had a lot of healing to do. God continued to transform my heart more than I could ever imagine. He began to send many others who were fragmented by abuse and I saw their hearts come back to life.

Over the past three years, the Lord has been increasing my burden to reach people with a deeper level of brokenness than we’ve seen before. More people just like me have been fragmented by abuse. I’ve got an intense burden for people who have been wounded deeply by chronic abuse to the point where they can barely function and hold down a job. We’ve done a lot already to bring healing to people, we offer license counseling and individual prayer ministry, and a discipleship group called Living Waters. We’ve been able to bring sexual healing in Metro Detroit and so many other places including Southeast Asia, a federal prison, inner cities, and other people that you might interact with every day but have no idea how much they’re actually hurting on the inside. With God’s help we can do so much more. It’s time to expand the ministerial offerings that Reconciliation Ministries provides.

Dan and Marianne in Thailand, 2016.

Dan and Marianne in Thailand, 2016.

Last November, my wife and I ministered in Ubon Thailand for two weeks. We helped a missionary who was starting a brand new Living Waters group there. It was a smaller group, but the level of brokenness was overwhelming. I saw people whose hearts were in fragments being restored by the mercy of Jesus Christ. I could relate to their journey. The whole experience stirred my heart deeply and the Lord spoke to me that He was going to raise up two, three, or four people in that room to touch thousands. We can help make that happen.

The trip to Thailand and all that the Lord has been showing us in past few years in the US compels us to expand the ministry to bring a deeper level of healing that we’ve seen in the past. Reconciliation Ministries just started a new twelve-week program for abuse survivors called Mending the Soul. Right now we have to charge a tuition so that we can pay our expenses, but I want to increase our funding so we can offer that program free of charge to abuse survivors who desperately need healing and can’t afford our tuition fees. Together we can reach out to chronic abuse survivors and to those who have been trafficked and offer them the healing that Jesus Christ died to give them.

Another door has opened up to allow us to return to Thailand for six months in 2018 to continue the work that we did last November with Living Waters. We can have a part in the Lord raising up those two, three or four people to reach thousands. We can do this in a way that strengthens our local ministry offerings and also allows us to bring an extension of our ministry to Thailand. In the US, you can find an AA group or a Celebrate Recovery group every night of the week. There’s nothing for people struggling in this part of Thailand. We can change that. We can share what we’ve learned here in the US and use it to raise up Thai nationals and equip them with healing tools to set captives free.

That’s our burden. To bring freedom to people struggling with LGBT issues and heterosexual addiction issues. To bring healing and restoration to people who have been shattered by years of terrible sexual abuse. To help men and women find freedom from sin and healing from trauma so that they can be the men and women that God created them to be. And we have the opportunity to do this right here in Metro Detroit, and half way around the world in Ubon Thailand. Please join our monthly support team and together we can bring the redemption and restoration of Jesus Christ to those who desperately need Him. You can join our financial support team by clicking here, and join our intercessory team by sending an email to DHitz@recmin.org.

© 2017 Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan, Inc. This article may be reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged and credit is given.