If that’s true even in the most destructive situations described by Van Der Kolk above, little wonder that those children grow up into adults who are unwilling to accept that their traumatic childhood experiences are connected in any way to their emotional difficulties. And this goes double when the traumatized child turns into the trauma-inducing parent, and starts mistreating their own offspring.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people say to me: ‘But if I blame my parents for my problems, that’s exactly what my children are going to do to me, when they grow up…’
I know that’s a scary thought for most of us, and justifiably so, because even the most saintly parent in the world can’t ALWAYS do the right thing and treat their dependents with kindness, patience, acceptance and understanding. Because all parents are human beings, and not angels, and human beings are very flawed creations.
So how do we square this circle?
In the secular world the approach has usually been to either:
- Demonize the parents and encourage the child to cut them out of their life if they can’t or won’t reform (think Alice Miller), or
- Ignore the huge mountain of evidence showing that the way parents relate to their children is instrumental in whether they grow up as adults with good mental health, and blame the problem on pseudo-scientific myths like ‘bad genes’ or ‘chemical imbalances’ instead.
The main problem with the first approach (and probably the main explanation why Miller’s work was uniformly sidelined by the establishment) is that very few people actually want to have such an openly hostile, angry relationship with their parents. Call it family loyalty, call it the fear of being shunned by other family members, or anxiety about rocking the boat and calling down more punishment and ‘blame’ down on themselves by exposing the family’s dirty laundry – it all comes down to the same thing: most traumatized children won’t choose to save themselves and their mental health if it’s going to cost them their connection to the parents.
(And if that’s true even when dealing with absolutely horrendous issues of physical and sexual abuse, it’s even more true when the abuse is ‘only’ verbal, emotional or psychological.)
The main problem with the second approach is that it doesn’t actually address the underlying causes of mental illness and turns people into drug addicts and ‘hopeless cases’, while storing up even more problems for the next generation.
When an abused child isn’t enabled and encouraged to tap into their true feelings, and to acknowledge and then release their disgust, anger, fear, shame and helplessness, those feelings don’t just magically ‘disappear’: they back-up in the person’s system, and they become all sorts of strange mental, emotional and even physical issues which tend to only worsen over time, if not properly treated.
Worse, an abused child who doesn’t have their experiences validated, and who isn’t helped to identify the ‘wrong’ that was done to them then becomes an abusing adult when they grow up – and the cycle starts all over again with their children.
So how can we validate, acknowledge and give a voice to that traumatized child within, without it completely rupturing our family relations?
There is an answer (probably, even a lot of them...) and I'll share a couple of my favorite techniques with you this week.