Not so with cases in which parents blame children for their own marital or life unhappiness. There, the parent involves a child in a poisoned web of attitudes. The whole system of interaction is toxic. This is cancer that has metastasized. There is no storm to wait out. One must wait out one’s whole childhood, and even then, it won’t be over.
It is important to note that the spread of this type of toxicity can take place using very few words. Several remarks made over the course of a few years may suffice. The infected system of relationships may co-exist with a deceptive, picture-perfect family image, as in Augusten Burroughs’ case above. The child affected by what remains hidden from view may not realize until very much later just what was going on. That’s to be expected. It is difficult for any of us to believe that we really saw what no one else did.
It may take many years to acknowledge to ourselves that we have been victims of parental abuse. There are several reasons for this. First, the thought of not having been loved by the only people in the world who were supposed to love and support us come what may is a humiliating thought, and we naturally look for ways to avoid the pain of humiliation even at the cost of suffering other kinds of pain.
Second, we can simply carry the distorted beliefs our parents may have instilled in us without examining them. If mothers and fathers made us believe we weren’t favored because our brothers or sisters were much better, we may not consider how unjust to us that was until much later in life.
Last but not least, strangers often refuse to believe victims of parental abuse, choosing instead to hold on to what in another post I describe as the no bad parent myth, roughly, the idea that there are bad and ungrateful children but not bad and abusive parents.
When the abusive parents are deceased by the time the fog clears and we perceive the truth about our childhoods, it may be even more difficult. Anger at a dead parent is often experienced as unacceptable and so gets denied and suppressed. Finally, delayed anger, unlike rage, can persist for years. The good thing about rage is that it is a very intense state and so bound to peak and subside shortly after. Delayed anger that simmers quietly under the surface, by contrast, can torment us for a very long time.
Gaslighted and otherwise psychologically abused children often show remarkable resilience and go on to become good and successful people, despite the toxins left by parents in their psyches. Some intuitively stumble upon the technique of distraction and refocusing, and pour their energy into various pursuits. But this does not mean that they have healed. What it means, rather, is that resilient people can go on despite trauma, like soldiers who continue marching in battle in spite of injury.
What else can be done? For the children of psychologically abusive parents, probably not much, unfortunately. (There is therapy, of course, but who would take the abusive parents’ children to the therapist?)
For adults, accepting the truth of what happened, I think, is the crucial part. It is only the beginning, but without it, the rest will never come. To attempt to heal from childhood trauma while denying its cause is a bit like trying to recover from a physical illness after misdiagnosing it and taking the wrong remedy.
Try as you may, you probably won’t succeed in finally getting your mother’s love by becoming more successful than your brother, whom she always preferred. It may simply be that you will never get her love by any means. If she is deceased, you may not be able to confront her about it either. You must find a way to heal without ever repairing the broken relationship.