It is hell to hold our parents responsible for harming us. When we were little children, holding them responsible would have gotten us rejected, which for a child is tantamount to a death sentence. Yet if we don’t hold them responsible, and don’t ultimately heal the emotional wounds they caused us, then we remain emotional children forever—and still retain the terror of being rejected by them. This can be a fear worse than death. As such, many people use unconscious mental techniques to avoid holding their abusive parents responsible. Here are seven of these techniques:
1) Blame intergenerational trauma
Although there is no doubt that traumatic patterns get passed on through the generations, the mechanism for the transmission of intergenerational trauma is child abuse, that is, parents replicating their own childhood traumas on their children. Yet rarely do I see people who acknowledge suffering from intergenerational trauma put the primary responsibility on their parents. Instead they blame some more distant force, like a sadistic or perverse great-grandfather who died before they were born, or slavery from two centuries ago, or maybe a long-since-defunct government from a different continent. And while past traumatizers or traumatizing forces were undoubtedly negative historical influences, blaming them does little or nothing to help us heal our own wounds. We have to face who directly did our damage to us and hold them responsible. Without that there can be no grieving, no healing, no real reparation. Also, without that we’re just giving child abusers a free pass, and, in essence, giving ourselves a free pass to abuse our own children—because, after all, they can always blame intergenerational trauma too.
2) Blame another race or a political party or an economic system or immigrants
There is racism, some political parties are horrid, economics can be vile and unfair, and some immigrants do bad things—but parents wield more power over the lives of their children than do any of these other people or forces. Parents are the literal gods of the child’s universe, especially in the case of very young children. For starters, parents create the child. Most pet adoption agencies don’t allow pets to be adopted into chaotic or deprived homes, yet parents in war-torn or starvation-ridden or racist regions get a free pass? It is so hard for children to see their parents in context, and they will often absolve them of their errors at all cost, and even go a step further and deny the existence of these errors. They need to believe their parents loved them, because without that they have to face the horrible notion that maybe their parents didn’t care about them all that much—and maybe they themselves are not all that different. All of this creates an incredible incentive to divert the pain and rage over unconscious parental betrayal onto “bad” external forces.
3) Say your parents did the best they could and then forgive them
Although by conventional standards I am very critical of parents, my observation is that all parents actually do the best they can. The reason they do bad things is not because they want to, not because they were born evil, not because they want to fail at their most precious job, but because they have unresolved trauma from their own childhood that they cannot help but replicate on those over whom they wield the most power: their own children. This, sadly, is the nature of traumatized, unhealed humans. Yet this doesn’t give parents a free pass, because it fails to acknowledge the inherent responsibility in being human: that we are all responsible to heal our traumas in order to stop passing them on. Saying “they did the best they could” and then forgiving them is exactly what allows the horror to keep going on, generation after generation, because unconsciously everyone who says it can just as easily say to themselves, “I did the best I could, thus I can’t be held accountable for my actions.” People must hold themselves accountable for what they’ve done—or they cannot heal their traumas. But first we most hold the most important people in our universe, our parents from childhood, accountable for what they did to us. That is how we begin to break the vicious cycle of trauma.
4) Vilify one parent and let the other parent off the hook
It takes two parents to create a child, just as it takes two people to tango. But all too often I hear people holding just one parent accountable for their traumas of childhood, as if that one parent did all of his or her bad acts in a vacuum. Although this vacuum theory isn’t true, it is convenient, because it allows the now-grown child to retain his sense of stability of still being connected to his family of origin. It is, after all, a horrible thing to lose one’s family of origin, and for a child it can be devastating, even deadly. There’s a reason that abused kids so often defend their parents so vigorously. Meanwhile, here are some reasons it’s never true that there’s one “good” parent and one “bad” one: A) Ninety-nine percent of the time (at least in the modern, Western world), your parents chose each other and participated in the sex act that created you. If one of your parents were really a monster, then your supposed non-monster parent bears some responsibility for having chosen this monster and chosen to procreate with him or her. B) The “good” parent often knows a lot more than he or she lets on about the abuse perpetrated by the “bad” parent. The “good” one often just chooses to look the other way to avoid having to face the consequences of the “bad” parent’s wrath. Looking the other way is neglect, and neglect is abuse. C) Often the “good” parent secretly likes it that the “bad” parent perpetrates abuse. Some examples here: the wife knows her husband is raping their daughter, but knows that if she puts a stop to it he will rape or beat her. Or the wife rages at the kids and the husband is relieved because he knows that she’d otherwise rage at him or reject him. Or the wife is secretly glad the husband beats their son, because then the son comes to her for emotional support and comfort and thus becomes the needy, vulnerable, submissive, worshipping replacement spouse that she never had. Or the wife is glad the husband beats the kids, because then he looks like the “bad” one and she gets to look like the “good” one, and thus she wins the “Better Parent Contest,” from which she derives not just self-esteem but an identity. Meanwhile, the bottom line here is that if you overly blame one parent and diminish the responsibility of the other, you’re not fully facing what happened to you, and thus can’t properly heal your wounds.
5) Blame a sibling
Siblings, sadly, can be rotten. Although some are wonderful, or at times can be wonderful, many fail to live up to their potential. They can be mean, verbally abusive, physically and sexually assaultive, bullying, cruel, jealous, undermining, and threatening. But the reason I add them to this list is that all too often I see people blaming a sibling for their childhood traumas while letting their parents off the hook. The reason this is a fallacy is as follows: behind every abusive sibling are two abusive parents who traumatized him (or her) and set up the abusive dynamics he is acting out. His acting out comforts abusive parents, because it diverts everyone’s attention away from their own cruelty, neglects, and shortcomings. In essence, no matter how bad that abusive sibling is, he’s still the parents’ agent and scapegoat.
6) Point out how others have it worse than you and devote all your energy to bettering their lot in life
We can all find examples of someone who had worse parents than we did. Even the most abused of us can do two minutes of googling to find mothers and fathers who killed their children outright. But this type of comparing is inconsequential to our healing because it does nothing to resolve the actual emotional pain we suffered and nothing to lessen the burden of guilt on our parents. It may allow us to idealize our parents, but this only causes us to dissociate from our traumas, that is, to split off from them or compartmentalize them out of consciousness. And for some people the comparisons only cause them to feel guilty, as in, “How dare I feel bad about what I went through when others went through so much worse?” But if we really want to cement the myth of our “easy childhood” into place, we can always become do-gooders—and devote the best of our energies to helping the “really” wounded people. And there is a place for doing good in the world, our real goodness starts with healing ourselves: acknowledging our childhood traumas, placing responsibility on those who caused them (starting with our parents), feeling all our feelings around the traumas, and then grieving them. Ironically, healing ourselves is what gives us the real experience to be useful to others. Without that experience the best we can model for others are messages of “you-can’t-do-it-yourself” and “you-need-me,” which all too often are only replications of a wounded child’s worst fears.
7) Blame traumas from later in life
Horrible things can happen to us at any age, but it is the early life traumas resulting primarily from the actions of our parents that warp us the most—because it is then that we are the most malleable. We experience later traumatic events through the lenses of these earlier traumas, such that the earlier ones provide magnification and distortion. But even more so, early life traumas often set the stage for the later ones to happen, such that people not infrequently unconsciously replicate earlier traumatic situations and relationships. You would think that this would give people more incentive to hold their traumatizing parents accountable, yet often they do the opposite. Many people find comfort in blaming their life’s woes solely on the later traumas, as if they happened outside of a context. This can allow them to still feel some of the pain and rage and sorrow of having been traumatized yet simultaneously maintain a close relationship with their abusive parents. They place the blame outside the family and in so doing protect their troubled family system, never heal their root traumas, and never have to face that deepest, painful truth.