The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics
Living with an addict (including alcoholics1) can feel like life in a war zone. The addict’s personality changes caused by addiction create chaos. The family dynamics are organized around the addict, who acts like a little tyrant, denying that drinking or using is a problem, while issuing orders and blaming everyone else. To cope and avoid confrontations with the substance abuser, typically, family members tacitly agree to act as if everything is normal, not make waves, and not mention the substance abuse. Family members deny what they know, feel, and see. This all takes a heavy psychological toll, especially on those most vulnerable, the children. In fact, despite evidence to the contrary, more than half are in denial that they have an addicted parent.
Dysfunctional Parenting Causes Codependency
Parenting is unreliable, inconsistent, and unpredictable. There never is a sense of safety and consistency, allowing children to thrive. The majority suffer emotional, if not physical abuse, and thus carry issues of trust and anger about their past, sometimes directed at the sober parent, as well. In some cases, the sober parent is so stressed that he or she is more impatient, controlling, and irritable than the alcoholic, who may have withdrawn from family life. Children may blame the sober parent for neglecting their needs or not protecting them from abuse or unfair decrees issued by the alcoholic. In high conflict couples, both parents are emotionally unavailable.
Children’s needs and feelings get ignored. They may be too embarrassed to entertain friends and suffer from shame, guilt, and loneliness. Many learn to become self-reliant and needless to avoid anyone having power over them again. Because an addict’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable, vulnerability and authenticity required for intimate relationships are considered too risky. Children live in continuous fear and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, creating constant anxiety well into adulthood. They may become hypervigilant and distrustful. They learn to contain and deny their emotions, which are generally shamed or denied by parents. In the extreme, they may be so detached that they’re numb to their feelings. The environment and these effects are how codependency is passed on — even by children of addicts who aren’t addicts themselves.
Children typically adopt one or more roles2 that help relieve tension in the family. Typical roles are:
The Hero. The hero is usually the eldest child and most identified with a parental role, often helping with parental duties. Heroes are responsible and self-reliant. They sacrifice and do the right thing to keep calm. They make good leaders, are successful, but often anxious, driven, controlled, and lonely.
The Adjuster. The adjuster doesn’t complain. Rather than be in charge like the hero, the adjuster tries to fit in and adapt. Thus, as adults, they have difficulty taking charge of their life and pursuing goals.
The Placater. The placater is the most sensitive to others’ feelings and tries to meet others’ emotional needs, but neglects their own. They also must discover their wants and needs and learn to pursue their goals.
The Scapegoat. The scapegoat acts out negative behavior to distract the family from the addict and to express feelings he or she can’t communicate. Some scapegoats turn to addiction, promiscuity, or other acting-out behavior to distract themselves and manage their emotions. When they’re in trouble, it unites the parents around a common problem.
The Lost Child. The lost child is usually a younger child who withdraws into a world of fantasy, music, video games, or the Internet, seeking security in solitude. Their relationships and social skills may necessarily suffer.
The Mascot. Also a younger or youngest child, the mascot manages fear and insecurity by being cute, funny, or coquettish to relieve family tension.
Adult Children of Alcoholics and Addicts (ACAs)
Although these roles help children cope growing up, as adults, they often become fixed personality styles that prevent full development and expression of the self. Roles prevent authentic communication necessary for intimacy. As adults, deviating from a role can feel as threatening as it would have been in childhood, but it’s necessary for full recovery from codependency. Roles can also conceal undiagnosed depression and anxiety. Often, the depression is chronic and low-grade, called dysthymia.
Many develop trauma symptoms of PTSD — post-traumatic stress syndrome, with painful memories and flashbacks similar to a war veteran. Physical health may be impacted as well. The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents that they measured included divorce, various forms of abuse, neglect, and also living with an addict or substance abuse in the family. Children of addicts and alcoholics usually experience multiple ACEs.
Lisa Frederiksen, daughter of an alcoholic mom, coined the term “Second-Hand Drinking” (SHD) to refer to the negative impact an alcoholic has on other people in the form of “toxic stress.”3 It’s toxic because it’s unrelenting and children can’t escape it. In her own recovery, she made the connection between ACEs and SHD and how toxic stress can result in generational addiction, including her own struggle with an eating disorder.
“Both SHD and ACEs are two of the key risk factors for developing addiction (of which alcoholism is one). The two key risk factors are childhood trauma and social environment. Given SHD’s genetic connection, a person experiencing SHD-related ACEs then has three of the five key risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).”
Conversations with her mom helped Lisa forgive her and allowed her mom to forgive herself:
“During our conversations, mom identified herself as having five ACEs and that her own mom (my grandmother) had a drinking problem…All of us had long-term exposure to secondhand drinking. To be clear — not all ACEs are related to SHD, of course. My mom had two and I had one of those, as well.
“Mom and I talked about my realization that I’d blindly participated in passing along the consequences of my own untreated SHD-related ACEs to my daughters the same way my mom had blindly passed hers to me. And these consequences were not limited to developing alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. They were the consequences of insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, self-judgment, unclear boundaries, accommodating the unacceptable, constant worry, and the other physical, emotional and quality-of-life consequences of toxic stress. It was this shocking insight that moved me to treat my untreated SHD-related ACEs and help my daughters treat theirs.
“Bottom line is these discoveries helped my mom finally forgive herself the way I had forgiven her years ago. Not the kind of forgiveness that excuses trauma-causing behaviors, rather the kind of forgiveness that lets go of wishing for a different outcome. It is the kind of forgiveness that recognizes we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.”
- In the recent DSM-5 manual for mental disorders, alcoholism is now referred to as an “Alcohol Use Disorder and alcoholics as a person with an Alcohol Use Disorder. Similar changes were made for other substance-related disorders, classified according to the substance, such as opioids, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, and cannabis.
- Adapted from Darlene Lancer, Codependency for Dummies, 2nd ed., Ch. 7, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, N.J. (2015)
- Lisa Frederiksen. (2017, April 24). The Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs. retrieved from http://www.acesconnection.com/blog/the-legacy-of-untreated-secondhand-drinking-related-aces
©Darlene Lancer 2017
Lancer, D. (2017). The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-trauma-of-children-of-addicts-and-alcoholics/