It is said that "nobody escapes childhood unscathed". My client today told me about a very bad childhood. His mother was unemotional, withdrawn, and seldom showed him any affection. His father was erratic. The only real interaction with his father was constant criticism and being told that he was not good enough. Nothing he did was ever right. He grew up feeling empty and alone and alienated.
His parents were not just abusive to him. They were constantly fighting, throwing things and insulting each other. Each of them moved out at various times and came back. The family atmosphere was a constant battleground of tension and occasional violence.
I would not have been surprised if the client came to me to deal with the fallout of this emotional abuse. What he actually came to me for was something quite different.
The real cause of the collateral damage
He has recently learned that his father is autistic. This explains the erratic behavior and the irrational parenting style. It doesn't make the emotional abuse any less damaging, but it does put a different perspective on it.
My client was struggling with this part of his life. He resented, even hated his father for what he had done to him. But now he realizes that his father was actually ill. In some ways his father really couldn't avoid his behavior.
My client is now conflicted. He hated his father, and sort of felt comfortable with that. But now he has to reassess everything he ever thought about his father. He still has to suffer from the emotional damage he got as a child. But now he also has to suffer again as an adult, and try to see his upbringing as something that he should forgive and understand. And this comes very hard to him. He still feels angry, but now he feels guilt about feeling angry.
Damaged parents cause damaged children
In our society we are familiar with the idea that parents can be very disappointed by their children. Some children have ADD, or other behavioral problems and make life hell for their parents. But we don't seem to have any kind of ready-made response about abusive parents.
As we grow up, those are the only parents we know, and we assume that they are perfect. In fact, society expects all parents to be perfect. In this case, after talking to the client, I'm fairly sure that his mother has some form of depression. It seems likely that his mother and his father got together because they both recognized a damaged person in each other. And were willing to start a relationship because they probably felt they weren't going to get a better deal anywhere else.
The effect on my client was basically just collateral damage. Maybe we should get clients to bring their parents to therapy?