One of the most heartbreaking truths about life – right up there with its finitude – is that the only unconditional love is that felt by children for their parents, no matter how deserving of this adoration parents may be.

The tragedy is that, should parents be neglectful, abusive, inept or misinformed by ‘poisonous pedagogies‘, children will adore them notwithstanding. Instead of tracing any resulting disorders in their lives back to their upbringing, children will subconsciously prefer to blame their “deficient characters” or “malfunctioning genes” rather than bad parenting.

Why this blind spot? Swiss psychologist Alice Miller (1923 – 2010) explained that the reason children protect parents behind this quasi-impenetrable cloak of parental immunity is that they cannot bear to face the excruciating pain they experienced when they were most dependent on their environment and most vulnerable to trauma. It is during those same early years that their brains were the most malleable, and that their parents’ mere existence – which had seemed quasi magical and salutary – was hardwired as God-like, all-powerful and benevolent. Repression of the pain and rage towards bad parenting is reinforced by feelings of inadequacy (“It was for my own good”) and guilt (“I brought it upon myself.”)

“Sparing the parents”, as she wrote, “is our supreme law.”

What happens next? Children grow up to express displaced anger towards themselves or towards others – often those more vulnerable than them. Many end up healing eventually. A few end up doing great harm: in every violent political leader or criminal one finds a common pattern of childhood chaos, trauma and abuse.

As for the consequences to society at large, psycho-historian Lloyd deMause (b. 1931) writes in The Emotional Life of Nations (2002) that “billions of children have been routinely murdered, bound, starved, raped, mutilated, battered and tortured by their parents and other caregivers, so that they grow up as emotionally crippled adults and become vengeful time bombs who periodically restage their early traumas in sacrificial rites called wars.

Understanding this upsetting reality is particularly critical today.