How I Teach My Children to Honor Their Abusive Parent

I have never found that obedience to God looks the same for each person. How we love others and love God varies . . . because we vary. I cannot even love my children exactly the same. Some of them have bigger love cups than the others do. For a few of them, character development is the focus. The other few just need to feel loved and not be so hard on themselves. Each day presents me with different scenarios in which I must bolster up my prayer life in order to love effectively and proactively. Obedience to the commandment to “honor thy father and mother” gets even more inventive for those of us parenting separate from the other biological parent.

I have heard it said that the Ten Commandments can be funneled into two areas: our relationship toward God and our relationship toward each other. That is why Jesus said that “all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” — love God, love each other. (Matthew 22:40) Teaching children to honor those who are biological parents (or otherwise) is part of what constitutes health in family relationships.

Before I continue, let me just state the fact that “Honor thy Father and Mother” does NOT mean this: “Adult children obey your parents in all things.” From what I have observed, this commandment has become a mess in the Quiverfull Movement and in the Russian-German Baptist culture from whence I once came (in my first marriage). There seems to be no understanding of the fact that people go through stages in their lives. As children, honoring a parent may look like esteeming the parent, coming when they call, respecting him or her, going where he or she tells one to go, etc. As a child grows into adulthood, a parent should no longer be telling a grown child what to do with their lives. Leave and cleave, people. I pray that I am able to let my children go when they reach adulthood. I have already prepared myself for the day when they leave home, get married and live their own lives. At that point, my role will be support and love in freedom (I can’t wait to have grandchildren, by the way!). And, for my grown children, honoring their parents will look different. I do not know how different. Perhaps they will just simply show us respect. Or they will teach our grandchildren to listen to us or something like that. I pray I will be worthy of respect so that there is no struggle in this area on the part of my children.

But, what do we do when our ex husband or wife is (or has been) abusive? How do we teach our children to honor him or her? Is it even possible? I cannot answer this for everyone. Some folks have to share custody; some have to watch their precious babies head off to a horrible household for the weekend. I cannot imagine. My heart aches for some of my mama-friends who have to see their children suffer and then cry upon their return . . . always having to comfort and re-program when the children get home. I have sole custody and I do not have to deal with that. Some mothers have gag orders. To these precious mamas, I would encourage them to write letters that can be read later. Write them now and save them for the children once you are released. Let them see your eyes . . . let them see the pain in your eyes as you hold them, quietly.

In our household, there are no gag orders. We do not, however, sit around and bash people. That is not helpful. But, sometimes, things come up. A memory. So, is it right to talk the ex spouse/abuser up? To try to pretend that it “isn’t so bad”? To ignore it? Not in this household. I tried that when I was married to him (“he really DOES love you”). All it did was cause the children confusion and insecurity. That is not respect over here because respect (in my book) does not allow for covering (never again).

Disclaimer: Again, this is how honor looks in THIS household. I am not writing something prescriptive. I am only desiring to share the creativity it took to find ways to teach my children to honor my ex.

Over here, we talk about honor a lot. And character, integrity and honesty. It would not be honest to just pretend that their father is an upright man. We call it what it is.  If he doesn’t like it, he should have been an upright man. I even remember apologizing to the children in the first few weeks upon leaving because I had tried so hard to cover for my ex and it caused confusion. Many tears were shed during that conversation. There was relief in the children’s little eyes. Healing began. So, what do I tell them?

I tell them that they can grow up to be honorable. By doing so, they will honor their biological father, their Daddy (David) and me. They can grow up to love others. They can decide not to be self-centered or be takers . . . they can choose integrity . . . they can decide to love their spouses and their children. They can stay away from pornography and lust. They can put away any attitude of entitlement and ownership. They can see their spouses and children as gifts. They can obey God. In other words, by NOT being like their father, they can break the cycle of sin that has been alive and well for generations. By doing so, they can correct the character deficiencies of the past, bring glory to God and train up their own children to be better Christians than they, thereby, honoring the generations before them. Restoring the family gene pool; redeeming their generation.

That’s it! That is the best I can do. And God knows it. On the days when I discover that my children were shown something sickening online when they were very small . . . or when I find out that they were disappointed and lied to . . . . or I hear something new that turns my stomach
. . . I hold on to the fact that I can tell them this: Don’t ever be that way. Be different. Resist the temptation to do such things.

Sigh. Sometimes, obedience has to get creative. 

28 thoughts on “How I Teach My Children to Honor Their Abusive Parent”

  1. Love you, Meg. I have been honest. I don’t cover, I don’t pretend that he is some awesome man that we should look up to.
    I mostly just tell them to be careful and do whatever they have to do to survive while they are in his house. Then they can come home and be safe with me. 🙂

  2. Thank you thank you thank you a million times for this!! This makes so much sense! Thank you!

  3. Thank you. I reblogged this post to because it is such an important issue, for children and adults abused as a child. I counsel people to look at the truth about their parents. Truth heals. Lies keep people in bondage. I Tell people to honor God as their father and if it helps them, to find a father figure that is worthy of honor.

    1. That makes sense, Jean. What if there is simply no way to honor a parent? Honor your Father in Heaven . . . the ultimate Parent. Or find someone else. Very wise.

  4. Dear Megan,
    Thank you for your beautiful honesty! I really appreciate those behind-the-scenes parenting snapshots which illustrate how you value integrity. I applaud you for not sacrificing the importance of teaching your children how to discern “good from evil” — a very important quality that is growing increasingly rare in today’s world. I also love the way you try to help your children think through what honor means. I’m writing for the first time today because I want to comment on your last sentence, “Sigh. Sometimes, obedience has to get creative.” I totally agree with that, and I would go even further and say that not only does obedience in less than ideal circumstances require creativity, but so does parenting.

    I’ve got a great example of how a female relative of mine is learning to use creative thinking in parenting in the aftermath of a horrible divorce. I’ll call her Susie. For context, it’s important to know that the dad got primary custody of their young teenage son. Now, this dad has no problem spending money when he gets to enjoy the perks of being the fun parent. He can afford to take their son out to amusement parks, rock concerts, and exciting vacations because he has a salary that is almost 3 times more than his former wife’s. However, he creates a big stink and resists paying for dull and boring things like his part of dental bills, school clothes, and school lunches. His latest temper tantrum was about blaming Susie for not doing her part and taking their son to get his haircut. Susie is going longer between haircuts herself these days and she’s also learning to color her hair as she adjusts to her new financial reality.

    Susie reminded her teenage son recently when he complained about his aggravating, falling-in-the-eyes hair that he chose his dad as his primary parent, so he could talk to his dad about taking him for a haircut. But the dad is refusing to act like a primary parent. Instead, being the manipulator that he is, he told their son that his mom promised to take care of it and now she is lying. The next time Susie sees her son, he is angry with HER which is just what the manipulator wanted to happen. Susie can cry, feel wronged and unjustly treated, and justifiably so, OR she can decide to keep her wits about her and get creative. She is doing the latter. When she gets her son next time, if he still needs a haircut, she’s ready to offer him some choices:
    1) a rubber band to hold his hair back in a ponytail
    2) a barrette to keep his hair out of his eyes
    3) an opportunity to earn some $ by helping one of his mom’s neighbors with some outdoor chores, then HE can pay for the professional haircut
    4) a haircut by his mom
    Although Susie has never cut anyone’s hair before, Susie knows she can watch a Youtube video like anybody else out there and get instructions about how to cut hair. With her new-found confidence and budding skills, she has discovered a creative solution to call their bluff. I love it!! After all, is this really about whose turn it is to pay for a haircut or is it a contest designed by the manipulator dad to make Susie look like a bad mother? I applaud dignified women like Susie who are learning how to be as “‘wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.” I have to believe that God is chuckling or maybe even slapping his knee as He throws back his head and laughs!

  5. Good Job, Megan. You didn’t play him up or down, but truth was told and they are going to be better for it.

  6. Thanks for the challenge to be creative in speaking truth about our children’s abusive parent. I’m afraid I used to downplay the reality. Not any more. I appreciate the warning not to dwell on the abuse, either. One little solution I found was to have my children put a big black X on their calendar whenever they were lied to, misled, or tricked by the abusive parent (and also an adult sibling). When THEY felt abuse (making them ever more aware of those feelings and affirming them), helping them to acknowledge it. When they look back and see all those black X’s on their calendar, they see the truth they have put there. I don’t have to say anything except empathize and tell them that yes, that was wrong. That was abuse. They are beginning to feel good about avoiding more abuse, rather than confused about having a twisted relationship with their abusers.

  7. Sorry to ask a difficult question: What could the Bible mean with “love/ charity covers a multitude of sins?” (1 Pet 4:8)

    Because God could certainly not have meant that we always hide the sin of others – this is an example of someone who loves her children enough to not cover their father’s sins.

    For that matter, I never could get 1 Cor. 13:7. Love believe / trust and hope all things? Even if I love people, I don’t believe everything they say. Does this blog have exegesis on how not to act on these texts with abusers?

  8. Wonderfully helpful, Meg! And Barb, the posts about covering sin – but not all- also is helpful. Recently, a relative told my oldest daughter to honor her father. She kindly replied that she is doing this by praying for him. She told the relative that to honor does not mean to do all that the father desires. She sighted the reformer, Martin Luther, as an example. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but Luther felt called to become a priest. He did the latter, yet honored his father. In the OT, Jonathan honored his abusive father, Saul, but not by blindly following his evil passions to kill David. Instead, he helped protect and strengthen David and kept secrets from his angry father Saul. This was honorable!.

  9. I’ve been working with my counselor lately on not covering. When my daughter was 8 and her dad missed one of his weekends I had told her he “got confused.” I didn’t even realize I was covering! He repeatedly HAD gotten confused by the 1st, 3rd, 5th routine, thinking it was supposed to be every other weekend. But my counselor told me he isn’t confused; he’s irresponsible. Of course that is correct. I see it now. All of our paperwork SAYS 1st, 3rd and 5th. When I wasn’t sure just how they were designated (eg based on the date on Fridays) I asked my attorney. My husband never did that. His “confusion” was only remedied by my sending him an email detailing how it works. I didn’t want to because I thought he should figure it out, etc. But my daughter was the one being hurt when he didn’t show up. I explained it and told him that I would not explain it again and that he could expect me to go about my business regardless of whether he kept proper track in future. (eg not remind him, wait around for him if he was late, that he would forfeit his weekend and I would not “make it up to him” by trading later, etc.)

    It is important to be truthful with the children. We don’t have to worry about “badmouthing” them. We can learn to “speak the truth in love.” It is worth it. My counselor has told me that if I build him up to her she will turn on me later, blaming me, etc.

  10. My ex-idiot just recently tried to ream me out for telling the kids( all teens) that he didn’t pay child support. Other divorced parents also said I should not say anything or just say things like “My budget doesn’t have the money for that” . Sorry, no! I wasn’t nasty but I was truthful. The reason they see their mom working 70-80 hours a week and still not able to afford things they need is that their dad is not holding to a fair and reasonable contract he signed.

    1. Yeah in situations like ours, I don’t find any use for these “parenting rules”. Teenagers aren’t allowed to know that their dad won’t support them? really? Are we keeping that a secret to hide his sin and make him look better in his children’s eyes? What for?
      Those rules are for people who believe that children need the fantasy of having two good parents, even if it isn’t true. I don’t tell me kids everything, but at the same time we don’t live in fantasy world.
      You can see this play out among the parents who let their kids believe in Santa Claus past the age of reason. I know one lady who let her kids believe in Santa until they were 13!! She would definitely pretend and cover for their dad if he was evil. And she would think she was doing her kids a service.
      I couldn’t keep the Santa charade going for very long, and I can’t hide my ex’s sins for them either. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

      1. Agreed. My kids are well-aware of the fact that their biological father does not pay any child support. And, I can imagine that my ex is mad about that, as well. But, children need to know who is providing for them so they can learn (a) gratitude and (b) respect for the one who is working hard to meet their needs! If these exes are mad that the children know they don’t pay child support, then they should pay child support! It is not our job to cover their irresponsibility! Good gracious.

    2. Still Scared,
      I personally didn’t say anything to my children about child support until they were adults and asked, but they said they always knew. It really depends on the kids. If you felt they were ready to know, that is your decision. It would be different if you were calling him names or degrading him for not paying if he were unemployed, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I am sure he does these things to make it hard for you and make it hard for you. No one has a right to tell you if you are right or wrong if you are saying what you do to your children in honesty and a Godly manner. Ex-idiot is being tried and found wanting.

      1. I meant to say: he does these things to make it hard for you and make your look bad in front of your children. My mind works in mysterious ways.

  11. My ATTORNEY suggested I tell my then-17 year old son that his dad wasn’t paying the court ordered support during the divorce. He pointed out that my son was almost an adult and could not only handle this information but needed to know that a man who doesn’t take care of his family is not deserving of respect. I had a friend express disapproval of my choice while telling me that another woman DIDN’T tell her sons that their father was a drug addict because she didn’t want to talk him down to them. How crazy is that?

    It reminds me of (while I was still married and would never consider divorce) when my 21 year old daughter was 16 and would have an argument with her dad in which he clearly out of line, she would often say something to me about it and I would say something vague and noncommittal like, “Well, I don’t want to say anything that will make you lose respect for your dad.” Her answer to that was, “You don’t have to worry about that. He does that on his own!” Looking back I know she needed validation; she needed me to be honest about his behavior lest he make her think she was crazy like he did me. At that time I was unable to do more than I did. I am thankful that she has always seen it more clearly than I. What a blessing that she will not repeat the cycle!

  12. I thank you for this. I tried everything to hold my marriage together for 21 years and now have three older teens. I have covered for their dad and his anger, infidelity, and emotional abuse. I have tried to get them to join me in working like crazy to keep him happy. It was a sin against them. I have asked their forgiveness. He walked out in January and blamed me for destroying our marriage single handedly. I have been heading in the direction you describe here and have been wondering if I am doing the right thing. It is so important to me for them to know that they are not at fault nor do they have to repeat his behaviors. I have been using memories (sometimes theirs and sometimes mine) to spark conversations about how things weren’t right and then apologize if I felt I glossed over or supported his treatment of them.

    1. 3blossommom — Thank you so much for sharing. My heart breaks for you but I also want to commend you for your tremendous courage. Your support of your children and your honesty will go a long way toward healing for them and for you. And abusers love to blame like that. I want you to know that we believe you and we care about you. Hugs.

  13. This was very healing.

    Specifically, your comment,

    I even remember apologizing to the children in the first few weeks upon leaving because I had tried so hard to cover for my ex and it caused confusion. Many tears were shed during that conversation. There was relief in the children’s little eyes. Healing began.

    That really hit home because I can remember where I was sitting with my daughter when we had this “AHA!” moment. Love is transparent and although it should be age appropriate I found that honesty in love is always the best policy. Love, integrity and all of the wonderful things that Jesus taught us will always deliver us in the end.

    Thank you so much for your transparency.

    1. Hi Christina,

      Welcome to the blog! Thank you for your comment.

      We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog. After reading the New Users’ Info page if you want to change your screen name, just let me know and I can do that for you. My email is

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    2. Christina — I’m so glad that this ministered to you. It has been almost 5 years since I wrote this and I can still affirm that every word is true. My oldest is almost 16 and my youngest is now 9 . . . and I have continued to teach these principles to them and they are thriving. They are also character-savvy.

      I love what you say here:

      Love, integrity and all of the wonderful things that Jesus taught us will always deliver us in the end.

      Bless you, brave friend.

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