A college student is fearful of her family's future.
A few years ago, my dad was hospitalized for depression. He told me by phone that he had attempted suicide, although my mother hid the full story from me, even when I asked. I had always idealized my father, but I began to see him as pitiable. When my dad came home after several weeks, he said he felt guilty for verbally abusing me and my mother for years. My mother maintains the abuse was aimed at her, but I remember troubling incidents with my father.
Hara Estroff Marano is the Editor at Large of Psychology Today and writes the magazine's advice column, Unconventional Wisdom. Her newest book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, grew out the groundbreaking Psychology Today article A Nation of Wimps.
Editor: Talha Khalid
At times, he would send me to my room, then come sit on my bed, tell me it was all my fault that he had to shout at me, reprimand me if I didn't stop crying, make me apologize, and then hug me. I grew to hate those hugs. My parents and I have never talked about anything that has happened. But I know my parents argue about it; I overhear my mom screaming at my father. I've always blamed myself. I'm going to college next year, and I want to get far away from my family. It scares me that I'll be leaving my 11-year-old brother with them, as my mom's temper is getting worse. My parents think I'm fine.
You're right to feel confused. It sounds as if everyone in your family is confused and fearful that your father may attempt suicide again and perhaps succeed. That may explain your anger at him; you may feel the need to distance yourself from him as a way of avoiding further hurt. It's not clear what the source of your parents' troubles is, but your mother's growing temper might also result from fear that she will lose your father. The pity you now feel for your father may stem from misguided beliefs about depression as a sign of weakness. Clearly the episode destroyed your respect for your father, and pity has rushed in to try to fill the void. Pity may stem from your own disappointment that your father is only human. He sounds like someone who is himself enormously conflicted, not least over his role as father—how to discipline his children yet express the love he feels. He may have outdated notions about how children should behave that are totally nonproductive in modern families. Obedience is an issue that brings out the conflict in him.
Going away to college is an important developmental step, but you will discover that your family goes with you—because they all reside inside your head. You need to act now—not by running away but by drawing everyone together in a conversation in which you disclose the confusion and fear you feel. Your parents' reluctance to discuss matters openly may stem from wishful thinking that their behavior is not affecting you. They need to know how upset you are.
Since your parents refuse to bring up the topic of difficulties, the task falls on you. Choose a calm time and a calm voice to tell them you need to talk to them together, and set up a time to do so. If they ask, tell them it's about growing up and going away. Do not explain more. For now, your brother does not need to be in on the conversation. In advance, think about the issues you want to discuss and limit the conversation to only a few statements that reflect your feelings without making any accusations against anyone.
When the time comes, tell your parents that you need for them to hear you clearly before they say anything. And enunciate ground rules —no yelling and no refusing to participate. Then state your main concerns. Use your own words, but you could say something along these lines: "I have three main concerns, and I think about them way too much: 1) Ever since Dad attempted suicide and was hospitalized, I've been very confused about what is going on in this family, and I am scared for the future. 2) I am worried about Mom's growing anger and the fights you two have. 3) And I am worried about what will happen to my brother when I can't be here to protect him." There is no way you are going to resolve everyone's problems. The goal is to let your parents know that, however much they try to deny them, their individual and joint problems are spilling over to you and your brother.
If they can't hold a reasonable conversation, or continue to deny that there are problems, suggest that the whole family sees a good family therapist. The burden of solving their problems is not yours at all. Your job is to tell them that everyone is feeling emotionally overwhelmed, even if they seem to be hiding it, and professional help is needed to resolve the difficulties.