“It wasn’t that bad.”

One of the least fun games anyone can play with some children of wonky families is the “why it wasn’t neglect/abuse” game. The rules are very simple: you point out that a memory/event/behaviour/statement from their childhood is less than ticketyboo, and they bend over backwards to justify why that absolutely wasn’t abuse.

  • “It wasn’t abuse because then didn’t hit me.”
  • “It wasn’t abuse, because they only hit me with their bare hands.”
  • “It wasn’t abuse, because they only hit me when I needed it.”
  • “It wasn’t abuse, because they made up for it afterwards.”

Whatever happened, it wasn’t that bad because something badder could have happened, and possibly did to some poor kid down the road.

You can go on and on watching people who are consciously struggling to deal with the scars of their childhood traumas tie themselves up in knots trying to justify why the cause of their problems is invalid. It’s like a solitary game of Brain Twister. My favourite one to date is “yes he broke my arm and my nose but he was just being a good parent trying to make me go to school,” although “my family wasn’t that bad; nobody bothered the kids until they’d started puberty” is a close runner-up. Apparently, as long as someone out there is going through anything worse, all personal experiences, however gruelling, are completely insignificant.

I completely appreciate the fact that spending formative years surrounded by adults who normalise their own far-from-normal behaviours is bound to rub off on people. I also appreciate that some people do not like to give certain experiences even greater power by allowing them to be labelled so starkly. However, from a recovery point of view, denial that the situation was absofuckinglutely not ok by any stretch of the imagination doesn’t seem a particularly helpful position either. Yeh canna fix the problems you refuse to admit exist.

Past experience suggests thus far that arguing the toss about this sort of thing is about as useful as smacking your head with a brick, but infinitely less well-received. I’ve now come up with two possible alternatives to help people reframe their childhoods in a way that lets them see how it wasn’t “not that bad”:

  1. Ask them to work out what the unspoken rules and protocols of their household were. What kind of children would they have to have been to appease the Parents-Gods? What kind of behaviour generated praise or punishment? Was there consistency? Were they allowed to be happy and/or sad? Did they feel safe? If they were “fundamentally guilty” of something, what was it, and how could they have put it right? What kind of adult were they supposed to grow into?
  2. Ask them if they’ve considered any form of inner child work.

Hint: if the mere possibility of trying to work out the basic dynamics of your childhood or revisiting how it made you feel fills you with horror, that’s what we call a SIGN. Although terrible things may happen in childhood (accidents, illnesses, wars, interpersonal violence, etc.), childhood overall and the memories thereof are not supposed to be dominated by fear, helplessness, and horror. If you think they are, you might be confusing “childhood” (or “family”) and “PTSD.”

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