Children of addiction

Addict’s Family


6- Children of Addiction


Children of addicted parents are four times more likely to become addicts. Although there is evidence that suggests there is a genetic predisposition to addiction, however, even putting genetics aside, the emotional, psychological and behavioral patterns that addicted parents pass down to their children, puts them at a much higher risk to becoming addicts themselves. In this way, addiction becomes a family illness that is passed down from one generation to another.


  • Consequences of addiction on children
  • Dysfunctional family system
  • Lack of effective communication
  • Effects of trauma on children
  • Characteristics of adult children of addicted parents
  • When children become parents themselves


Consequences of addiction on children

  • Children living in households afflicted with addiction can carry the scars for life. The effect on these children, especially if it is their parent abusing drugs, is profound and potentially disabling. These households sacrifice stability, safety, and calm routine — all prime conditions for raising emotionally healthy children. In their place are broad and unpredictable swings in the mood and behavior of older family members. The stress of living year after year under such conditions is experienced as trauma by the children of the household. Normal routines are regularly interrupted by disruptive and even frightening occurrences, which become accepted as part of living with drug use. There is a disconnect with reality in these homes. What is being said often doesn’t match up with what family members sense or see right in front of their eyes. Denial of reality is a common coping tactic in families with addiction, practiced by the addict and others in the household. But the effect on children is frightening and disorienting. Little things get blown out of proportion, while the really big problems are minimized or denied outright. The family system is bent and distorted by a problem spinning out of control.
  • Children of addict parents typically are overwhelmed by powerful emotions that they lack the developmental sophistication and family support to process and understand. Their response may be to adopt one or other defenses, such as shutting down their feelings. Children have only a very limited frame of reference for life. Typically, their family is all they know, which makes it fairly impossible for them to put in perspective the sometimes bizarre and perplexing behavior of the adults in the home. As they grow older these children will resort to denying there is a problem, rationalizing, intellectualizing, over-controlling, withdrawing, and acting out as a way to control their inner experience of chaos. Later they may learn to self-medicate. In the long term, living in this intense and frightening emotional environment can set up a fear of feeling or patterns of attachment that are filled with anxiety and ambivalence.


Dysfunctional family system

  • Healthy families have a remarkable ability to maintain what family therapists call homeostasis –internal stability. But addiction puts this self-regulating system under severe stress. The affected family will generally reach as a unit to address the challenge to its equilibrium. The result may be a dysfunctional sort of balance in which family members lose their sense of normal, and their priorities shift over to dealing with the addiction in their midst. Very typically, energy goes into hiding the addiction – from themselves through the mechanism of denial, and then from the children, and from the world at large. Trust and faith in an orderly and predictable world is eroded in the face of the chaos that follows in the wake of addiction. The addict cannot be depended upon, and his erratic, destructive behavior makes it difficult for others in the family to meet their responsibilities. Promises are broken and it seems no one can depend upon anyone else for support and stability.
  • Over time, family members unconsciously slip into patterns of relating that become increasingly dysfunctional. The children are often left to fend for themselves and anyone bold enough to confront the disease may be branded as a family traitor. Family members may withdraw into their own worlds or compete for the little love and attention that is available. In the absence of reliable adults, siblings may become “parentified” as they try to provide to each other the care and comfort that is missing.
  • Families with addiction wind up suffering a kind of emotional and psychological constriction in which members no longer feel free to express themselves. Over time, they lose touch with who they are. Through living in a household stalked by addiction, they have unconsciously adopted strategies for survival that involve denying their own true selves. Their genuine feelings are often hidden under strategies for keeping safe — like pleasing or withdrawing. The family becomes organized around trying to manage the unmanageable behaviors of the addict. The strategies of family members run the gamut: they may yell, cajole, threaten, appease, harangue, criticize, understand, get fed up — you name it. They become remarkably inventive in trying to contain the addiction and keep the family from disintegrating. The sense of vigilance in this family is constant, with everyone always on yellow alert at the very least. At the first sign of trouble, each falls into his adopted role.


Lack of effective communication

  • Family members suffering with addiction often wind up failing to have any genuine connection with each other.  Because unspoken family rules forbid discussion of the major issue confronting everyone – namely, the addiction –members lose the ability to communicate on any meaningful level. A consequence is that they are then unable to air the painful feelings that are a normal part of any life. These feelings build up until they break out in emotional eruptions or get acted out in impulsive behaviors, which adds to the chaos and unmanageability of the already dysfunctional home. Thus, these families become systems for manufacturing and perpetuating trauma. Trauma affects the internal world of each person; trauma hurts their relationships and their ability to communicate with their fellows. Finally, this trauma makes it difficult for them to live with another human being in a balanced, relaxed, and trusting manner. For the child in such families, there is nowhere to turn. The tragedy is that children from these families move into adult roles carrying huge burdens that cause trouble for them in relationships and in work.
  • As the adverse effects of addiction increase in severity, the family has to become ever more vigilant in maintaining their defense system. Sadly, though, they are engaged in a losing battle. The guilt and shame that family members suffer, along with the psychological defenses they use to deny the addiction of their loved one, all too often keep them from reaching for the help they need.
  • When no one in the family is communicating on a meaningful level, children are left to make sense of things on their own. The tendency in dysfunctional families to avoid discussion of important issues leads to confusion and anxiety. Being able to talk about their feelings helps children process the pain they are feeling and helps them avoid the trauma that bottling up these feelings causes.
  • Without the outlet that talking provides, family members feel like they’re “falling apart”, which makes them even more resistant to facing the pain they are in. Family members may find themselves in a confusing and painful bind. Unable to free themselves from the situation, they turn on each other. The result of this stressful relational environment persisting over time is cumulative trauma.


Effects of trauma on children

  • Chronic, intense stress – the kind that results in trauma — can impair the limbic system, that part of the brain that controls our emotions. Our moods, appetite, emotional tone, and sleep cycles can all be affected. We may be less able to regulate levels of fear, anger and sadness. Our inability to regulate our moods can lead to chronic anxiety or depression or may emerge as a type of substance or behavioral addiction,
  • Trauma in childhood will seriously impact development, with pervasive and long-lasting effects. We arrive in life only partly hardwired by nature. It is nurture that finishes the job. Each brief interaction between parent and child lays down the neural wiring that becomes part of our brain-body network. This is how early experiences inscribe themselves onto our nervous systems. It is how our environment shapes our emotional being and our limbic system. As infants we need to learn the skills of emotional regulation and self-soothing. We learn limbic regulation by being in the presence of the regulating relationships of parents and other caretakers, including siblings. The amygdale, which is the brain center for the fight/flight/freeze response, is fully functional at birth. This means that a baby is capable of a full-blown trauma response. The hippocampuses, which is where we make assessments regarding threats in our environment, is not fully functional until the age of four to five. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until around age eleven or older. This means that when a child is frightened, they have no way of understanding what is going on around them. They do not have the developmental capability of assessing frightening stimuli as to its level of threat. Nor do they have the cognitive capability to understand what’s happening. They need an external modulator, namely a parent, to help them regulate themselves and calm down. Even a sibling, caretaker or pet can help an anxious child even out his emotions. In the absence of this soothing modulation, the brain of the infant carries this disturbing memory at an unconscious level. It is stored within the body/mind as a sensory memory without the benefit of reason, insight, and understanding to help mitigate it.
  • Our nervous systems are not self-contained; they link with those of the people close to us in a silent rhythm that helps regulate our physiology. Children require ongoing neural synchrony from parents in order for their natural capacity for self-directedness to emerge. In other words, it is through successful relationships that we achieve a healthy sense of autonomy. When a parent is addicted and the family environment disturbed, children have trouble acquiring these skills. They internalize what surrounds them. And not only do they internalize the disturbances in their environment mentally and emotionally, they become part of the child’s neurological wiring.  It is this that can lead to psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder – known as PTSD.


Characteristics of adult children of addicted parents

The ability to escape perceived danger is one of the factors that determine whether a person develops PTSD. For a child being raised by addicted parents, escape is often not possible. Such children have no means to defend themselves, and they have no way of comprehending their mistreatment. The result is they often grow into adults who suffer maladaptive characteristics that are rooted in the pain and anxiety of being raised by addicted parents.


Among the characteristics that these people show in their adult are:

1. Helplessness

Having been raised by addicted parents, we have a deep, unconscious conviction that the world is full of danger and pain – and that there is nothing we can do about it. This sense of helplessness makes it very difficult for us to enjoy a full life.


2. Depression

As adult children of addicted parents we have learned not to express or feel our feelings – especially anger. But it has been established that anger turned inward leads us to lives stunted by depression.


3. Anxiety

Apart from the constant worry that is so much a part of our life, the fee floating anxiety that afflicts us may manifest itself in a range of phobias. We also regularly suffer sleep disturbances, are hyper-vigilant, and in general suffer from a sense that the universe is a hostile place.


4. Emotional constriction

Shutting down our feelings was a defense we adopted to protect ourselves as children. As adults, we continue to fear that we will be overwhelmed if we get in touch with what is inside us. We pay a high price for this unconscious strategy, namely a deadening of our emotional life. Without help we will continue to deny ourselves an authentic expression of emotion. Simply put, by trying to protect ourselves from “negative” emotions, we deny ourselves the “positive” ones.


5. Irrational reasoning

Growing up as we did in chaotic households, we may be saddled with poor problem-solving skills. Because confusion reigned in our homes, order and reason are alien concepts. As adults, we find it difficult to think rationally, because we were formed emotionally in a world where things were not rational.


6. Relationship mistrust

When that primary bond between the parent and the child is disrupted because that parent is lost to drugs, the result on the child is a lasting and deep distrust of close relationships. Unless we work to overcome that original trauma, we will find it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships. as adults we are unable to ask for help or to accept caring and support. In part this is because we have shut down our feelings, and in part this is because we learned not to trust those close to us.


7. Hyper vigilance

Anxiety can be a constant for those of us who grew up in households with addiction. We are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always scanning the horizon for threats.


8. Unhealthy bonding

We develop an unhealthy bonding style. In relationships we are either domineering or subordinate. Power in our relationships is never healthily divided.


9. Radical thinking

Impulse control is a problem for us. One prime consequence of this is addiction to drugs or other substances. We lack discipline and are prey to all-or-nothing thinking. We have a tendency to go from one extreme to another, without intermediate stages. As children we never learned self-control or the benefit of accomplishing tasks a step at a time.


10. Extreme emotions

Our chaotic upbringing has left us prey to intense emotional states that can quickly change. We may be elated one moment and deflated the next – and for the flimsiest of reasons.


11. Risky behaviors

We take foolish risks to counter the emotional numbness we suffer. We drive recklessly, act out sexually, spend ourselves into debt, act belligerently and get into fights — among other behaviors. We do these things to get the adrenaline flowing so that we can feel alive.


12. Emotional disconnect

Our internal world exhibits emotional disconnects or fused feelings. For example: anger and sex, intimacy and danger, need and humiliation, money and love.


13. Survival Guilt

Many of us adult children of addicted parents suffer from survival guilt. We “escaped” from our family of origin and feel guilty about those left behind.


14. Defense mechanisms

Dissociation, denial, splitting, repression, minimization, intellectualization, and projection are some of the types of “character armor” we develop.


15. Reenactment

Because we were unable to resolve issues in our family of origin, as grown-ups we may unconsciously repeat the pain-filled dynamics in a futile attempt at finally “solving” the problems we could not solve as children.


16. Relationship Issues

Having relationships is challenging for all adults, but for those of us with addict parents, they are especially difficult. We never learned how to be present in a balanced manner. We tend to be alternately controlling and withdrawing, to be emotionally hot and then cold. We have problems with trusting, staying engaged, and with accepting love and caring from others.


17. Prone to addiction

Our attempts to quiet and control our turbulent emotional world leads many of us to follow our parent’s example and start using drugs.


When children become parents themselves

  • When adult children of addicted parents enter intimate relationships, the feelings of dependence and vulnerability that are an important part of any intimate relationship make them feel anxious and at risk. Because of their childhood, they may unconsciously worry that chaos, out-of-control behavior and abuse are lurking around the corner. They have little experience in handling the inevitable problems that come with being a spouse or a parent. They may overreact in ways that create problems that otherwise would solve themselves. They may perceive themselves as helpless even if they are not. This sense of helplessness makes them prey to the old familiar feelings from childhood. The unconscious is very powerful, and with adult children of addicts, the unconscious creates a world that is out of touch with reality, a world full of danger, rage, and pain. Grafting this distorted thinking on current reality is a prescription for recreating the chaos that the adult is familiar with from his family of origin.
  • Children who have been traumatized by living with addiction become very adept at monitoring their surroundings. They are constantly taking the emotional temperature of their environment. They read those around them for signs of disturbance – such as someone in a bad mood. If they sense danger, they may lapse into people pleasing to head off the potential threat. If they can calm and please their acting-out parent, they might improve their own lot. If successful, they might experience less hurt. Sadly, such people pleasing strategies get carried into intimate relationships in adulthood. When the adult child of an addict employs the survival strategies left over from childhood, he finds he is unable to live comfortably with the natural ebb and flow of intimacy.


  • The source of above extract is derived from: Trauma and Addiction, Dayton 2000 (van der Kolk 1987, Krystal 1968)

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