Children of addicted parents are the highest risk group of children to become alcohol and drug abusers due to both genetic and family environmental factors. – NACOA
We spend time, energy and resources trying to help the addicted person. But as a former child of an alcoholic I wonder, what are we doing for their children? Kids who grow up in families with addiction experience trauma. When we think of trauma, physical abuse comes to mind. Physical abuse is traumatic, but emotional and psychological trauma is just as devastating. Some, say more. With physical abuse you can see the bruises, which means the child is more likely to be identified high risk and get the help they need. Emotional and psychological scars often go unidentified and may be carried for life. Theses scars will affect the child’s relationships going forward. They will lower the child’s self-worth, leaving them feeling inferior, anxious and shame-based. Depression or other mental health issues may also result. The child may be identified as a problem child in school. They may be misdiagnosed with ADD. Growing up they will be at high risk of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, criminal behavior, unhealthy relationships and divorce.
As a little girl I didn’t know words like alcoholic, or addiction. I didn’t understand I was being ‘trained’ not to confront the unhealthy behaviours in our home, but rather, to make excuses for them. I didn’t know my father was an alcoholic. It took me quite awhile to put it together. The drink in hand, the drooping head, I thought he was sleepy. By the time I figured it out, the damage was done.
Growing up in an alcoholic family I learned early not to rock the boat. I held my breath and walked on eggshells. I felt responsible for my Father’s drinking and my Mother’s sadness.
As a child I had a lump in my throat. It was hot and sour and shifted between my throat and stomach. I suffered from night terrors. My dreams made horror movies look like child’s play. Because my parents were so caught up in the drama playing out in their relationship, they never noticed their little girl was suffering. The lump in my throat made it hard to eat. I used to think if I wasn’t careful; it would fly out and spew all the nasty stuff inside me – onto you. I was horrified this might happen.
I worked hard to contain my emotions. My needs were minimised. The message was loud and clear. I was not important.
The alcoholic in our home got ALL the attention.
Life revolved around meeting the addicted person’s needs. Rules were established in our home, but never spoken.
Rule 1 – Don’t talk!
As a child the world was filled with mystery. I could study a bug for hours. Life was grand… outside our home. Inside, life was not grand. It was intense,chaotic and scary. If I asked questions, I upset the alcoholic. Then everyone got mad at me. When he was upset, so were we. When a child can’t communicate, they internalize. I tried to make sense of the things no one was talking about. What made sense to me – the troubles in my home were my fault. I didn’t know how or why. I just knew they were. I felt responsible for everyone I met. I grew up without a voice. I couldn’t open up to people. I was lonely and emotionally starving.
Rule 2 – Don’t Trust!
Children learn by watching their parents. When the messages aren’t congruent, it’s confusing. There were times my mother’s eyes were puffy from crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, ‘nothing’. Her answer didn’t match up with what I was seeing. I felt bad – looking back I know that bad was just another name for shame. Promises were made in our home that were never kept. The underlying message was – Don’t ask questions. Do as I say, not as I do. I grew up feeling angry, suspicious and distrustful and learned to rely solely on me.
Rule 3 – Don’t feel!
I never learned about emotions as a little girl. I certainly had them. However I was reprimanded for acting on them. FYI feelings that aren’t shared, are acted out. In our home it wasn’t okay to cry or be upset. Nor was it okay to be too excited. We stayed in the middle. We survived by emotionally flat-lining. Feelings were dangerous and messy. We didn’t accept our feelings, we judged them. They were either good or bad. Good was okay. Bad was not. In treatment I learned feelings are neither good or bad, but simply comfortable and uncomfortable. I was so relieved to learn this! I’d spent most of my life trying to shut down the ‘bad’ ones. I grew up numbed out. This is dangerous for the child of an addict. You can imagine what happened once I took my first drink. Nirvana! I’d found the solution to all my problems. No more lump in my throat or stomach. My anxiety disappeared. My skin fit. Hallelujah! I never imagined that one day my solution would almost kill me.
Children, who can’t talk, trust or feel, don’t develop self-worth. They’re unable to communicate and ask for what they need. They look to people, places and things for validation. They tend to exhibit risky behaviours, often using alcohol and drugs at an early age. With no healthy life skills to draw upon, their relationships are unhealthy, chaotic and compulsive.
In other words, children who grow up in unhealthy family systems are at high risk of repeating the cycle.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call this confidential support line for assistance. 1 888 614 – 2379.
Listen to this podcast to hear more about children growing up in addicted families by copying and pasting this link in your browser. http://webtalkradio.net/internet-talk-radio/2013/07/29/addicted-to-addicts-survival-101-072913/