Growing up in an alcoholic family is certainly traumatic. In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. Survival becomes a full-time job. While most of us know that alcoholism is a disease, too few recognize it as a family disease, which may emotionally, spiritually and often physically, affect, not only the alcoholic but each member of the family. Little emotional energy remains to consistently fulfill the many needs of children who become victims of the family illness.
For many years, professional psychologists were barely aware of the vast pool of suffering of the family of alcoholics. They concentrated on healing the alcoholic and felt that it solved the problems of the family as well. Today they realize that the whole family suffers this sickness and all must be made well. By looking at what it is like to live in a alcoholic’s home, the side effects, and how to cope with the problem there will be evidence to see how the disease negatively affects the children.
Children will record their parent’s actions at their worst. When Mom and Dad are most out of control, they are the most threatening to the child’s survival. The child’s survival alarm registers these behaviours the most deeply creating shame. Any subsequent shame experience, which even vaguely resembles that past trauma, can easily trigger the words and scenes of said trauma. What are then recorded are the new experience and the old. Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached together.
Each new scene potentates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow. As the years go on, very little is needed to trigger these collages of shame memories. Shame as an emotion has now become frozen and embedded into the core of the person’s identity. Children of alcoholics grow up trying to control their parents drinking by hiding or throwing away the alcohol. Then they try the use of guilt control – ( If you really love me you’ll stop), or (You care more about that bottle than you care about me).
They don’t realize that you cannot control or reason with a disease. Some try to cure the disease by being the perfect child; by keeping perfect grades, always being good, being responsible and trying to cure the illness, while keeping the path smooth for the drinker. To an outsider looking in, they are the perfect child. And the truth of the matter is, they are. People just don’t see the whole picture. Other children may chose to be the scapegoat, the one in trouble all the time. They are the family’s way of not looking at what’s really happening.
Then there are those who become the class clown, making everyone laugh and all the while knowing, that life is not really that funny. And then there is that little child off in the corner; the withdrawn child who never gives anyone any trouble and feels like he/she is invisible. All of these children look like a child, dress like a child, to some degree they behave like a child, but they sure as hell don’t feel like a child. Children of alcoholics grow up and become adults. But underneath the mask of adult behaviour there is a child who was neglected. This needy child is insatiable.
What that means is that when the child becomes an adult, there is a hole in his/her soul. They can never get enough as an adult. An adult child can’t get enough because it’s really a child’s needs that are in question. Growing up not having your needs met as a child creates many scars; co-dependency being one of the most serious. Much has been written about co-dependency. All agree that it is about the loss of selfhood. Co-dependency is a condition wherein one has no inner life. Happiness is on the outside. Good feelings and self-validation lie on the outside.
Pia Mellody’s definition of co-dependency is “a state of dis-ease whereby the authentic self is unknown or kept hidden, so that a sense of self…of mattering…of esteem and connectedness to others is distorted, creating pain and distorted relationships. ” (Bradshaw, 1998, p. 14). Children of alcoholics, learn to be care takers or rescuers early in life. They’ve developed a mechanism that helped in coping with fear, pain, insecurity and growing up in an abusive alcoholic family. Usually this is how the child copes with not being able to get their own needs met.
But later in life, as an adult, those well learned habits imprison them in frustrating, painful, co-dependent relationships, at home and at work. “Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behaviour is; have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end; lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth; judge themselves without mercy; have difficulty having fun; take themselves very seriously; have difficulty with intimate relationships; overreact to changes over which they have no control; constantly seek approval and affirmation.
They are also sometimes super responsible or super irresponsible; they are extremely loyal, and they tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviours or possible consequences. This impulsiveness leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess. ” (Woititz, 1983, p. 4) Some of the most common side effects are guilt; the child may see himself or herself as the main cause of the mother’s or father’s drinking.
Anxiety; the child may worry constantly about the situation at home. He or she may fear the alcoholic parent will become sick or injured, and may also fear fights and violence between the parents. Embarrassment; parents may give the child the message that there is a terrible secret at home. The ashamed child does not invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help. Confusion; the alcoholic parent will change suddenly from being loving to angry, regardless of the child’s behaviour. A regular daily schedule, which is very important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes and mealtimes are constantly changing.
Anger; the child feels anger at the alcoholic parent for drinking, and may be angry at the non-alcoholic parent for lack of support and protection. Inability to have close relationships because the child has been disappointed by the drinking parent many times, he or she often does not trust others. Although the child tries to keep the alcoholism a secret, teachers, relatives, other adults, or friends may sense that something is wrong. Child and adolescent psychiatrists advise that the following behaviours may signal a drinking or other problem at home.
Failure in school, lack of friends, withdrawal from classmates, delinquent behaviour, such as stealing or violence, frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches, abuse of drugs or alcohol, aggression towards other children, risk taking behaviours, depression and suicidal thoughts. Some children of alcoholics may act like responsible “parents” within the family and among friends. They may cope with the alcoholism by becoming successful “over achievers” throughout school, and at the same time be emotionally isolated from other children and teachers.
Their emotional problems may show only when they become adults, but in fact they have been “adult children” their whole lives. “Adult Child” carries a double meaning: the adult who is trapped in the fears and reactions of a child, and the child who was forced to be an adult without going through the natural stages that would result in a healthy adult. When the adult child of a dysfunctional family begins to enter the “real world” schools and the workplace they discover their family system is not the reality shared by their classmates and co-workers.
Many adult children become loners or form tight, unhealthy relationships with other children of dysfunctional homes. These relationships actually re-enforce their dysfunctional view of the world by “finding another person who really understands. ” The tightness of the bonds created in these relationships is accented by the child’s lack of an individual sense of identity. They do notyet know where they stop and someone else begins. As a result they are unable to define their limits and begin to take on other people’s opinions, defects and needs.
If the adult child is able to form lasting friendships (some never do), it is usually with other adult children who provide familiar characteristics similar to the family’s dysfunction. Adult children can be very slow to recognize the patterns of family problems. They spent their lives being trained by the family to not see the problem, even when they are re-created in friendships, marriages and work relationships. Whether or not their parents are receiving treatment for alcoholism, these children and adolescents can benefit from educational programs and mutual-help groups such as programs for children of alcoholics, Al-Anon, and Alateen.
Early professional help is also important in preventing more serious problems for the child, including alcoholism. Child and adolescent psychiatrists help these children with the child’s own problems, and also help the child to understand they are not responsible for the drinking problems of their parents. The treatment program may include group therapy with other youngsters, which reduces the isolation of being a child of an alcoholic.
The child and adolescent psychiatrist will often work with the entire family, particularly when the alcoholic parent has stopped drinking, to help them develop ealthier ways of relating to one another. One very successful form of recovery for adult children involves acknowledging the existence of an inner child. The child who was small, lost and without hope never really went away, but froze. Recovering adult children can find that inner child and resume the process of nurturing to allow him/her to complete the job of growing into a healthy adult. Many counsellors, therapists and psychologists have been valuable to many adult children in the process of Recovery.
Almost all of the books published on the subject of adult children were written by mental health professionals. Growing up in an alcoholic family is certainly traumatic, and it seems there are no positive aspects involved. The fact of the matter is these children will be scared for life and most likely need some kind of counselling in the future depending on the severity of the abuse. Too many children in Canada and America have lived through this dreadful lifestyle. Alcohol simply should never be abused, neither should the children.