As a practitioner who specializes in adult children of alcoholic, addicted, and dysfunctional family systems, so many past clients come to mind when thinking of dysfunction in the addicted family system. At first, many cases don’t present the addiction piece directly when coming for treatment. Frequently, addiction in the family system is revealed later in our lives and is one of the most common causes for ample grief, shame, fear, guilt, and depression which illustrate so many of our life stories.
There are many examples of childhood trauma from addictive family systems. Many stories begin with painful feelings a child may report because he is experiencing high anxiety in school, with the notion that “if I make a mistake, I am the mistake.” A preteen who divulges his feelings of needing to be perfect academically may make this remark. This child may experience a disconnect with his peers and sadness around not fitting in that world, not quite understanding why. He meets the day with a depression and with a sense of not belonging. Something is quite different. Being denied a natural developmental path takes him to thoughts of suicide. Instead, his attention goes to staying safe in his dysfunctional family system rather than to meet his developmental task and grow in his social world.
In many addictive homes parents are not able to provide emotional safety and comfort for the child because their focus is on their own means of self- soothing. A child may become overwhelmed with intense feelings and to survive in his unhealthy family system he experiences a disconnection. He disowns those parts of himself that can feel. To feel becomes too painful. The child takes on the denial of the dysfunction or addictive family system in order to meet his own needs, which is emotional safety. He goes deeper and deeper into himself.
This child never notices that his peers seek growth for they are safe and do not have to defend in their family systems. The boy continues on his adolescent path into adulthood much differently than others. As he develops, his old feelings may become held in his body, muscular and psychological obstacles develop that protect him from tension in the family home.
Many human beings realize if we are not able to set our own healthy limits, our own emotional and physical health may be affected. Children do not have the capacity to realize their parent’s pain. They do not understand that parents may be lost too. As the parent’s preoccupation with their own needs dominate the family, confusing messages deny natural developmental needs. The child is set up for internal struggles which may appear later in their own relationships and families. Fear, denial, shame and/or worthlessness accompany the child as he matures and he must figure out his own emotional means of safety on his own.
Some parents fuse into a state of conflict and their worlds revolve around obtaining the drink/drug and avoiding life discomforts. Sometimes the child becomes the target of anger. There are forms of anger that are indirect as well. Abuse also comes in the form of rigid rules, insults, and sarcasm. Defenses develop to manage the pain of parental anger. Staying stuck in anger supports depression, keeping one hurt, confused, isolated and in fear. To stay safe rather than to thrive is most often the case for these children too. Repetitive emotional cycles of denial occur. “There’s nothing wrong here, everything is fine, don’t talk about it.” The denial system deepens as the child learns the unspoken rules of “don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.” Addiction and abuse jumps to another generation.
How many broken promises? Hyper vigilance may become a means of learning to stay safe in the home. Children learn to be aware of and avoid mother or father’s anger or eruptions. These children learn by watching and listening and always on the alert. Hyper vigilance and avoidance becomes a mantra of self-care creating a new norm of anxiety. Self-blame flares up and the children in the home each take on survival roles to adapt. Imprinted to their psyche becomes the belief, “no matter what I do, I won’t be good enough. If I were good enough you would tend to me, not the drug.”
However as a therapist, it is important to honor and respect those who have made it through their childhoods with amazing strengths which once served as a survival skill. The couple that couldn’t connect, their intimacy was an issue of not knowing how to be vulnerable and trust, which was learned in their childhood. Even though each in the partnership did not abuse alcohol or drugs, their procedural learning was how to cope with vulnerability from their addicted role models, which was not to cope at all. Avoidance is a slice of denial.
Sometimes those who have felt the craziness inside can now understand where some of the messages were from, this dysfunctional family system. If we can stay in the reality of our life story and learn to feel our feelings, we create openness where we can grow. Many survivors of drug or alcohol abuse don’t realize the severity of the chronic stress which was an outcome of the hyper vigilance in the family home. One can become freed by learning the language of feelings and as we tap into our creative energy we are able to release uncomfortable feelings of fear and pain.
The pain of childhood loss, and a very special part of one’s life which has been lost due to trauma, is valid. It is the right of every child to be the center of their parent’s world and experience their unconditional love. Period.
Soothing the wounds of the past is a challenging journey for those who have been affected by alcohol and drug related families, and a healthy life can be built. By building a safe connection between the adult child and ‘the traumatized self’, and noticing unhealthy behaviors and changing coping styles, the pain and fear of the past can be healed and resolved. Growing up the emotional part of the ‘child within’ becomes a gentle journey with a qualified and empathic therapist. That part of the child that never got to grow because they were more focused on staying safe in their family system can grow today. It’s not too late. By building peer networks of support, regaining choice, obtaining a sense of self, and honoring our humanness, we can move towards an internal emotional safety that had never been present. When one finds that presence, it is quite beautiful.
A healing path is to honor all the gifts of survival that helped those once survive their childhood pain. As human beings we applaud those survival strengths and learn gradually to have more confidence, to be more loving, and be aware of our special humanness and capacity to slowly learn to take care of ourselves and find a new balance in life. Self-discovery is an amazing journey. To shed all the burden of the past comes with knowing and love.
To paraphrase Ernst Hemingway, resilient survivors of addicted families have become “stronger in the broken places.” Remember, help is here, you don’t have go at it alone.
After the Tears, (2010) Jane Middelton-Moz & Lorie L. Dwinell.