Punishment as a Control Tactic in Abusive Family Systems



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there is peace and freedom on the other side…

Happy New Year! Welcome to a new year Emerging from Broken!

I talk about the belief system and how it is developed and how we are brainwashed into believing that the problem is us in the first place. There are specific abuse tactics that are used to cement this brainwashing which cause the ‘fear of consequences’ for going against the controller in a dysfunctional relationship. One of these tactics is ‘punishment’ or ‘fear of punishment’ and like so many other abuse tactics it is very often issued in a way that is hard for the receiver of that punishment to put a finger on it. Remember that the foundation is laid very carefully to discredit a child in an abusive or dysfunctional family and to make sure the child is always looking at themselves when it comes to where the problem originated or who it originated with.  This part of the grooming process is usually rooted in psychological abuse although it is often cemented via other types of abuse.  

There are many ways to punish people without physically hitting them or calling them names.  There are tactics such as “the silent treatment” “withdrawal of attention” or “withdrawal of interest”, in other words “rejection” and those abuse tactics communicate a message very clearly, even if we are not consciously aware of that message. When we are kids and an adult uses psychologically abusive methods to ‘punish’, most kids understand the consequence of their action (rejection) but don’t always recognize the actual message with any clarity or consciousness.  Then, the way that we learn this acceptance of the message without questioning it very deeply (out of fear of the consequences), is carried into adulthood with us, therefore as adults we don’t see the tactics we have already been successfully groomed to accept without question.  But the fear of the consequences may be very much still in control of the now adult victim.

For example, the time my father-in-law took my 2 year old son out of the farm yard without telling me he was taking him. I freaked, thinking my baby crawled under the fence and was lost in one of the many fields or had been mauled by a cow or had been cornered by a coyote. We have literally miles of land. I jumped in my car to go get my husband and there was my father in law, with my husband in one of our hayfields with our 2 year old son. Without thinking (normally I would never have stood up to him) I told him to never take our child out of the yard again without letting me know. He got angry with me! He was so angry that he spat out that he would never take him again.

There was something about the way he said it though that gave me an erie feeling as though I was the one that had done something wrong. I agonized over that whole thing, justifying to myself that I was right, that I HAD to know where my son was, that I could not actually be expected to just “wonder” where he might be at any given time. But I was really scared too because I had dared to talk back to my father-in-law.  I ‘knew’ that I was going to pay for my actions.

He came over later that day saying ‘gramma’ (my mother in law) had told him he was out of line, but instead of apologizing, he told me off, saying that I was going to turn my son into a ‘panty’ if I continued to be over protective of him in this way. I call this the old “I’m sorry but……” and “sorry with a but” is not sorry at all.

But guess what? I didn’t argue with my father in laws lecture. I somehow just swallowed it. I sat there and took it. I accepted his words. I let him be angry. My silence very likely communicated to him that I accepted that *I had been out of line with my expectations* and that ‘grandpa’ should NOT have to tell me when he is taking my son somewhere.

‘Grandpa’ never took my son or any of my kids without informing me after that day. And he never took my kids anywhere with permission either. Looking back on it and in my opinion, he totally lost interest as a grandfather as of that day. My in-laws never took the kids to the amusement park or to the zoo. They didn’t babysit and they didn’t have the kids for sleepovers until they moved and could have the kids for a few days without (my) supervision. My father in law was not interested in watching dance performances, music concerts, hockey games, or any of the other things that I always thought grandparents were interested in being a part of when it came to their grandchildren. At some level I suspected that it all started that day when I dared to speak up to him. It was ‘the punishment’ that I had been groomed all my life to avoid and then that one time I just burst out with mama bear fear.

Later when I was coming out of the fog of how abusive and dysfunctional the relationship I had with my father in law was, it became very clear that he had punished me (or he thought he was punishing me) by withdrawing his interest and involvement as a grandfather. I think this was especially true if he thought that his involvement would give me a break or do me a favor such as through babysitting or taking the kids out somewhere.  

‘Punishment’ (consequences for going against the one in control) as an abuse or control tactic is for any kind of stepping out of line. Children and adult children are ‘punished’ for going against the wishes of the one who in ‘in control’ of the one who is ‘boss’. Sometimes I have to think about what really happened when I realize that I am the one without family. Sometimes I have to remind myself WHY I finally stood up for myself and my kids. Sometimes I really wonder if I made a mistake in my choice to stand up to the dysfunctional family relationship stuff and I have to remind myself just what my requests were that ended up with my kids not having grandparents anymore and with my husband and I not having any extended family.

My requests were for equal value and equal respect.  I asked for some of the things that they demanded from me with one difference; I was still willing to respect and value them. They however, were not willing to respect or value me.

I asked to be heard. I asked for my mother to stop talking about me and lying about me to other people and to stop inferring that the sexual abuse was my fault.

I asked my father to listen to me, to actually show in some small way that he was interested in me. Talking to my father was exhausting because each time he cut me off and changed the subject (about anything including what my kids were doing or an accomplishment of mine) it was a painful reminder that he didn’t care. And even these small requests were too much.

I asked my father-in-law to let me know if he was taking my child away from the farm yard. Just let me know so I don’t worry. And that request was grounds for punishment that went on for years.  (Or so he thought; the truth as I know it today is that he did me and my kids a favor. Nothing good could have possibly come from my kids spending a lot of time with such a toxic and mean spirited man.)

So today when I feel bad that my kids don’t have grandparents on birthdays, holidays and other special occasions, I think about the alternative and what I had to do in the past in order for any of us to have a relationship with those so called grandparents. The alternative was to jump through all those crazy hoops. The alternative was to love (in the false definition of love which is obedience and compliance to their unreasonable wishes) and then not be loved in return by the same rules they taught me to love them.  The alternative was to be treated like ‘nothing’ in front of my kids which only taught them that;

a)     I can be treated like this and I won’t do anything about it

b)    That I actually agree that this treatment is right. (compliance is consent)

c)     That this type of treatment is how we show love and respect for your elders

d)    That certain adults have more rights and more value and should be excused from respecting or considering other people.

e)     That power and control is the most important thing to have in any relationship. Without it, you get treated like crap.

Today I am grateful that I decided NOT to teach those destructive ‘false normals’ but rather to take a stand against them. I am grateful that know what real love is. I am grateful that my husband and I have broken the cycle of abuse and dysfunctional family systems in our family with our own kids. I am grateful that I model and teach by example, love, respect and equal value and that my husband and I are a great example of mutual love and respect for each other in our marriage. I am grateful that although our family gatherings are often small, they are so much fun!  I am grateful that I learned a new way to have relationship based on equal value and that we use our power to empower and not to tear down and disempower for the purpose of control. I am thrilled to have found the truth and to have found freedom and wholeness through that truth.  

Today I reject being treated with disregard and disrespect. I am not afraid of their ‘punishments’. I am no longer a victim to a dysfunctional family system. I no longer bow down to the dysfunctional pecking order. I embrace equal value for all!

I had to look at the FEAR of the consequences as an adult and through the grid of the truth. If my fear was basically the fear of being rejected by them, the truth about that is that I already was rejected by them. I had never been accepted; I had never been heard or even seen. My wishes and needs were not important to them. That is rejection. And the truth is that my children were also being taught this same dysfunctional family system; compliance and obedience. They were being taught that they didn’t matter much either. So the truth is that I had nothing to fear and I had everything to gain.

Please share your thoughts and your insights, your struggles and your victories, your laughter and your tears and remember if you have a concern with privacy, you are welcome to use any name you wish in the comment form. Emerging from Broken has a facebook page, however your comments here will not be published anywhere but HERE in the website.

Exposing Truth one snapshot at a time;

Darlene Ouimet

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Related Posts ~ The fear of good-bye if you don’t comply

How Children become the black sheep of the family (click)


90 response to "Punishment as a Control Tactic in Abusive Family Systems"

  1. By: Melinda Posted: 26th September

    So in my home growing up, my mother would always say that I needed to “toe the line”. This meant compliance in ALL situations, even when things were obviously very wrong. My stepfather believed that he was a “king” (more like a tyrant) and we (my mom and I) were the slaves, and fire would rain down on us if we stepped out of line, especially me.

    I recall one incident when I was about 15 and my stepfather accused me of bringing a boy into the house after school to have sex. It wasn’t true and I said so. What really happened was that a creepy kid had followed me home and pushed his way inside, refusing to leave. Somehow I eventually made him leave but it was a terrifying incident.
    Maybe the neighbors had heard the commotion and told my stepfather out of concern, I don’t know.
    But my stepfather was convinced that I had brought my boyfriend home after school when no one was there (I didn’t). I tried to explain that the neighbor had misunderstood, that it was actually this weird boy who had followed me home and wouldn’t leave when I asked him to.

    Instead of being concerned for my safety (I could have been sexually abused or even killed by that kid based on the scary behavior) my stepfather angrily blamed me and accused me of bringing boys into the house. I got really mad and told him (and my mother) that it didn’t matter what they thought, because I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I threw in a couple of “soft” swear words as well, then stormed upstairs to my room.
    I got ready for bed because I had school the following day. Next thing I knew, my mom wakes me up in the middle of the night and marches me downstairs to my stepfather, who was waiting for an apology.

    I was absolutely floored. An apology for what?! Because he falsely accused me of something I didn’t do (a pattern which would often repeat itself) and I dared to stand up to him? Looking back on it, I am still really upset with my mom for making me apologize to him when HE was the one in the wrong.
    But in our home, no one dared challenge his authority. No one dared “talk back” or be the voice of reason/dissent in a crazy situation. If you did, you were punished with more abusive treatment and made to apologize.

  2. By: Jeanne Polehonki Posted: 8th January

    I love you girl, you are the biggest help in my crazy life!!!!!! Thank you!

  3. By: Cynthia Posted: 7th January

    The fear of goodbye if you don’t comply…..Are you kidding….That would be a blessing…bring it on…

  4. By: S1988 Posted: 6th January


    I think it’s possible, but it’s not easy. I’ve estranged from my family twice, and I still second-guess myself every now and then. On the other hand, I feel so much freer being away from them, and know that there can never be any reconciliation between us. If I go back a third time, they’ll just hurt me again, and I’ll be foolish to do that. I hope one day I can reach a point when I no longer doubt my choices.

  5. By: Marie Posted: 6th January

    Is it possible to be able to break away and not feel ambivalent about fear of the unknown?

  6. By: Karen R Posted: 6th January

    Raven. I understand. I was kicked to the curb many times and didnt accept how rejecting it was because it was so normal. I was so brainwashed to try harder. Its hard to forgive myself for that. I was setup to accept abusive relationships. I fight back now or just walk away. I can still be fooled but atleast I see now that its not me and instead of trying harder I break contact.

  7. By: Raven Posted: 5th January

    I can totally identify with this tactic. It was used all the time to keep me in line. I have heard the threats of, “…You will be cast out, if you misbehave or don’t do as your told, no one will support much less help you, you will be written out the will, you will be left alone….” I too had name calling, I was made to carry ALL of the blame, and if I refused to carry or gave it back, I was shut down. Funny thing is, all those years of compliance, and then the realization that these people were ALWAYS lying. The fear of nothing, came true. In reality, when they were trying to threaten me with alienation, they were never even there to begin with. I have felt stupid in kissing their ass, fawning, to keep the peace. Bending over backwards, biting my tongue and it all resulted in being abandoned and kicked to the curb. The thing that still hurts is my siblings, they are ‘in’ with the family, and they try to rub my face in it all the time. Now, when people ask me about my family, I tell them I am an Orphan. It’s not as if I am lying…

  8. By: Karen R Posted: 6th January

    My husband still uses this tactic daily. He tortures with silence, but it should never be held against him because he always has some fault of mine to justify it. It was strongly used when I was a child. I would have to say that someone was always being punished by my father. It was daily. I grew up in fear of his rage, physical bodily violence, which I witnessed weekly, guns, cruel sarcasm, name calling, screaming, scary driving, withholding, and necessary gratitude. We walked on eggshells and lived in fear. I have never had any “normal” loving person in my life. I accepted this as normal. I even had dysfunctional friends who were abused in their homes. So I married at 20 someone I knew 2 months. He is not a violent person but he is emotionally absent and psychologically abusive. My normal. I remember thinking how very well matched we were. The hardest part is now understanding it, knowing what I missed for forty years, knowing, bottom line that all of it was a factor in our son’s suicide. It is truly generational.

  9. By: Callynt Posted: 5th January

    Happy New Year, everyone!

    Darlene, this post, as with your others, is so on point. I think many of us fear/face this type of treatment this time of the year, when family gatherings are plentiful.
    I’m familiar with a slight pit in my stomach hoping there aren’t any confrontations, and then worrying what the repercussions might be if I stand up for myself.

    I worry less about that now, because it has no end, and what we fear will happen anyway. If we continue to comply with these abusers and their behavior, we move further away from being a whole person, and that’s just not acceptable to me anymore.

    I’ve dealt with silent treatment, screaming, slandering, isolation, the lot. It hurts. It devastates. It also is so wrong. Mature adults do not behave in this way. I hate that it has taken this long for me to realize it, but thank God, I finally have.

  10. By: Karen Posted: 23rd September

    Thank you Amber.
    I came from a dyfunctional family. We were not allowed contact with my mothers family
    at all. No friends or neighbors came to our house. No social events or parties
    either. No chance for help. I see the pattern now.
    I work at an outreach now full of caring and compassion so
    have a safe place to go. No more bad coping that only punishes me.

  11. By: Amber Posted: 23rd September

    Karen R, good for you for standing up to this manipulative behavior!! I’ve seen this with several different people. They get comfortable with the way things are, especially if things are “their way”. And as soon as they are stood up to, their wonderful world is threatened, so they have to make it seem like the other person is crazy. Yes, I would call it a form of gas lighting.
    I’m always suspicious of a person that tries to isolate someone. My stepfather did this with my mother, restricting her friendships, and contact with family. I believe it was because he was afraid others would see through him and that he was taking advantage of her, so his best option was to get rid of the people that might clue her in, and possibly help her to escape. Again, they don’t want their world which is arranged the way they want it to change. So of course they will never admit to being wrong.
    I’m so proud of you Karen for standing up to all if this!

  12. By: Karen R Posted: 23rd September

    My husband constantly uses the silent treatment to “punish” me for questioning his behavior or actions toward me.
    It causes me a lot of hurt and stress and in the past I would use alcohol to cope, which only made me feel a lot worse. Then I would self harm or worse, “act out” in a rage against the behavior. That would then be proof that I was the problem.

    So manipulative, he had it down to a science. Then he would “forgive” me and then the whole episode would repeat a week or two later. Each time I sunk a little lower.

    I have been on this site 18 months. I now understand his behavior. He’s a very controlling Narcissist.
    He’s passive agressive in his punishment. But it is punishment.
    Now every time he acts in a demeaning way to me, I stand up to it. He does not get away with it.

    He sees it as being an emotional problem with me whenever I stand up to him.
    Further proof of my instability.
    I have myself in hand now. No suffering in silence. No more isolation. I have a job surrounding myself with caring people.
    I dont use bad coping. But I still suffer inside when he abuses me in this way.
    I don’t enjoy his company. I don’t like to be around him and do what I can to avoid him now.

    This weekend we went on a planned 8 hr road trip. Within the first 10 miles, he was nasty to me 3X. I did not misunderstand his actions. Yelling “don’t argue with me”, when I questioned something,
    Yelling “stop” when I tried to talk about something that I found upsetting. (stop means no further talk or discussion) and then an abusive lecture about an issue with his phone he felt I caused.
    All the while I’m like (to myself) “what???, now Im trapped in the car with this A-hole for 8 hrs)

    There is only his opinion. My opinion is “nagging” or “whining”.
    So I put my headphones on and blocked him out. He’s a Narc so the loss of attention is one
    way to get his attention.

    The next day he wants to talk. When I explained why I did what I did he said I “misunderstood
    him”. He had acceptable (to him) reasons for his outbursts.
    Then…this is the clincher

    He said he was being NICE to me by not talking to me, answering me, and totally ignoring me in the car. That way he wouldn’t say anything else to further “anger” me.
    He turned it all around and made it about me and my response to his abuse.
    To him any negative response I have to something he does is “anger”.

    I think that’s gaslighting when someone tries to make you question what really happened and your perception of what happened. I know I sat there with my mouth open in disbelief that he
    would distort what happened to justify his behavior and make him feel good about mistreating me.

    By the way, he has forbidden me to talk about him up here.
    I now have my own login on the computer and passwords on my phone.

    Every time we have one of these fights he also demands I give up talking to my one friend on the phone. And also that I give up reading.
    I only talk to one person by phone once a week (long distance). One.
    I like to read in the evenings.

    He’s such a Narc and wants my constant attention when he’s home. I can either be a servant or
    an adoring toady.
    Whats sad is that after 39 years I can expect no change in treatment.
    The love I felt for him is just fading away. We just live in the same house now.
    He doesn’t understand what has changed or why, just that I avoid him.
    But I do feel a lot better about myself when I stand up to the demeaning behavior.

  13. By: sahitha Posted: 1st August

    I got hit with whatever was handy to my mum as a child and do not remember the physical pain per se probably because I was numbing it.
    Sometimes she picked the broom, sometimes a big cooking spatula, sometimes clothes-hanger. When I was about 11 years, I decided I had enough of this nonsense and resisted it passively. I told her she could beat me as much as she wanted but I was not going to do anything she wanted me to do. Later on, I started to grab the tools in question. It worked and she gave up beating me with them soon.

    She also realised I was a grown up now and wouldn’t take her nonsense and so she behaved but she continued the verbal abuse.

    I remember the verbal abuse so well, though the manner in which it was delivered has changed. By now she has started using smooth put downs instead of the harsh ones. She tried to convince me that what she spoke about me was the truth. She wanted me to accept that I wasn’t good looking nor intelligent (as if they were the only things that determined a person’s worth).

    Now I wonder what was in it for her. I was a very strong, independent child and maybe she did not like that I stood up to her, so she decided to take me down by eroding my value. I also think perhaps my passive-aggressive father had some role to play in it. He is one of those misogynists who believes a woman is made to please a man sexually and is good for nothing else apart from cooking, cleaning etc.

    In his mind he already was the one with high value because he was born a man and he derived his esteem by oppressing both my mum and me. I was this bright spark as a child, highly intelligent and a threat to his supremacy. So I wonder if he goaded my mum to launch this psychological abuse. Of course, my mum being an idiot, who places having a husband as the most important thing in her life listened to him.

  14. By: JJ Posted: 3rd June

    I want to justify my Mom by saying, “oh, my Mom wasn’t as bad as your mom…” but yes, she was. She didn’t “get” me, but instead swept me under the rug so she wouldn’t have to try to “get” me. And now she tells me, “Oh, if you had only told me you would have been treated differently.” No I couldn’t. She wouldn’t listen.

  15. By: JJ Posted: 3rd June

    OH man, this is me. The “threat” of punishment kept me in “compliance.” Even in college. I remember my freshman year, my friends wanted to go out of town for spring break. They wanted ME to drive as I had a car. “Oh no, I can’t do that, my mom wouldn’t like it.” And that caused a lot of fights with me and my boyfriend in college.

    My sister didn’t seem to care, she learned early that the threats were meaningless. Too me awhile to realize.

  16. By: NancyLe Posted: 30th January

    I am going to reread this article several times.I was verbally abused by my mother my whole life, after the abuse she would turn around and give me money as a repentance. Sadly, I admit that is one of the reasons why I stayed around her for so long. I also had no one else I could turn to as a child. I was taken out of a dysfunctional family only to be adopted into another one. It took me years to get out of it, I even told MY own children they where to love their grandmother no matter what. You can love from afar though, and that is what I should have done. This last month my mother did something that upset me so much I told her I was done, DONE. She has hurt me for the last time,I am 58 years old and she is 93. My self esteem is zero still, I have stayed in another verbally abusive relationship even after I legally divorce him. I ask myself why I do this? Isnt 58 years long enough to be abused by your mother? Isnt 20+ years enough to be abused by your spouse? The sad thing is, in allowing this I have showed my own children that this behavior is ok and acceptable to me.It is NOT! I am in counseling and have been off and on for years and I still can not seem to be able to break completely free of the abuse. A good support group was vital to me in earlier years, but in moving I never found good support where I am now. I have not given up though and I am determined to be health and happy.

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 31st January

      Hi NancyLe
      Welcome to EFB
      Many abusers have a way to bribe the victim with gifts or special treatment ‘after’. This is not an apology however or any kind of aknowledgement about what they did and therefore the victim ends up feeling “paid off’. Don’t feel bad that you stuck around for the gifts, that is all you had! I hope that you will keep reading the articles here; there is so much about how I took my life back and overcame all the dysfunction and habitual thinking that was full of lies.
      Hugs, Darlene

  17. By: Catherine Todd Posted: 26th January

    Meloday #70: You wrote:

    “they take anything I say as an accusation, and respond with an accusation, rather than working through issues mutually as equal adults.”

    That’s it! In a nutshell. That’s what happens with my family and this latest Facebook “friend.” Every single thing I said was taken as another attack, when it wasn’t. When I was speaking just about the effect her words were having on me, and that she didn’t have the right to tell me I was “presenting myself as a victim” when I talked about my childhood.

    I just couldn’t believe it. This is exactly how my family taught every single one of my siblings to behave, so no one is ever allowed to say “ouch.” If you do, you are “living in the past, pretending to be a victim, acting like a baby, asking for attention,” etc. etc. etc. It’s just sickening but it allows the abusers to continue on with their cruel and hurtful ways.

    I’ve given up trying to work things out with my family members. They are so entrenched in their attitudes and expressions, which – even if they are trying – ALWAYS revert under times of stress. So I will let them go their merry way, and I will go mine.

    Reading about everyone’s so similar experiences here has really shown me that NO CONTACT is the right way for me to go. At least until I get some kind of positive self-image and ego-strength to withstand attacks against my Self. Right now I’m not strong enough so I will stay to myself and with true friends and extended family that don’t cause wounds. That do have a heart. And there’s lots of good people like that out there! Once I’m not blind and “inured” to the pain, I recognize abusers a whole lot quicker now and know to give them wide berth.

    It’s as easy (and as hard) as that. For now, I finally feel safe. And now, all I have to do is practice it! Dear God, please show me The Way and keep us all safe and sound. Amen.

  18. By: Melody Y Posted: 25th January

    hey there- there are two of us Melodys- I got really confused reading the other Melody’s posts because I didn’t remember writing them lol. Nice to know am not the only one with this awesome name. ;0)
    Anyhow- Pam, thank you so much for your comment in response to what I said (Melody-comment no. 68).

    I have had to get to a point where I don’t get emotionally involved with things my parents communicate to me, because having gone back through everything said, they take anything I say as an accusation, and respond with an accusation, rather than working through issues mutually as equal adults.

    It’s normal to have conflict in families, but it isn’t healthy to ignore issues and think that THAT is love. It isn’t- it’s an unequal twisted form of control.

    From a Christian point of view, working through forgiveness, I just re-read an article by a guy called Steve Cornell, and it hits the nail on the head about how my Dad responds when I try to express hurt at a specific behavior. I always keep things as specific and clear as I can, but my dad seems himself to live in deep shame and heaps that on anyone he sees as under him when they challenge him as an equal. That to me is a character defect I can have compassion on, but it is also abusive. For what it’s worth, the article that helped me is at

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