Leo Tolstoy wrote that ‘all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The reality is that most families are a mixture of hurtful and nurturing experiences, but the most common illusion is that we all come from happy families! The myth of the happy family is a clever creation that seeks to keep hidden the neglect – physical, sexual, emotional, social, intellectual, behavioural, creative – within a family. The façade of the happy family is reinforced by regular contact, regular family meetings, family celebrations and an over-involvement in each other’s lives but every interaction stays at the surface level. What lies beneath is skilfully avoided. One of the most difficult challenges that sons and daughters face is to be real with one or both parents, usually both. A question we all need to put to ourselves is ‘was our childhood a series of dangerous moments with a few safe ones, or a series of safe moments with a few dangerous ones?
When active violations are perpetrated by one parent, it is frequently the case that the other parent is aware of what is happening, but does nothing. It certainly is the case that violence, sexual abuse and aggression have been demonised in our society, but passivity, turning a blind eye, leads to as much neglect of children and of self, as does active neglect.
There are consequences to family secrets and these can often be present from the early years of a child’s life. The child may be bed-wetting, withdrawn, perfectionistic, aggressive, attention-seeking, shy, timid, fearful, obsessive-compulsive, but the protective tendency of the parents and others is to medicalise those problems. The sad fact is that these symptoms are now flown in vain and the inevitable development is that such symptoms will either worsen or other more serious signs of the hidden family distress will emerge later on in adolescence or young adulthood. Examples of such problems are anorexia nervosa, school drop-out, success addiction, alcohol addiction, drug dependence, self-harming, attempted suicide and sadly, sometimes, suicide.
What is often not recognised is that these symptoms in early and later life are substitute ways of communicating the neglects that have been experienced in the family. Of course, the greater the neglect perpetrated, the more dressed-up is the myth of the happy family, making it all the more difficult for the family member who has been hurt to draw attention to their turmoil. It is now the case that twenty-five per cent of teenagers have undetected serious emotional turmoil. If this is indeed the case, then there must be twenty-five per cent of parents who have undetected serious emotional turmoil. The more extreme the symptoms, the greater the violations experienced. There is an amazing cleverness in the emergence of extreme symptoms, because they echo the covering up of the family violations. The son or daughter knows at a deep and subconscious level that to break the silence on the neglects experienced would mean risking further violations. Human behaviour is always purposeful. The deepest need is to belong and children and adults alike go to desperate measures to maintain the illusion of belonging in an unhappy family. It is too painful a reality to wake up daily to a parent’s serious violation of that fundamental need.
There is no attempt here to blame parents because they once were children and their neglect of their children echoes the hurts they experienced when they were young. Human misery goes from generation to generation. It is the human condition that we bury our dark actions, shame and guilt, and no change will occur unless real, not substitute, action is taken. It is never enough that we point the finger at the perpetrator of neglect. Indeed, when we point a finger at a parent, there are three fingers pointing back at ourselves. It is important for the person who has been hurt to take responsibility for their collusion with the family illusion of happiness, as it is for the parent to own and take responsibility for his or her neglectful actions. It is often the case that support from someone outside the family can lead to a family member confronting the parent who perpetrated the violations. What often happens when the truth is revealed is denial on the part of the targetted parent and an attack by other family members on the sibling who dares accuse their father or mother. Ostracisation and being labelled as ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ frequently follow. A greater tragedy than the one being brought to light is where nothing follows the revelation, where matters return to their illusional state and no responsibility is taken.
Tony Humphreys, Psychologist and Author of several books including Leaving the Nest – what families are all about.