As we deal with children who are angry, or who show signs of being impacted by the circumstances created in a home with a great deal of anger expressed in unhealthy ways, we may notice a pattern. There is probably nothing more psychologically and relationally strong than the connection to our family of origin and why it is critical to understand the impact of family loyalties on our children.
Loyalty without logic?
Our Family loyalty is not something that we choose, but rather it is an inherent and dynamic force that is part of our human nature. Further, family loyalties are not based on a logical assessment of the overall health of the values or behaviors to which we are loyal.
When we are loyal to behaviors and legacies that are more toxic that healthy–either to us as individuals or to those with whom we have relationships–we can be trapped by that loyalty to repeat the learned legacy of harmful attitudes and behaviors. Our sense of loyalty to those unhealthy legacies can be significant and extremely difficult to alter.
Children have a huge sense of loyalty to their families
Children can be inherently and fiercely loyal to their family members, especially parents or significant others. This loyalty serves as a form of self-protection and as protection for the entire family. In truth, children will often defend unhealthy parenting behaviors out of fear of breaking the code of their family. Being urged to secrecy, they are often told, “this is private to our family,” and so, they believe they are being disloyal if they tell anyone about a family member’s destructive and unhealthy behaviors.
In fact, children often believe that if they reveal a family secret, they will lose their right to remain in the family. Worse, children have a sense that if they “rat out” the secret, their parents will know and severely punish or harm them. This limbo can become a chronic quandry, impacting the child’s feelings of shame, future emotional health and behavior.
Understand how the nature of children encourages family loyalty
As I have stated in previous posts, by nature children are impulsive, egocentric and lack judgment. These characteristics contribute to their inability to disclose experiences of abuse or neglect.
Because they are “what the family does,” children may not be able to judge accurately that certain behaviors are abusive or neglectful. They have no external reference to help them realize that a healthier standard exists by which family members should be treated or that they have a right to healthier treatment.
Children can be so focused on their own consequences and survival that they do not see what is happening to other members of the family. They also may have learned to disassociate, shut down or in their own way avoid being “present” to what is going on to them or those around them. In fact, they may not even remember highly traumatic experiences.
Unhealthy transgenerational legacies begin this way
As we reflect on what I have written here, it is easy to see why “out of control” anger can be devastating to children. Not only are children trapped by the direct impact of anger but also by the sense of loyalty that leaves them feeling they can do nothing to stop the behavior.
Consequently, they could learn to normalize the unhealthy legacy and perpetuate it as they age, with their friends and those with whom they have future relationships. This is how legacies of anger become transgenerational in nature. The anger continues as a normal pattern of behavior from parent to child, to their children, and so on. (Please see my post on Acts of Aggression for more details on the effects of anger and family loyalties.)
Understanding and dealing with legacies of toxic anger is so critical and why we need to support our parents and caregivers by helping them navigate and manage their anger. Because it impacts our children, our future generations and our society as a whole, the price of not doing so is too costly.
If you know of a family struggling with anger, please encourage them to get help from a reliable professional so they can end these cycles and enjoy a healthy family life. It will impact their family now and generations to come!
Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Preventing Violence through Anger Management, 2006, Diane Wagenhals. Licensed Materials. All rights reserved.