Danny, a sixteen-year old, came into my office exhibiting signs of depression. No wonder, his mother had just fled the household to escape her abusive husband. In this situation, it seemed Danny ought to make an escape as well. He, unfortunately, felt trapped in a "toxic" environment, tied to his family through blood, if not through love.
Danny's situation reminded me of a recent New York Times article by Richard Friedman. In the article, Dr. Friedman expounded upon one of life's great injustices: that mere strands of DNA, to a large degree, determine whether one is born a king or a peasant, rich or poor, into a loving family or... into a "toxic" one.
Although through his writing, Dr. Friedman describes an example of toxicity that transcends class, dysfunctional parenting resides largely within the realm of minority households and in those lacking higher education. Generation after generation, it rears its ugly head, as each acquires toxic characteristics from that preceding. The children develop issues with self-esteem, and many succumb to depression.
Parents in these families are selfish. They use and abuse their children. They put their children to work and expect them to provide for the family. They smother their children's individual goals and aspirations beneath feelings of guilt. To the parents, education is a waste of time. They would rather their kids take on low-paying jobs so as "not to be a burden on the family" than go to school. Anything else, they believe, is selfish. I was born into one of these toxic families. I can tell you firsthand that it is dangerous, depressing, and stifling.
CNN recently produced a special on "Latinos in America." In one example profile, a young high school student by the name of Christina was having trouble keeping up with her classes, but she had vowed to catch up and graduate with her peers by going to make-up classes on weekends and during the summer. She did not make it to graduation. Her mother insisted that she help in their small store, care for her younger siblings, and care for her 16 year old sister's daughter. In the Latin culture, helping the family is paramount and expected, even if you must sacrifice. This is one of the major causes of Latina teen-aged pregnancy and high drop-out rates from high school.
In his article, Dr. Friedman examined these types of situations and asked why we can divorce spouses but cannot divorce family members. Although in Christina's case, perhaps complete separation would be less advisable than simply refusing exorbitant demands, Dr. Friedman raises a good question, in general.
Sometimes parents do not love their children. Sometimes, like in Danny's case, they are abusive and cruel. These children have every right to divorce their parents, to escape a personal Hell. Many of my family members have run from abusive spouses. Danny's mother escaped from an abusive spouse. Why can't the children do the same?
In part, kids in toxic environments have a harder time reconciling to themselves that their parents do not love them. They even feel guilt about their own feelings of hate, trained by society and religion that they must love their parents unconditionally, but then they wonder: why do their parents not love them? Some parents are just hurtful. Often their parents' parents were hurtful.
Children have also never known anything but their parents and their family. Spouses meet late in life, and they can divorce soon after. Children in toxic family environments have been in that environment for their entire life. It is much harder just to cut themselves loose from it.
Nevertheless, in some situations, they really should! Even if their parents are not physically abusive, they can be toxic through being unsupportive and uncaring. The lack of emotional attachment, of love, can be just as destructive to the psyche of a child as is physical abuse.
Danny found a new home, staying with a friend, and he is now attending community college. I believe he made the right choice. I made a similar one.
In my senior year of high school, I moved out of my home. My grandparents were putting me under tremendous pressure to get a job to help support the family, but I wanted to attend college and further my own educational and career goals. For that, I was considered ungrateful, and it took me many years to overcome the guilt. Of course, in the end, it paid off. My grandparents were able to see what I had made of myself, and I was able to forgive and be forgiven. The most important aspect of my breaking away, however, was the opportunity and foundation I was able to pass on to my own children... and their children to come.