A child whose parent was addicted to alcohol or other drugs may find that they see the world in a different way from peers whose parents did not experience addiction. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we often treat clients who have unique characteristics which only other children from households experiencing high degrees of stress will understand.
Common Traits Seen in Children of Addicts
There are a couple of well-known lists of behaviors commonly seen in adult children of alcoholic parents, but the same traits are often seen in children of parents who are addicted to other substances or who are not able to provide safe, stable households for reasons unrelated to substance abuse. The first of these, “Laundry List” was written by Tony Allen in 1977. A second, “Adult Children of Alcoholics” was written by Janet Woititz in 1983. The lists overlap significantly, and state that, among other things, children raised in households experiencing addiction often share these traits:
- Become isolated and afraid of people and especially authority figures – This can be the result of depression and being forced to keep secrets for parents who are addicted. Sometimes, it’s easier to just avoid others than to risk the consequences of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.
- Become approval seekers who lose their identities while trying to please others – Not feeling that they are getting adequate support at home in childhood may lead to an ongoing need for praise from others in adulthood. It may even become more important to be liked than to be authentic to oneself.
- May be frightened by angry people and criticism – Particularly if caretakers became violent when upset, children of addicted parents may be fearful of anyone expressing negative emotions. They may be scared even if that person is not prone to becoming physically aggressive.
- Are more likely to become alcoholics/addicted, marry addicted people, or both – When they lack other role models, a child who grew up with addicted parents is likely to recreate the dynamics they experienced in childhood.
- May find another compulsive personality to marry – If they don’t marry another alcoholic or addicted person, they may find someone who is otherwise unhealthy.
- View themselves as a victim – The victim mentality may be accompanied by learned helplessness.
- Feel guilty for standing up for themselves – They may feel the need to give in to make others happy and may not feel they deserve to have their own needs met.
- May stuff their feelings from traumatic childhoods – They may be unable to feel or express the feelings because they are too painful.
- Judge themselves harshly – This may lead to low self-esteem.
- Can only guess at what normal behavior is – Without the opportunity to experience normalcy in childhood, they may develop unrealistic expectations and standards or view poor decision making and the resulting outcomes as typical adult behavior.
- Often experience difficulty with intimate relationships – They may not know how to set up a healthy relationship or interact in healthy ways.
- Sometimes overreact to changes over which they have no control – Feelings of uncertainty can leave them remembering chaotic situations from childhood and cause them to feel unsafe.
- Usually feel that they are different from other people – Not having parents who behaved similarly to their friends’ parents may make it difficult to learn how they themselves should be acting in adulthood.
- Are usually either super responsible or super irresponsible – They may grow to continuously take charge or refuse to ever do so as a result of learned helplessness. Finding balance may be a challenge.
- Could struggle with impulsive behavior – After repeatedly experiencing that they may not get another chance to get their needs met if they do not act immediately, a child of addicted parents may leap on any opportunity for instant gratification.
Recognizing Family Cycles
It is common for young people who’ve seen their caregivers struggle with addiction to end up repeating the same cycles. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we stress the importance of recognizing this potential and work to address the underlying conditions that could lead to this. While there may be genetic components to addiction, it is quite possible to overcome inclinations to repeat dysfunctional family patterns.
Overcoming the Past
By recognizing that there are other ways to live their lives, offspring of addicted parents can refrain from repeating dysfunctional patterns, according to researchers who’ve studied childhood trauma. There are several ways to do this:
- Support groups such as Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families
- Individual therapy
- Family therapy
Ultimately, a child starting out in a less than ideal environment is not an indication that they will make the same choices in adulthood that they have seen modeled by adults around them. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we believe that parents in recovery have the ability to connect their children to resources that can help them to understand addiction and learn how to have a better life than they might otherwise.