Spirit Versus Silence

By Robert J. Ackerman

A boy's world is dominated by his family and, if the family is wounded, so is the boy. There are several ways he may have been wounded. If the wounds are too numerous, the spirit becomes silent.

Growing Up Too Fast

When you are forced to grow up too fast, your emotions are developed ahead of your body. You are raised on an emotional overload. David Elkin, child psychologist, refers to growing up too fast as the "hurried child syndrome." The major contributor to the hurried child syndrome is pressure, and the dysfunctional families are families under constant pressure. The boy is pressured into roles that he not only doesn't want, but also is not prepared to handle. Often he finds himself in role reversal, taking care of the parent. Many silent sons remember their roles as parent, partner, status symbol, family therapist, or family conscience. They remember very little about being a child. In my interviews, one of the most common statements from these men is "I don't remember much about my childhood." Yet most of them reported very vivid memories about all the adult things they had to do. They remembered well the pressure and the family dysfunction. Their boyhood memories were filled with their own adult behaviors. What they didn't remember about being a boy was being a child.

Too Much Pain

Nothing kills the spirit like pain. Whether it is physical, emotional or both, it attacks the spirit. For example, men raised in alcoholic families are six times more likely to have been physically abused, thirteen times more likely to have witnessed spouse abuse, and five times more likely to have been sexually abused than boys from non-alcoholic families. Many silent sons report much pain from watching the pain of others. A boy can take only so much and then he must adjust. Adjustment can include acting out, engaging in self-defeating behaviors, compulsive achievement, or emotional withdrawal. In this withdrawal, he tries to separate his mind and emotions from what his body is experiencing, but when he shuts down his emotions to shut down his pain, he also shuts down his spirit.

Loss of Self Esteem

In the dysfunctional family, a boy's self esteem is under constant attack. Many feel they are one person in the house and another outside of the house. In the house they are quiet, frustrated, angry or depressed. Outside of the house they try to escape these feelings. Some are able to keep a balance between the identities at home and on the outside. Others find that the struggle only adds confusion to the messages they are already receiving from their families. It is difficult to develop self esteem when you do not feel good about your family, and the adult role models do not feel good about themselves, as is often true of addicts and their spouses.

The Good Son Syndrome

Contrary to popular belief, many sons from dysfunctional homes are not behavioral problems. In fact, in alcoholic families it was found that 80% of the children are incredibly compliant. In order to comply, they must go along with many behaviors that are not healthy. Most do what they think they have to do. They do the best they can. It doesn't mean they don't have feelings about it. They can be a "good son" in an alcoholic family which means doing many things they don't want to do, or they could try to have a good childhood which usually goes against the family system, but would have been the appropriate way to develop. It means doing what is expected, not what is always appropriate for a boy. Some examples are: trying to get the father out of a bar, or taking sides in parental arguments. The good son syndrome means being good at being in a dysfunctional family.

Causes and Consequences

Boyhood experiences can give us great insight in understanding ourselves. There are those who believe very strongly that boyhood experiences make the man. Unfortunately for many silent sons, the model of a man is based on what was happening to them at age twelve and how they responded to the world at that time. Mark Twain put it best: "At the age of twelve a boy starts imitating a man, and he just goes on doing that for the rest of his life."

Mike is 35 and lives in Michigan. His father was alcoholic and abusive. "I felt that my mere presence bothered the man. He always made me feel like that. If I was home and my dad was home, I literally went to a part of the house that was the farthest from my dad. If my dad was already home when I came home, I felt guilty that I had to go into the house." After being in a support group, he shared these memories with his four siblings. All four said the same thing, "You too? I thought I was the only one he couldn't stand!"

Mike spoke to his father when he wasn't drinking, and told him how he had felt and asked his father "Just what did I do as a boy to make you dislike me so much?" His father replied, "Well, since you asked, I'm going to tell you. I don't like kids. I never liked kids. I don't like anybody's kids, you got that?"

I asked Mike how he responded to this revelation. "I started to feel alot of resentment. Of all the people in the world I could have gotten as a father, I got one who hated kids. After a long while, a sense of relief came over me." "What caused that, Mike?" Then with thirty five year old tears filling his eyes he said, "For the first time since I was a boy, I realized that it wasn't me."

Robert J. Ackerman, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvannia and a NACoA Advisory Board Member.

This article is based on his book Silent Sons: A Book For And About Men (Simon & Schuster, 1993)