What is Addiction?
Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking, or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. Addiction can be harmful to the addict but can also be incredibly disruptive to those around them such as family members and friends. Although we will be focusing here on drug and/or alcohol addiction, it can also relate to gambling, eating, working, social media, shopping, and many other behaviours.
A 2018 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology report estimated that between 189,000 and 208,000 children in England live with an alcohol-dependent adult, of which 14,000 live with two alcohol dependent adults.
Research also suggests that one in five children in the UK are currently living with a parent who “drinks hazardously” (National Association for Children of Alcoholics, NACOA). According to the NACOA, children of addicted parents are the highest risk group of children to become alcohol and drug users, due to both environmental and genetic risk factors.
How Parental Addiction Impacts the Child
When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, their personality can change unpredictably, causing chaos in the household. The family dynamics often become organised around the addict. In some families, this might mean family members agreeing to act as if everything is normal, not to make waves, and not to mention the addiction, all in the name of avoiding confrontation with the addict. In other families, this might mean plenty of arguing and volatile behaviour, and in some families this might mean an unpredictable combination of the two.
In acting like everything is normal, children of addicts end up denying what they know, feel, and see to be true, which takes a heavy psychological toll. This teaches the child to suppress their emotions and ignore their instincts.
The parenting itself becomes unpredictable, unreliable, and inconsistent, with no real sense of safety. In some cases, the sober parent becomes so preoccupied with caring for the addict, or so stressed with trying to keep the family afloat that he or she is more impatient and irritable than the addict. The children might blame the sober parent for not protecting them or for not meeting their needs.
In any case, it is likely that the child is not getting their physical and emotional needs met, and many children of addicts learn at a young age to become self-reliant and often grow up too quickly.
Many children grow up with a pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty, and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, constantly watching for minor mood changes in others. These children can become distrustful, isolate themselves from their peers (not wanting or being allowed to invite friends over), and they learn to contain and deny their emotions.
Over time, children of addicts tend to adopt certain roles within the family. They can sometimes adopt more than one at a time, or can move from one role to another as the situation demands. The roles tend to be:
- The Hero: this child is usually the eldest child and often helps with parenting the younger children, helping with parental responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and chaperoning younger children to and from school. This child is usually responsible and self-reliant, and they sacrifice a lot to keep a sense of calm in the family (i.e. denying their own needs in order to support the younger children and sometimes the addicted parent). These children often grow up to be successful and make good leaders, but are often driven, controlled, and lonely.
- The Adjuster: this is a child who learns not to complain, and tries to fit in and adapt. As adults, they have trouble taking charge of their life, making decisions, and pursuing goals.
- The Placater: This child is the most sensitive to other people’s feelings. They try to meet other people’s emotional needs but tend to neglect their own needs.
- The Scapegoat: this child acts out negative behaviour, subconsciously in order to distract the family from the addict and to express feelings that he or she can’t communicate. Some scapegoats turn to addiction themselves, or promiscuity, or other acting out behaviours to distract themselves and manage their emotions. When they are in trouble, it tends to unite the parents around a common problem.
- The Lost Child: This is usually a younger child. They tend to withdraw into fantasy worlds or video games, music, and the internet, and they tend to seek security in solitude. This child is likely to suffer from poor relationship and social skills.
- The Mascot: Again, this tends to be the youngest or a younger child. This child manages fear and insecurity by being cute or funny to relieve tension in the family. By being cute and adorable, the child almost ensures that their needs will be met by others, including the older children.
Although these roles are often adaptive in childhood, they are often troublesome in adulthood, preventing authentic communication, full development, and true expression of self.
The Child in Adulthood
If you didn’t get your needs met in childhood, too preoccupied with the dysfunctional behaviour of an addicted parent, you won’t have learnt how to get your needs met in adulthood.
Furthermore, lacking in positive foundational relationships in childhood, i.e. positive and healthy relationships with caregivers, it is likely to be difficult to develop healthy and trusting interpersonal relationships in adulthood.
The late Janet Woititz, best-selling author, counsellor, and lecturer, noted some common behaviours amongst adult children of alcoholic and addicted parents. Not all adult children of alcoholics display all of these behaviours, but they are common among many of this population. These commonalities include:
- Constantly guessing at what normal behaviour is
- Difficulty in following projects through to completion
- Lying when it would be easier to tell the truth
- Judging themselves harshly
- Finding it difficult to have fun and taking themselves very seriously
- Difficulty with intimate relationships
- Finding it difficult to deal with changes, especially when they have no control over them
- Constantly seeking approval and affirmation
- Feeling that they are fundamentally different from other people
- They are either extremely responsible or extremely irresponsible
- Extremely loyal, even when there is evidence that they shouldn’t be or should at least question this loyalty
- Being incredibly impulsive, but then sticking to a plan even when it is apparent that the plan will fail.
There are additional commonalities which have been identified by adult children of alcoholics, which are now listed as part of the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organisation’s official literature. These additions include:
- Becoming isolated
- Fear of authority figures
- Fear of angry people
- Fear of personal criticism
- Becoming or marrying alcoholics (or both)
- Seeing yourself as a victim
- Having an overwhelming sense of responsibility
- Feeling guilty when you stand up for yourself
- Confusing love and pity
- Losing the ability to feel and sense emotions
- Low self-esteem
- Fear of abandonment and doing anything to hold onto a relationship, even when it is unhealthy
- Becoming “para-alcoholic”.
Being a ‘para-alcoholic’ is when the adult child of an alcoholic might develop their own addiction. It could be an addiction to alcohol or drugs but it could also be a shopping addiction, workaholism, an addiction to cigarettes, and so on. It is using some kind of addiction, even if it is as seemingly harmless as an addiction to Netflix or sugar, to avoid really feeling their feelings.
As we have seen, children of alcoholics are not used to actually noticing their feelings or having their feelings validated, and so in adulthood really experiencing their feelings can be a scary experience that they want to suppress.
Supporting a Parent with Addiction
Adult children of alcoholics might grow up to disown their addicted parent, choosing to cut off that part of their life and move forward, however some continue to support their addicted parent for years. Often the relationship can then become enmeshed and continue to be unhealthy, with the parent relying on their adult child for everything from financial support to remembering to lock the front door at night.
Some adult children of addicts force themselves to become financially stable in order to be able to support their parent; even paying thousands of pounds for rehabilitation services. They live with the fear that if they don’t go running when their parent calls, their parent could relapse, overdose, or even die. They live with the knowledge that at any moment they might have to drop everything and go back home, supporting their parents through detox, parenting their own parents, and putting their own lives on hold in order to meet the needs of their parent.
If you are struggling with addiction, with dealing with someone else who has addiction issues, or grew up in a household with addiction issues, and would like to talk to one of our specialist addiction therapists about it, call 020 8673 4545 to book an appointment with one of our therapists at our centres in Clapham and Tooting. You can also email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.