Profile of an abuser (detect it early)

Be careful who you leave your children with. This is at least one take away from high profile sexual abuse cases like the Jerry Sandusky trial.

Parents everywhere will be thinking twice before entrusting their children with authority figures like coaches or priests. Parents sometimes trust these people to seek special advantages for their children, but you cannot be too careful these days.

From what I’ve heard and read, I am inclined to believe that former Penn State assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky is guilty of sexually abusing many young boys. As a father of three sons, all of whom were athletes at some level including college, I cannot imagine what I would do if I learned that someone had abused one of my boys. Frankly, it scares me to think about it. Allowing due process of law to settle things would be extremely difficult. I pray for the jury in the Sandusky case to have the necessary information, wisdom and courage to reach the right verdict. I pray even  more for the alleged victims and their families. 

Prosecutors say at least 10 young men were sexually abused by Sandusky. The public focus this case has brought to sexual abuse has been both difficult and helpful to victims in many other places. The painful testimonies of the Sandusky victims have caused some to relive their own abuse and inspired others to deal with their past experiences.

If you’ve been abused, it’s very important for you to process your past with a wise counselor who is experienced in helping abuse victims. I pray that you’ll have the courage necessary to confront the past and experience greater levels of freedom from the damaging effects of abuse. As one who has walked closely with others through this process, I assure you that there is hope for a brighter tomorrow!   

Four general characteristics of abusers

In his book, Mending the Soul: understanding and healing abuse, Steven R. Tracy identified four general characteristics of abusers. If we hope to protect our children and society from abusers,  we need to be aware of the traits that make up the profile of an abuser.

Before outlining this profile, I should say that I have no interested in looking for an abuser behind every bush or being unnecessarily suspicious of those who display these characteristics. Yet I am concerned about the need for parents to know some of the warning signs for protecting their children. And there is another side to the usefulness of this information.

Abusers are typically groomed in particular kinds of homes with specific character traits. Parents must also know how to raise their children to protect them from becoming abusers. They must provide the kind of healthy love and nurture to fortify their children against such evil. Parents need be able to detect early and correct the traits that lead to abusive behavior.

Abusers are groomed by a failure of parents to provide homes of love and discipline where the traits common to abusers are exposed and corrected. And some parents actually display the traits of abusers in their own lives. 

The application of these characteristics extends beyond sexual abuse to all forms of abuse. They are also useful for protecting people who are in potential marriage relationships. If you read what follows and believe the person you’re with is a potential abuser, seek counsel and accountability immediately. Don’t downplay or ignore what you see. Save yourself and many others untold trouble by seeking help from a trusted counselor. 

1. Pervasive denial of responsibility

“The single most consistent characteristic of abusers is their utter unwillingness to accept full responsibility for their behavior.” (Tracy)

Abusers are full of excuses, rationalizations, and justifications for their abusive behavior. They play the blame game by projecting on others responsibility for their actions. 

 2. Bold deceitfulness:

Tracy identified this as a “skill” abusers use to “maintain their innocence, avoid the discomfort of changing long-established patterns of behavior, escape the painful consequences of their actions, assuage their own nagging consciences.”

Abusers create their own self-serving reality and expect others to affirm it. The can be “masterful at manipulating words and actions to confuse, confound, and put others on the defensive.”

3. Harsh judgmentalism:

To deflect attention away from themselves, abusers will often be very judgmental and harsh toward others. They use this mechanism to maintain their “moral facade” and to perpetuate denial of responsibility. They replace their shame with blame to escape a guilty conscience. 

“This harsh judgmentalism is also a godless method for unrepentant abusers to deal with their own shame, much of which is a gracious, God-given, internal witness to their sin…” (Tracy)

Legalistic religious communities can be both breeding grounds and havens of protection for undercover abusers. Communities with gospel clarity where people celebrate God’s grace in a context of humble transparency will not be safe places for abusers.

4. Calculated intimidation:

As can be seen, abusers lives are “built around twisting reality” and “avoiding consequences.” Their weapon of choice for keeping people from knowing the truth about them and their abuse is intimidation. Abusers are notorious for threatening their victims into silence and submission. But they also use what might be viewed as a positive means of manipulation. Abusers target people who are needy or come from difficult homes. They buy them gifts and shower them with affirmation as a means to control and abuse them.

It’s not surprising that some abusers are drawn to religious communities with hierarchies of authority. The Catholic priests who abused young boys leveraged their authority to intimidate their victims. Power without accountability can easily lead to corruption and abuse. The lack of accountability among coaches and in Churches encourage abusers to pursue these contexts.

Additional traits

An abuser often has an inordinate need for affirmation and praise. This usually connects with deeper levels of insecurity or histories of rejection. It is displayed in a tendency to project onto the words or actions of others motives and messages of acceptance or rejection. Abusers also typically have unhealthy attachment and detachment issues. They generally refuse to seek help and prohibit their victims from seeking help. 

Their deep fear of rejection makes abusers unpredictable and volatile. It’s common for them to carry inner rage that they periodically unleash on those close to them. Not surprisingly, abusers have difficulty admitting to failure or weakness. But, after unleashing rage on others, it’s not uncommon for them to become profusely apologetic to atone for the damage they’ve caused and to manipulate their victims. Any repentance that does not lead to change must be seen as a means of manipulation (see: Seven signs of true repentance).

Some of the characteristics of abusers can be found to certain degrees in most people. Parents must correct their children when they exhibit behaviors associated with abuse. Children learn early in life how to avoid responsibility for their actions, to blame shift and to manipulate those around them — even their parents. Firmly correct them if they tend to bully others to establish feelings of superiority or to make fun of others to feel better about themselves. Help them see through their selfish motivation and lead them to build their security in God’s love displayed in Christ and exemplified through your love for them.

Because abusers prey on vulnerable people, victims often enable their abusers by making excuses for their behavior. If you are doing this, please break free from the deception and recognize that it is neither loving nor wise to allow yourself to remain in an abusive relationship. Insist on getting help whether your abuser is willing or not.

Hear the powerful story of Michael Reagan here.

Steve Cornell   

See: Don’t forget victims of sexual assault

Another suggested list:


  • Low self-esteem
  • Extremely jealous and possessive
  • Dual personality – alternating between extreme tenderness and extreme aggressiveness 
  • Inability to cope with anger and stress 
  •  Extreme mood swings
  • Grew up in an abusive home
  • Socially isolated – has few friends
  • Very poor communication skills
  • Suspicious – makes accusations
  • Forcefully controlling
  • Believes in using violence to solve problems or have fun  
  • Abuses alcohol and drugs
  • Blames, belittles, humiliates, intimidates, shames and threatens 
  • Can be very charismatic

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Abuse, Accountability, Addiction, Alcohol addiction, Behavior, Conflict, Counseling, Deception, Difficult people, Discernment, Drug addiction, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault, Social work, Suffering, Violence, Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Profile of an abuser (detect it early)

  1. David Burkhardt says:

    Steve, do you know a Art & Madeline Hart in Conestoga, PA?? Or a Dennis & Nancy Mitchell in the Allentown, PA area? John Reisinger in Carlisle, PA area (

    An excellent article overall !! Though I disagree in two areas! Low self-esteem is not a characteristic!!, quite the opposite high self-esteem (toxic narcissism; a subset of borderline personality disorder), low self respect and none existing respect for others is a super classical sign of an abuser. The self esteem angle was a major error of secular psychology incorporated in Christian circles mainly by integrationist Dr. James Dobson and others.
    It is more of BF Skinner, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, than total depravity taught by the Bible; Jer. 17:9. For a clearer counselor perspective of the vast differences between self-esteem and self-respect visit Dr. John Rosemond’s website! Jesus taught that mankind has a blinding high self love/esteem, though it might be manifested in self deprecating forms of manipulation. What is needed is Christ-esteem through the new birth! Otherwise, we are talking pyschoheresy (!

    Secondly, the abuser is not usually socially isolated per se. He usually has many superficial nefarious friends. This is why abusers are RC priests, coaches, scoutmasters, family members, etc.. They can not make deep social connections, and engage in heavy conversation. It is all charismatic, charming superficial, trivial connections and communications. It focuses on outward appearances, looks, clothes, and most important having fun & pleasure. It is a “Peter Pan” never growing up, entitlement mentality.

    To add to your list of characteristics related to the above is a low regard or total disregard for authority(ies): God, parents, teachers, employers, police, etc….ad infinitum. They are a law unto themselves, and whatever they think, feel, believe, etc. is their supreme authority. They speak most always in absolutes, as if their perspective is always the correct one! It is almost like “Word of Faith” heresy, god-like speak it, and they believe it must come to pass. They rarely can be wrong, because that would devastate their ego or conception of self. And if they don’t think of an idea or solution first, then yours or others can’t be right or at least is defective. They will rarely if ever truly acknowledge there is more than one way to “skin a cat”. Rarely, will they “agree to disagree” also. Finding faults or defects in others is an offensive passion. The best offense being the best defense against self examination or the admonition/correction of others, which is totally unacceptable to them.

    Also add the pervasive exposure of pornography in our society! If not in the home they grew up in then in the homes of others via the Internet. Throw in the secular humanistic, nihilistic, dumbing down, public education system. Combine this with the perverse music, occultic media (books and movies), and availability of alcohol/drugs (legal & illegal), in other settings, one ends up with a very toxic mixture!

    Finally, there is a quasi-conspiracy in the pollution of our food supply, and lack of adequate nutrition since conception onward. All the fried foods, refined carbs-sugar, trans-fats, additives, MSG, etc., with lack of proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. Where are the building blocks for the body to manufacture serotonin, dopamine, acetyl choline, etc…..? That is why there is some efficacy with the SSRI’s: Zoloft, Paxil, etc… if you can live with the multiple side effects?? This is why America has a diabetes, obesity, cognitive disorders, cardio-vascular diseases, neuro-muscular issues….. In my humble opinion; those in acute and chronic mental institutions are there for 3 basic causes: 10-15% true organic brain dysfunction/damage, 10-15% some degree of demonic influence or possesion, 70% from unresolved GSB (Guilt, Shame, & Bitterness)!! David E. Burkhardt, BA, DDS


    • David,

      Thank you for responding. The Harts are members of our Church. Not sure about the others you noted. I appreciate your nuancing of the social behaviors of abusers. The deception component is a big part of this.

      As to the self-esteem vs. self-respect distinction, Scripture uses the term “love” in relation to both the natural tendency to care for one’s self and the sinful devotion to self over God and others. I’ve written on this subject here: . When I use “esteem” or “respect” in positive categories, I am not loading those terms with the word “love.”


  2. Lauren B. says:

    As someone who lives with an abusive relative, most of this is correct. However, you don’t need to be beaten up to be abused – emotional abuse will do damage as well. The worst part is that if there is no evidence of violence, and the abuser acts normal outside of the home, people are less likely to believe you. They will say that you just don’t respect the abuser enough, or need to have a servant’s heart.

    It surprises me how some churches don’t do much about abuse, and are even less likely to consider the fact that abuser may be mentally ill (or believe in the existence of mental illnesses in the first place). It would be nice if the Church gave those issues a bit more attention.

    As for the food conspiracy…I don’t think that really has anything to do with it.


    • Lauren,

      You’re right that abuse can take many forms. You’re also right about the need for Churches to bring more attention to the topic. Churches too often draw false distinctions between what is spiritual and other aspects of life — focusing only on narrow conceptions of the spiritual without interfacing connections with the fullness of what it means to be human. My page tab on counseling addresses this concern in more detail.


  3. An excellent article. Though I take exception to the “comes from an abusive home” point. I’m sure that it is often the case. But many who exhibit this come from loving homes with parents who tried very hard to lovingly disciple their children. We are currently raising a child who has Fetal Alcohol syndrome among several other diagnoses who exhibits these tendencies. It’s heart breaking! I also agree with Mr. Burkhardt about the self-esteem aspect.


  4. Thank you Margret. I understand your point about the homes of abusers. I actually said, “Abusers are TYPICALLY groomed in particular kinds of homes with specific character traits.” I was intentionally allowing for exceptions because there really isn’t a one-size fits all. The example of the father in Proverbs 1-7 reminds us that there is no method of parenting to erase the sin nature. As to the self-esteem vs. self-respect distinction, Scripture uses the term “love” in relation to both the natural tendency to care for one’s self and the sinful devotion to self over others. I’ve written on this subject here: . When I use “esteem” or “respect” in positive categories, I am not loading those terms with the word “love.”


  5. Dave says:

    I’m confused. You mention

    I should say that I have no interested in looking for an abuser behind every bush or being unnecessarily suspicious of those who display these characteristics. Yet I am concerned about the need for parents to know some of the warning signs for protecting their children.

    How do you both avoid being “unnecessarily suspicious of those who display these characteristics” while simultaneously watch for warning signs? That seems like somewhat of a contradiction.


    • Dave,

      That’s a great question and reveals a tension I truly feel about how easily we can “crusade” or “bandwagon” and go to extremes. I guess the word I used “unnecessarily” is the pivotal point. Yes, when is it necessary? Perhaps a convergence of characteristics is a clue. For example, I know people who have serious issues with denying responsibility and some who are harshly judgmental but I am not ready to read “abuser” into them. Yes, there behavior has elements of or effects of a kind of abuse that those close to them feel. But I am not reading Sandusky like conduct into them.

      I guess in times like these when it comes to protecting our children, a “better safe than sorry” approach seems reasonable. Thanks for the interaction.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s