Make Your Kids Talk When You Wish They’d Rather Forget
Silence is not healing, it only deepens the trauma. Common sense and intuition might not be what your kid needs.
I was a small girl, ten years old at that time. I was supposed to forget everything that happened. “Go play with the other kids,” I was told, “and in a couple of weeks you’ll forget everything.”
Thirty years later, I still remember that day in every detail… And I’ve finally found the courage to say aloud that people treated it wrong, including my parents.
Kids — they are carefree and forget easily. Resilient. Right? To all parents who think this — be careful. Ten-year-olds are more mature than we parents usually assume.
Children say nothing because they are scared, and don’t want to make their parents sad, nor be laughed at. They don’t want to hear: “Oh, kid! Are you serious? You’re too young for that!”
But they might be lost and confused and they do not know what to do about it.
When I was a kid myself, I avoided talking about troubles to spare my parents from disappointment and heartaches. I was raised in love and in the belief that I should never hurt the ones I love. I believed that I should deal with my problems and fears on my own because the people I love do not deserve the pain my suffering could bring them. But I suffocated in silence.
“Suffering is the ultimate form of love” — even if my parents were not religious, their core values were deeply influenced by the precepts of Christianity, and so were mine.
I now believe otherwise: I wish I had known it was ok to be scared, weak and imperfect. I wish I knew I had to share my unwanted feelings, even if they hurt. People, who love you, deserve to know when they are most needed.
My mom didn’t know what had happened. She had a vague idea and a brief version of the kind: “Nothing serious. It was a small unfortunate accident. Nothing to worry about — everything is fine now.” Except that I was not fine and I needed my mom more than ever. She was my friend. Our connection went beyond the mother-daughter relationship. But I couldn’t tell her. Not that day. She saw me only for a few minutes when I was back home late with my dad. She was leaving to say good-bye to her grandmother. This was a third loss for her within less than three months — her dear parents had departed one after another, with forty days between their deaths. My mom was grieving from all these losses but tried to hide her tears. From me. She wanted to continue being a caring and cheerful mom as she’d always been. And I too hid my tears. From her…
These were difficult months for her. Had she known that something happened to me, that her daughter’s life had been at risk, and that she was lucky to see me (alive) that evening — that would have been too much for her to handle at that moment. On the way back home from the police, my father told me that we should not say much, or anything, in fact, about what had happened. I agreed. He was worried about her and didn’t want her to suffer any more. He loved her very much, still loves her unconditionally, and he would do anything for her, even suffer silently next to her for as long as he lived.
I guess he never told her exactly what had happened that day. He thought that I should just forget, and that the best way to forget would be to never bring the subject up again. With anyone — not even my mom. But how could he imagine that I would forget?
I was left alone to deal with my struggles and fears. I was left alone to the horrors of my memories that never ceased. Not even thirty years later. I needed help, support, care. I needed someone to help me talk. I needed my mom. But I knew that it would hurt her and I didn’t want that.
I remember that I had been fearfully waiting for the trial. For many miserable months. When I finally asked about the date of the trial, my parents said, “Oh, why are you wondering? Do you still think about it? He’s already in prison. The trial was in another city. They sent your case as a supplement for another, bigger case.” I wanted to decipher my parents’ silence and (non) actions.
So, twenty-five years later, I asked my mom why they didn’t tell me that the man had been sent to prison. She didn’t understand my question at first. She didn’t know what I was referring to. Then she quivered, “Oh, god! How come you still remember that?” — “Did you really think I could forget?!” And then it came to me: she never really knew what had happened. My father protected her from the truth. She didn’t know that I had lived in fear, dreading that this man would find me one day, meet me in the street, recognize me by my blue-grey plaid coat and red-knitted hat that I wore for three painful consecutive winters… She never knew how much I suffered from hiding it.
Telling her now that they, my parents, were wrong, and that they left me alone to struggle with my pain — this hurt her very much. “Why are you doing this to me now?” she said with her face twisted in anguish. I immediately shut up and changed the subject. Indeed. Hurting her was not my goal. I just wanted to understand. I don’t think I’ll ever tell my dad that he was wrong in doing whatever it took to protect my mom, that he was wrong to think that avoiding the subject would help me heal. I don’t think he’d understand, but even if he did, I wouldn’t want to hurt him that deep and cause him to have a heart attack. I mean it. He has a weak heart. I love my parents.
I know they love me unconditionally. I know that I will always have a place to come to if I need help or shelter. I know they would do and give anything and everything for me. That’s priceless. That’s love. They just tried to do their best, to be the best parents they can be for me. Telling them now would give them the wrong impression that I think that they were bad parents. But no, I don’t think that, I just think that they didn’t know what was best for me. They had guessed wrong.
I have forgiven my parents. I thought I had understood their actions. But thirty years later they tried to repeat the pattern with my son, I had to tell them that this was wrong — that silence is wrong! My son went through a life-threatening accident. When he returned from the hospital, my father tried to lure us into silence and muttered,
“Shh… don’t even mention what’s happened in front of him. We should help him forget.”
It fired a flashback. Deep inside I was screaming: “Hell no! Don’t do to my son what you did to me… I know that you think it’s best but listen to what I have to say…”
And I protested in a calm, affirming, and apparently very convincing voice: “No! If you want to help him, let him talk. When he can easily talk about what happened, we can be more positive that he is ok.”
While still in the hospital, I said to my son: “You are a brave boy. I know that now it feels painfully bad but it will pass. Maybe one day you’ll be able to laugh about what happened. Who knows, maybe you’ll even forget…” I bit my lip on the last word. I didn’t want to push him to forget but now I felt that it was exactly what I was doing, despite all the conscious awareness of it. He raised his beautiful swollen eyes at me and said in a very serious voice:
“No, mom, I’ll never forget. I wish I had superpowers to erase that day from my life. Without them, I won’t forget. But we know that superpowers exist only in cartoons.”
I was speechless. He was so much younger and wiser than me when I was ten. I wished I had said exactly the same words to my dad back then, maybe it would have changed something for him, for me…
Being a parent myself now, I try to avoid the mistakes of my parents. I certainly make different mistakes and I probably repeat some of the same mistakes without realizing it. I feel responsible for my son’s psychological health. I wish I could provide guidance to help him develop healthy reactions to whatever comes his way. I seek advice and wisdom in parenting books, choosing them selectively by giving preference to the ones based on PhD research. Well, yes, being a researcher myself, I trust research more than common sense. I like its methodical and structured approach, and to-the-point style. I know how to be critical about it. I can distinguish between proven facts and assumptions. I still don’t know how to be a perfect parent. I don’t think it’s necessary to be perfect.
But these two things I am sure about:
- I should never consciously avoid difficult subjects.
- I should take my son’s feelings and fears seriously even if sometimes I find them “cute”. I should treat his feelings and fears with respect.
And there are ways to prepare your kids to be open with you, also in difficult situations, and to be comfortable sharing their fears and tears without feeling shame. I am trying… though it’s not easy to teach someone to be open about uncomfortable feelings when I myself had hidden them from others, especially from my parents.