Helping Children from Addicted and Dysfunctional Families

A. Understanding the Problems of Children from Addicted Families

In the US, twenty million children are experiencing physical, verbal and emotional abuse from parents who are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. This is tragic when we consider that childhood is the foundation on which our entire lives are built. When a child's efforts to bond with an addicted parent are thwarted, the result is confusion and intense anxiety. In order to survive in a home devoid of healthy parental love, limits, and consistency, they must develop "survival skills" very early in life.

In a chaotic, dysfunctional family, the lack of external control through consistent loving discipline results in an inability to develop internal discipline and self control. They learn not to depend on their parents to meet their needs - instead, it is all up to themselves. And, because they can't trust their own parents, they become generally suspicious and mistrustful of all human beings. Yet, they are defenseless against the projection of blame and often feel responsible for parents' addiction. They become "little adults" that feel compelled to accept responsibilities well beyond their years.

One authority on these matters, Dr. Tim Cermack, says children from addicted homes actually suffer from emotional and psychological symptoms that are best described as a combination of codependency and a variant of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is most widely known as a malady afflicting Vietnam veterans. According to Dr. Cermack it

...occurs when people are subject to stresses of such intensity and nature that they clearly lie outside the range of normal human experiences. The effects are especially severe if the stress is caused by a series of traumatic events, and is of human origin. The effects are even more severe if the individual under stress has rigid coping strategies, or if the person's support system includes those who encourage denial of the stress. *

Growing up in an alcoholic family is certainly traumatic. In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. Survival becomes a full-time job. PTSD also leads to a condition called "psychic numbing" experienced as a sense of estrangement and being detached to the point of feeling there is no place or group to which we truly belong. Emotions become constricted, especially in the areas where intimacy, tenderness, and sexuality are involved. Is it any wonder that these children are eight times more likely become addicts themselves or to marry an alcoholic or drug addict.

B. Common Struggles of Children from Alcoholic/Drug-Addicted Homes

  1. Guessing at what is normal.
  2. Difficulty having fun.
  3. Judging themselves mercilessly.
  4. Difficulty with emotional relationships.
  5. Feeling "different" from other people.
  6. Tendency to be impulsive.
  7. Either super responsible or super irresponsible.
  8. Desperately seeking approval and affirmation.
  9. Suffering from chronic anxiety.
  10. Lacking self discipline.
  11. Compulsive liars.
  12. Suffering from a critical deficiency of self-respect.
  13. Fear and mistrust for authority figures.

C. Healing Begins by "Breaking the Alcoholic Family Rules"

Early intervention significantly lessens the life-long effects of a traumatic childhood. The way Christian workers can best help these children is to lovingly assist them to "break the rules" of their dysfunctional family. These rules, according to Claudia Black in her book It will Never Happen to Me are "don't trust, don't feel, don't talk."

The first need of children from addicted families is learn that they are just normal kids who have been trying to cope in a extremely stressful and chaotic environment. While their alcoholic home is not normal, they are normal kids. Their biggest problem is usually not having anyone they trust with whom to they can talk openly about how they feel and what they are experiencing. Opening up and sharing from the heart in a safe atmosphere is a tremendously healing experience. We must make sure to provide time for such experiences. Still, it may take quite a while to gain the trust of children from troubled families. Usually they need enough non-confrontive interaction with workers and the opportunity to observe them in action as they relate to others. Opening up can be extremely difficult, especially because they have learned their entire lives that they must protect their families secrets. They can feel like traitors, betraying their family and the illusion that everything is all right at home.

Children from addicted families have learned to survive by suppressing their emotions. They are told that their perceptions are wrong and that their feelings are not acceptable. So, we need to let them know that it's OK to have feelings and that they won't be rejected for having them.

D. Some Other Suggestions

  1. Learn more about alcohol and drug addiction and its impact on children.
  2. Help them learn to take care of themselves and that it is OK to think about their own safety when faced with dangerous situations.
  3. Help them to learn to have fun.
  4. Help them to learn from the Bible how God sees them. And that His love is unconditional, not performance-based.
  5. Talk about honesty and its rewards.
  6. Bring them to structured support groups where they can share their experiences with others.

E. Resources:

* Timmen L. Cermack, MD, A Primer on Adult Children of Alcoholics, Health 
   Communications, Pompano Beach, FL, 1985