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Good Child Syndrome: What It’s Like Being the Only One Who Talks to Your Parents

India is a Southern girl with a deep love of writing, cats, and her family.

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"All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

— Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, 1878

We’ve all heard the story of the prodigal son: an ungrateful rich kid who pressures his father into forking over his inheritance before disappearing into the sunset without so much as a “see you later”. Of course, once the money runs out and reality sets in, the son is forced to return home and grovel before the very person he turned his back on. Meanwhile, his older brother watches in disbelief as their father celebrates the return of the child who caused him so much heartache.

While it’s easy to sympathize with the good son—he did everything his father asked and no one slaughtered a fatted calf for him—at its heart the parable is a tale of forgiveness, not bitterness. Presumably, once his anger faded the older son was relieved to see his brother return home unharmed (although he probably brought up the incident at least once a year. One of the joys of having siblings is that they never allow you to forget your mistakes). But there is one question the parable doesn’t address: what happens if the prodigal son never comes home? What if he tells everyone who will listen how awful his father is, because that’s easier than admitting he was wrong? Sadly, this is the situation in which my parents now find themselves.

Without knowing the details, it’s easy to judge Mom and Dad—I’ve done it myself, even knowing the full story. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that something must have gone wrong while they were raising my siblings; why else would things have ended so badly? And then I remember that the situation is far more complicated than it appears. These things always are.

The story of our family’s disintegration is messy, painful, and largely devoid of right or wrong answers. It’s a tale of deception, dysfunction, mental illness, and two people struggling to do the best they could even when their best wasn’t enough. That’s why, when others act like the solution is simple— “just talk it out”, they say, as though we didn’t spend hours on therapy sessions and tearful apologies and promises to change—it’s infuriating. None of us wanted to lose some of the most important people in our lives. None of us wanted things to end in accusations and resentments. But they’ve made their choice, and all we can do is respect it. Painful though it might be, sometimes there is no other option but to accept what you can’t change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t miss my siblings; acceptance doesn’t equal apathy. Still, even though it’s only been a year since our family fell apart, I’ve already forgotten what it was like having them in my life (which dulls the pain somewhat). Once you get used to something, it’s hard to imagine returning to the way things were—and in this case, I don’t believe that’s possible. I wish I could believe it.

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As for the moral of this story, there isn’t one. I simply wanted to share my experiences with everyone out there, especially those struggling with a similar situation and those silently disapproving of the family next door. To the former, I say: you are not alone. To the latter, don’t judge them too harshly. After all, one day you might be the ones whose problems are center stage.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 India LaPalme

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