My recovery work has taught me that the original traumatic experiences are about 5% of the total problem. Almost all children experience traumatic events, but if they have supportive parents, they can come to understand what they experienced and recover from it in healthy ways. When the trauma is coming from our parents (or those who are closely tied to family), the trauma is horrible, but it is the manipulation and gaslighting which make recovery seem impossible. The games played by enablers become impossible to reconcile. And this doesn’t end when we become adults. As a matter of a fact, the older we get, the more important it becomes for our family to keep us confused about our reality. Lately, I have been thinking about how our families “up the ante” when we become independent adults. And I came up with five examples to illustrate it for you.
They deny the abuse. That doesn’t sound surprising at all. It may be so obvious that you are wondering why I wrote it. But when we become adults, the denial shifts. Don’t get me wrong, they still deny the trauma and call us crazy, but the denial develops nuances. For example, they may add some more adult terms into the gaslighting. They may start bringing up defamation of character or libel cases. They may make sure you know about “false memory syndrome”. They may point you to psychological and legal cases that support their denial tactics. They will claim you have disorders you don’t have or blame it on traumas that occurred in your adulthood (which were usually a direct reflection of your childhood trauma pattern.
They will act like the perfect family. Once again, I know they probably did this when you were a child too. But I am not talking about the mask to the outside world here. I am talking about how they act in front of you. Now that you are an adult, you aren’t triggering their trauma the way you used to. And since you aren’t with them every day, all day, they can put up a good front when you’re around. The nicer they act toward you, the more confused you get. You start questioning how bad it really was. “Maybe they weren’t so bad.” “Maybe I don’t have to work on recovery or alienate them because they are so nice now.” Deep down inside, your traumatized inner parts are screaming for you to validate their pain, but you are confused by their current outward behavior. Of course, this will dissolve if things get tough or you share a space for too long. But believe me, it is on purpose. It is meant to confuse you.
They bribe you. There is nothing worse than being alienated from the gravy train. I know. I did it. That financial safety net was mighty nice especially as a single mother of twins. My parents pulled out all the stops for their grandchildren. They bought the nicest toys. They took them on the best trips. They bought a beach house so the kids would always have a place to go in the summer. And they talked about all the things they would do in the future … as long as I kept the lid on Pandora’s box (that part was never said out loud). Even when it came to me, there was discussion of help with investments and bills when I needed it. They made it clear I needed them to stay safe in the big scary adult world. And it was hard to turn it down.
They play the victim. Aging parents of adult children start to get a bit scared as they age and unconsciously realize they are in trouble. They are getting frail and they know it. The adult child usually becomes the one with more physical strength. So they resort to other methods of gaining control. One method is to play the victim. Some popular phrases they might use against you are:
“Be nice to me now because I am probably going to die soon. You don’t want to feel guilty when I die.”
“You are making me sicker every time you bring up the past.”
“You are ruining my life with all this talk of abuse. It is your fault I feel so bad.”
They turn the tables on the abuse accusation. Abusive parents love to tell others that their adult children have become abusive. But they never go into detail about what is happening or how that could have happened. They don’t own up to anything that happened in the childhood of that adult child. But people are not born assholes. They are born to assholes. Any abusive behavior from the adult child is coming from what was learned in the home. That said, most of the abusive behavior adult children are accused of is not actually abusive. Here are some examples of non-abusive behavior that is often called abusive by parents and families who perpetuated childhood trauma:
- Cutting off family members
- Setting boundaries with family members
- Telling the truth about their childhood trauma to others
- Refusing to financially or physically take care of abusive aging parents
- Refusing to attend family events
So the next time you are struggling to navigate the family environment as an adult child of abusive parents or families, please remember these common strategies. Understanding how these are being used against you can help you to make the right decisions for your healing. Let’s face it. They aren’t going to do the right thing for you. You are the only one who can do that.