Jared* does not love his father, he “hates” him. For as long as he can remember, his relationship with his father has been strained.
At an early age, Jared lived with both of his parents until their divorce, which occurred when Jared was a toddler. Following the end of their marriage, Jared lived with only his mother, though they resided in the same city as the father. Despite not living together, the problems persisted. “He was quite horrible to my mother and myself when I was living with him and the two years I wasn’t living with him,” Jared said.
For Jared, this distress entailed verbal abuse. His earliest memories consist of anger and arguments. He recalls one particularly harrowing occasion, referring to it as the nadir of his relationship with his father: One night, Jared’s mother returned home to baseless accusations of adultery from his father. These accusations soon escalated, and Jared found himself locked in his parents’ bedroom with his mother, cowering in fear. “The last memory I have of that night was asking my mother if I should hide under the bed, and I did so. I fell asleep there and in the morning there were people repairing the doors since my dad broke down the door,” he said.
Now, Jared lives with his mother and his stepfather, with whom he enjoys a wholly positive relationship. His communication with his father is limited to sporadic text messages and emails, which Jared often ignores due to his perception of the authenticity – or lack thereof – of the messages. “It’s fake. The messages he sends are friendly and everything, but if he really wanted to talk to me he’d pick up the phone or come see me,” he said.
Kim* also cannot claim to have a healthy relationship with her father; rather, the descriptor Kim deems apt for their relationship is “estranged”.
Said estrangement is rooted in the events of Kim’s earlier adolescence, having to fill a custodial role in order to protect her younger brother, who no longer lives with Kim and her father. When they lived together, the situation quickly descended into a maelstrom of verbal abuse.
While her brother was typically on the receiving end of her father’s diatribe Kim was affected nonetheless. Fulfilling the responsibilities she assumed as the older sibling, Kim sought to help her brother by contacting her mother who lived separately. “I would call my mom and tell her what’s happening, tell her that my brother was bawling [because of my dad],” she said. The brother eventually returned to the mother’s custody.
Stories like Jared’s and Kim’s do not begin and end with verbal abuse, High School Counselor Stephanie Oliver believes.
Oliver said that when these frayed relationships lead to traumatic experiences, the potential ramifications are hefty. “You could have difficulty sleeping, exaggerated startle response, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, low confidence, risk aversion or taking too many risks as an act of defiance,” she said.
Kim believes her experience corroborates Oliver’s beliefs. Due to the estranged nature of her relationship with her father, she is often alone. His frequent absence – the reasons for which range from extra-marital affairs to occupational obligations – has had a profound effect on her personality.
Now, she struggles to be alone. “I have a lot of separation anxiety, and I think that’s because I’m alone all the time. It’s really hard to be away from people I care about – when I don’t see friends over breaks I get really upset,” Kim said.
Though she hasn’t had to call her mother urgently again, Kim’s resentment for her father lingers. “We don’t fight that much anymore, but now no matter what he does I find the bad in it. Now whenever we talk, I snap at him,” she said.
Similarly, Jared has also felt the long-term effects of his difficult childhood. For him, the trauma has manifested itself in a fear: A fear of becoming that which he hates, a fear of becoming his father. This fear is met with determination, though. “I will definitely learn from his mistakes and do my best to not be that kind of man,” he said.
Beyond the fear, Jared has also learned to appreciate his newfound familial stability with his mother and stepfather. After his problematic childhood, he has found a role model: He strives to emulate his stepfather when it’s his turn to raise children. “My stepfather was the one who raised me, and I feel like a father figure is one who’s always there, not just a biological father,” he said.
Alice* is used to having her intelligence insulted. Her friends have done it, as have teachers – but few others have dented her confidence as much as her parents have. Because of this, her relationship with her parents has descended to the point that she struggles to be in the same room as them. “I’m not comfortable being at home with my parents – even if my mom is in the same room as me, I just have to leave because I’m not comfortable around her,” she said.
Alice’s difficult relationship with her parents is rooted in the academic demands made of her. When she fails to meet these expectations, her parents are not best pleased. “My dad has said that I’m a ‘screw up’, but he’s never explicitly said that I’m stupid. It’s implied very heavily,” Alice said.
When Alice engages socially, her parents remind her of her academic responsibilities, too. “Everything boils down to school work. If I’m out, they always say I’m not spending enough time on my work,” she said.
Alice is afflicted with several of the ramifications of childhood trauma described by Oliver – namely depression and self-esteem issues. “Now [as a result of my relationship with my parents] I feel like I’m stupid. If you get told something often enough, you’re going to internalize it,” she said.
The difficulty Alice experienced as a child led to her experiencing atypical depression to the extent of having suicidal thoughts – this is something she still struggles with to this day.
Alice’s problems, she feels, can be attributed to her parents. “I definitely blame them for my depression,” she said.
Oliver recognizes the difficulty of recovering from traumatizing experiences, and urges students who have similar stories to seek help. A common deterrent for students who may seek help is that any instances of physical or emotional abuse they may experience are subject to the legal mandate all educators have to report such incidents to the Child Protection Services. While this mandate exists, Oliver is quick to point out a misunderstanding with the policy. “That’s a common misconception that people have, that the police will come and take kids out of their homes and put them in foster care – that’s not the case. Usually it’s about finding support [for the] family so they can stop the violence.”
However, in the immediate for Kim, Alice and Jared alike, emotions like resentment pervade.
Jared will never forgive his father, nor will he ever love him. “I’ve given him chances to be forgiven but I learned this young: Everytime you show him any love, it just deteriorates and he’s still horrible the next day,” he said.
Kim, too, feels that the extent of her estrangement with her father undermines any hope of resolving the situation. “I’ve grown very distant to him. My house isn’t a home, it’s just a house, and my Dad is just a man who lives there.”
Alice hopes to be a better parent to her future children than she ever feels her parents were to her. “When I raise my children I will take their feelings and ideas into account constantly, because I know how awful it feels to think your emotions are irrelevant,” she said.
Like Alice, Kim is also determined not to make the same mistakes her father made with her future children. “I get scared I’m going to have the same situation with my kids – divorce terrifies me,” she said. “I want my family to be so different when I have kids – I want to be the kind of family that has Sunday lunches – because my family is just not like that now.”