How Could They?
If my parents loved me, how could they act the way they did?
This question can continue to haunt those of us who grew up in alcoholic families long after we have grown up and left home. It can mean we experience a deep sense of insecurity and shame and find it hard to fully trust other people.
How could my parent choose alcohol over me?
The reality is that it was never really about us. Once an addiction takes hold, it interferes with the parent’s ability to take care of a child – even the most caring mother or father can become neglectful, moody, and unpredictable.
The behavior of a parent hooked on alcohol is no longer restrained by reasonableness. One of the effects of addiction is it distorts thinking, and it makes the completely unacceptable appear acceptable.
It is usually only those alcoholics who escape addiction and face their demons that can begin to comprehend the damage caused to loved ones. Even then, they may not be able to face the full extent of the harm caused.
The reality is we can’t go back and fix our childhood. What we can do is begin to heal, and the first step in this is the realization that our parent’s behavior wasn’t a reflection on our worth as an individual.
Is Recovery Necessary for Adult Children of Alcoholics?
Just because we seem to be doing outwardly well in our lives, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have escaped any lasting damage from growing up with an alcoholic parent. One of the skills that can be required to survive this type of childhood is the ability to hide our pain, and to keep other people happy.
Some of us might argue that it is best to leave the past in the past – the best thing is to just forget our horrible childhood and move on. The problem with this is that our past may be impacting our current life in ways we are not even fully aware of (see the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family below). If this is the case, we would be wise to deal with these issues, so we can live a full and happy life.
What is it Like Growing up with an Addicted Parent?
A family environment in which a parent is addicted to alcohol can be incredibly toxic. One of the hardest aspects for children growing up in this type of household is unpredictability. It can be like living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – one minute the parent can be loving, and the next demonic.
Some of the characteristics of growing up with an alcoholic parent include:
Physical and emotional abuse.
This type of household will usually be chaotic – e.g. the daily routine is unpredictable, the home is messy, and there are lots of arguments.
Domestic and sexual abuse.
Guilt – alcoholic parents may try to justify their drinking by blaming their children for making them stressed.
Shame – the alcoholic behavior is often kept within the family like a dirty secret not to be shared with the outside world.
Children of alcoholic parents usually experience high levels of stress and tension.
Fear about bringing friends home in case the alcoholic parent is behaving badly.
The child in this situation may be forced to take on some of the roles of the parent (e.g. taking care of siblings).
In this type of environment, substance abuse can seem normal, and this increases the likelihood of children using alcohol and drugs.
The Damage Done – The Impact of Growing up Around an Alcoholic
As children we are vulnerable and impressionable. As we move from infancy to adulthood, we must pass through several crucial developmental stages. Failure to move through these stages smoothly, can lead to problems later in life (e.g. lack of parental attention in infancy often leads to feelings of insecurity in adulthood). Research suggests that growing up in a situation where a primary caregiver is an alcoholic can negatively impact childhood development.
The lasting effects of growing up around an alcoholic can include:
Feelings of guilt and shame.
Substance abuse and addiction.
Inability to trust others.
Denial about what happened.
Difficulties around intimacy.
A history of failed relationships.
Fear of anger.
‘People-pleasing’ – always trying to get others to like us.
Demand resistance – a tendency to rebel against any demands put upon us.
A tendency to minimize pain.
Fear of rejection.
A tendency to avoid emotions.
The need to always be in control.
Addiction to chaos.
Potentially Positive Effects of Growing Up Around Addiction
It isn’t all bad news for those of us who grew up with an alcoholic parent. This experience can encourage us to develop certain positive qualities such as:
- A deeper understanding of the human condition.
The determination to never become a slave to any drug.
The ability to empathize with others in a similar situation.
Increased resilience to cope with life.
The determination to create a better future.
The ability to forgive.
Addiction and the Adult Children of Alcoholics
Some children of alcoholics will grow up to be individuals who have no interest in alcohol or other recreational drugs. They have witnessed firsthand the damage caused by these substances, and they want nothing more to do with them.
Unfortunately, there are also many children of alcoholics who follow their parents into active addiction. It is estimated that the risk of addiction increases eight-fold for children of alcoholics.
How to Recover from a Childhood Blighted by Addiction
There is no going back to fix the past, but we can certainly come to terms with it and heal from it. If we can do this, we may one day be able to look back on the experience with compassion and understanding. The exact journey we will need to take as part of this process will differ from person to person, but it may include:
If we have followed the parent into active addiction, we will need to quit alcohol/drugs before we have any real chance of healing. This may require going to rehab for intensive treatment which should also include therapy for childhood issues.
Adult Children of Alcoholics is a 12 Step group that has helped countless people come to terms with their past. The nice thing about this approach is it involves support from people who have lived through a similar experience.
Therapy/counselling is often a necessary part of recovering from an abusive and chaotic childhood. It is suggested that you choose a therapist/counsellor carefully – find someone who you find it easy to connect with and trust.
Mindfulness can be a useful tool for those of us dealing with an inner-dialogue that is critical, anxious, and negative – this type of inner-voice can be one of the legacies of growing up around an addicted parent.
Heart practices such as loving-kindness meditation, can help us to trust people again and eventually maybe even forgive those who have hurt us.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be another effective way of dealing with the negative thought patterns that are often a legacy of being a child of an alcoholic.
Should Adult Children of an Alcoholic Forgive the Parent?
Nobody has the right to be forgiven. Even if the parent has given up alcohol, and is trying to live a better life, it doesn’t mean we must forgive them. In some cases, there has been so much damage caused that forgiveness becomes almost inconceivable.
It is important to understand that if we do decide to offer forgiveness, it is not the same as saying that what happened was okay. Ultimately, forgiveness is as much about our own healing as it is about the other person. It is only through forgiveness that we can begin to let go of the past – if we don’t forgive, we remain tied in a negative relationship with the person who hurt us.
Listen to Our Podcast about Growing up in an Alcoholic Family
Press play below to listen to a podcast where team member Andrea talks about her experience of growing up in a family blighted by alcoholism. She also offers further advice for people in a similar situation:
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