Children of Addicts

How Your Disease Affects Them

children of addictsIt’s often heard in the throes of denial: “I’m not hurting anyone but myself! Let me do what I want!” Children of addicts know better. And those raised with one or both parents with the disease wind up with a lifetime of their own issues to work through. Many become alcoholics or addicts themselves – partially because the propensity is in their genes, and partially because of the dysfunctional environment they were raised in. Even when a parent feels certain he has kept the addiction secret, there is still residual damage. Most family members know, on some level, things aren’t right. When a parent lashes out in anger while under the influence, the child may blame it on the addiction, but he still feels the pain. If the child is unaware of the addiction, he may internalize the irrational behavior and blame himself in some way – creating confusion and low self-esteem.

The truth is that children usually can discern that something isn’t right in their home. The secrecy. The mood swings. The irrational arguments. The emotional distance. The inappropriate responses to everyday situations. The absences – both physical and emotional. There may be abuse. There really isn’t a way to hide all that. It may be better for the child to learn a parent is sick in some way than to feel he’s done something to cause the negativity he experiences. The child may erroneously think he is to blame for the confusion, anger and emotional void. He may feel something is wrong with him. Worse, his responses to life in general are affected by the lack of emotional stability during those formative years. Patterns born out of the dysfunction come to play during the child’s adult years, creating psychological problems that plague him until he gets help.

Some common characteristics shared by the children of alcoholics or addicts include:

  • Low Self Esteem
  • Inability to Trust
  • Insecurity and Approval seeking
  • Confusion about what Normalcy is
  • Difficulty with Relationships
  • Abandonment Issues
  • Fear of Anger
  • Difficulty in finishing Things
  • Overreacting to Things beyond his Control 
  • Difficulty with having Fun
  • Judges Himself and Others harshly
  • Hyper-responsible or quite Irresponsible
  • Naively trusting, even when that Trust is undeserved
  • A Tendency to exaggerate or lie
  • Takes Things too Seriously
  • Feelings are easily Hurt
  • Feels set apart from Others
Read more: Get-The-Help-You-Deserve

Because of the nature of addiction, children are no longer the focal point of the parent – the substance of abuse is. Securing and using drugs and alcohol are what matter most, and that is not lost on the child.

The sense of abandonment comes from the physical and emotional absence of the parent, even if the parent is an at-home drinker or drug user. Once intoxicated, the parent’s physical body may be present, but his attention is diverted. Kids learn to keep their distance since they don’ t know how the parent will react. What was perfectly fine yesterday is now grounds for punishment. Stability and consistency are woefully absent and the child does mental somersaults trying to please the parent and gain some affection. And the affection is secondary to avoiding harsh punishments that may be quiet unfair. The child may also act out in negative ways to gain attention. Or he may try to be the best at everything – wearing himself out just to hear a word of praise or to find some proof that he is loved. If he can’t find approval at home he turns to his peers. Class clowns or troublemakers do get attention, although it’s not necessarily good attention. At least he is noticed. At home he may feel like a shadow as he tries to avoid the emotional fray. Even if only one parent is addicted, the child may still be left behind as all the attention is on the addicted one. Worse, he may get drawn into the battle to ‘fix’ or ‘shame’ the addict – which may make him feel he has to choose sides and prove his loyalty to one parent, creating guilt that he may be disloyal to the other parent. There is no way for the child to come out of this without feeling badly in one way or another.

Leading by Example

“My mother was an alcoholic. I’m never, ever, ever going to be like that!” Sadly, by the age of 35, Sally has become her mother anyway – alcoholism and all! As in the animal world, humans learn by imitating what their parents and peers do. Logic says no one would take on negative characteristics and become someone they don’t want to be, but in the context of addiction, it happens all the time. Genetics is but a small part of the process. Witnessing the aftermath and destruction the disease causes skews a child’s sense of right and wrong. The child may witness violence and aggression, creating fear instead of trust. Lying, hiding, misplaced blame, neglect and abuse are all sources of pain and misunderstanding. He sees how Dad treats Mom when he’s under the influence, and it horrifies and frightens him. Yet, the next day, it’s as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Does that mean what Dad did doesn’t count? It’s no wonder that sense of normalcy is confusing; it changes all the time with no apparent rules or pattern. And when that child grows and has a wife of his own, he may think being harsh, critical and abusive is what a man is supposed to be like. Not consciously, perhaps, but on some level nonetheless.

A child whose parents associated all good and bad events with drinking will pass that on to his child. If Dad spent all his free time at the local bar, it would be logical for the son to think that’s what most real men do after work! When he has his own family, he too is the weekend warrior. When his kids do see him, he’s usually “in his cups.” As his children get older, they rarely see him when he’s not under the influence. Dad can’t even see that he does to his children what his father did to him. If there was abuse – physical or sexual – in his home of origin, that may come into play with his own family as the disease progresses. Often the alcoholic or addict has convinced himself that he is doing his duty by his family by going to work – if that’s still possible.

Quality interaction with his family is a thing of the past. If there’s neglect, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Nurturing? He never had it… let ’em toughen up some! Living in denial is part of the disease process, but his children live in the fallout of that erred thinking. There can be little stability in a household steeped in secrets. And having friends over – doing what preteens and adolescents normally do – is not an option. The child may feel embarrassment about his situation. He may be fearful his parent will act inappropriately. Maybe Mom has let the house go so badly that it’s filthy. Maybe the cabinets are bare because all the money feeds the addiction before the family. Maybe the child is embarrassed about how he is dressed. Maybe he has to move periodically, since feeding an addiction in full swing would come before paying the rent or mortgage. Maybe it’s just the utilities that didn’t get paid this time. Once that child is past the early years, even he doesn’t believe the explanations and excuses he is fed.

Sometimes the children of addicted parents are exposed to dangerous situations. Many a Meth lab has been discovered in houses where children also live. That negligence could actually cause irreversible damage from the residual chemicals involved. And should an explosion occur – a realistic risk – even their lives may be at stake. The heroin addict who has turned to prostitution on occasion to support her habit, places her own children at risk of exploitation by a predator. Maybe Mom isn’t an addict, just an alcoholic who brings new boyfriends or stepfathers into the home – again, exposing the children to the dangers these unions generate. One recovering addict relates that she began to drink and smoke marijuana at the age of 11, and used Meth at the age of 13 at her mother’s home. Although she was raised by a man she believed to be her father, her addict mother (who had not previously been part of her life) had quit using and requested her daughter be allowed to live with her in another state. The daughter went. It wasn’t long before her mother relapsed, plunging her daughter into the crazed maelstrom of an addict’s life. Before her father retrieved her, guns, abuse, and fear became the experience she remembers of being in her mother’s life. She was returned to her father’s home tainted by the experience. Unfortunately, drug use was a part of her life already when she married and had children of her own. By the time her kids were in grade school, she was addicted to alcohol.

After a period of abstinence, she began to abuse painkillers, which were prescribed at first for a back condition she was born with. As her tolerance grew beyond what was prescribed, she sought out street drugs, eventually leading to heroin or whatever opiate she could find. Her enabling husband cared for the children after he came home from work, allowing his wife’s addition to lead her to the point of merely existing to get high. She couldn’t realize the connection between her addiction and her mother’s.

Admittedly, she was home while her own mother was absent. What she couldn’t see was that if she was zoned-out high in the basement, she, herself, wasn’t there for her children, either. A passed-out body is no substitute for a one-on-one mother. The most she could concede was that in the summer she would take her kids to the pool or somewhere, even though she was high. She thought it was funny at the time. Never mind the embarrassment to those children when she was asked to leave the public pool in an obvious state of impairment. Denial allowed her to delude herself about how her addiction was affecting her family. Thankfully, this mother found a program of recovery and has worked hard to heal her and her children’s lives.

It has been an ongoing process. If a parent finds recovery, there is the hope of breaking the addiction cycle that becomes passed down for generations. Love, empathy, communication and participation are what she now brings into her relationship with her children. As they learn of the dangers of addiction, they are less likely to repeat her mistakes, and if it happens that they do, they know how to seek help. She has been unable, however, to recoup any kind of relationship with her mother, and discovered the man who raised her was not actually her father – another example of the inability of an addict to make sound decisions. She was hurt by the deception and now has a hard time relating to her ‘father’ as well.

So this is one example of the realities of life for the children of the addicted. There wasn’t the obvious abuse that exists in some homes, but there was plenty of dysfunction. There was enough food and a roof over their heads (also in the case of the addicted mother’s childhood), and nobody was getting hit, but the children’s lives were affected. In another example, Sarah (not her real name), grew up in a large family with alcoholic parent’s. As her mother’s addiction progressed, she was emotionally abusive to some of her children, Sarah being one of them. Her mother would send her to the basement to retrieve something, reminding her to be wary of the troll under the stairs. Sarah would begin the descent and her mother would close and lock the door, leaving Sarah alone with her fears down there until her father or someone else would return home and let her out. The emotional and physical abuse were such that she grew up afraid and insecure.

The father didn’t do much to intervene, as he drank and dished out his own form of justice. The older children were tasked with taking care of the younger siblings and managing the household, creating that hyper-responsibility some of the children of alcoholics (or addicts) carry. Sarah, as an adult, grew up codependent and married an abuser. And she stayed with that abuser for many years until his death – doing what she thought was the right thing to do, based on her parent’s example and Catholic upbringing. Sarah also turned to alcohol to cope with the impossible situation. She found recovery later in life after her husband died. Today, she shares her recovery message with others and leads a happy life.

So in essence, Sarah’s childhood was overburdened with adult responsibilities and filled with the confusion and hurt that accompanies life with addiction. Always wondering why her mother treated her as she did and determined to keep herself loveable and her family safe, she continued on, thinking she was doing the normal things. Since she experienced the rejection and cruelty of her mother, and the indifference of her sometimes abusive father – who did nothing to rectify the situation – her own husband’s abuse towards her hovered somewhere in the acceptable realm. The aftermath caught by her children may well exist on into the next generation. When asked if her son was abusive to his wife, she had to admit she honestly didn’t know. She did concede that she noticed bruises on her daughter-in-law, but has been unable to get too far into their personal life.

A third scenario deals with both parents being alcoholics. The mother also abused prescription drugs, namely Paregoric (an opiate) and Valium. From early on, her two youngest children only knew their mother as an alcoholic. They were too young to even remember Mom and Dad being together. From a non-drinking, educated family, the mother’s alcoholism was such that she was mostly incapacitated. She was rarely home, and when she was, she was often in abusive blackouts. The two middle children were the least liked and her favored targets when there was no man to argue with. It was the children’s father that had the alcoholism in his background, not the mother, yet his alcoholism left him less impaired. He was, however, unwilling to step in and do anything to help his children. There were two abusive stepfathers. Her children lived in squalor and were most often unsupervised, as she favored drinking in the local taverns, leaving the children home alone. Clean clothes were a rare treat. The child support from the father was mostly spent on maintaining Mom’s addiction. Both stepfathers were abusive to both the children and mother. Violence, yelling, even the use of weapons were part of those children’s experience. Sexual abuse was also wound into their disjointed lives. As the older siblings cared for the younger ones, they abused them. The pattern was being passed on even before leaving the home of origin. Between the Mother’s cruelty and the Father’s indifference, the children didn’t fare well as they grew up. All left home before graduating from high school.

All became alcoholic/addicts and died early as a direct or indirect result of their addictions. Both parents died before the age of 65. The youngest child was violently murdered at age 28 over drugs. Ironically, he was one who suffered the most severe abuse from his older siblings in addition to what came from his parents and their bar cronies. Another child died of a heroin overdose at the age of 47. In the end, by the age of 50, the only female child was the only one left alive. She and her siblings had nearly all the symptoms listed above and more. There was the embarrassment and the rejection by peers due to the home situation. The female had an eating disorder, was harming herself and attempting suicide at an early age. She left school at age 15 to have a child. By age 16 she was on her own. She chose abusive partners and in time, her life began to mimic her alcoholic mother’s. Even though she was determined to never be like her mother, that became the case. Starting at an early age, the female child still had to cope with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and a dis associative personality disorder. Finding recovery in middle age, the surviving daughter works to break the addiction/abuse cycle for her only child. The residual of that childhood has been a lifelong handicap, in spite of her intelligence and motivation.

So, as illustrated with the above examples, the parent’s addictions create abnormal responses in their children, in spite of how well outward appearances make things look. Taking on the responsibilities that are really meant for the parents creates a secondary parenting role for the children. They may be incredible achievers outside the home and at school, setting the stage for control issues in adult life. Those children may or may not become popular with their peers, but they may not be able to relate well with teachers and authority figures. They may also feel isolated inside, a by-product of guarding the secrets of their home life. The void left by not having a safe environment may play out in physical complaints, aggression, stealing, risk taking and depression or suicidal thoughts. Most of the emotional issues don’t become apparent until the child becomes an adult. If these children (as adults) turn to alcohol or drugs for relief, the cycle starts again for the next generation – their own children.

So why the adult in active addiction (or alcoholism) may think he or she is harming no one, the real story is that no matter how well or poorly these parents may be functioning, they are still doing immeasurable damage. Denial must be broken in order for these relationships to begin healing. That healing starts almost immediately when the parent undergoes treatment. And although the process begins almost immediately, there is much to be overcome so it literally takes years. One woman, whose home life looked perfect on the outside, is still dealing with the aftermath of her alcoholism, even into middle sobriety. Her children stayed guarded for a couple years, unable to trust that she was really done. The home breathalyzer stayed in a reachable spot.

When she would be gone an unusually long time, the children were still fearful of what state she would arrive home in. The woman’s husband, a professional in a high position, also found recovery through his wife who went before him. His alcoholism went unnoticed because all the focus was on his wife’s addiction. Sometimes having one person in the home find recovery is enough to set the stage for everyone to get healthier. The good news is that the fear and mistrust in the home continue to diminish as time passes. Her family has received counseling and communication has opened up. At five years sober, her children are doing well and her husband has joined her in recovery. Mom and daughter are planning the eldest girl’s wedding together, something that would have been impossible before. Harmony exists in place of fear and mistrust. Gratitude, empathy and respect are now household values. The wife is able to be there for her mother, who had a stroke, -another gift of her sobriety. When the first grandchild is born, both parent’s will be there for them in a way that would have been impossible had they not found recovery. There can be happy endings; it’s never too late to seek help.

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