The Burden of Addiction on Children


I believe this is a topic I could write about forever and as I write this article, I realize I need to write a book on the topic as it is so near and dear to my heart. I am tremendously passionate about protecting children from the many affects of addiction in the home. When I have clients with children, it is one thing I am adamant about teaching them about the many ways the disease of addiction is affecting their little ones. So often the enabler, or spouse is so obsessed with focusing on the addict and their own pain that they are in denial about how it is affecting their children. I know firsthand what it feels like growing up in a home of addiction and have worked many years untangling the false belief system it created in my life about myself and relationships.
I asked my youngest daughter who is 26 yesterday, as I was sharing with her that I would be writing an article on the burden of addiction on the children, what one thing would she say about how her father’s addiction affected her? She said “It screws up your relationships in life Mom. I’m always trying to fix the men in my life and I have so much trouble trusting them.” Even though my children have had much therapy and recovery on growing up in an addictive home, I know they have their own demons to slay still and it is a process of them knowing how it affected their inner child and working on their own personal issues. My children were very small when I divorced my addict as I did not want them to grow up in the environment that I grew up in the environment as a child that I had to. Their father still had visitation rights when he was in recovery but still relapsed many times and eventually died of an overdose when they were 11 and 12. During those times of his relapse I always made sure to communicate truth to them about the disease of addiction, but still having to watch their pain of feeling all those feelings children feel when a parent is an addict.
I remember the first feeling I had in my alcoholic home when I was 4 years old. ( I am the oldest of four children.) Usually that first feeling we remember growing up in our dysfunctional homes is the one we will continue to repeat in our adult life as it feels so familiar. It will keep showing up in our life to be healed and we will pick partners to reinforce that feeling. It can be fear, anger, sadness, or shame. Mine was fear. I was sitting on the floor playing jacks and my mother was rocking my new born baby brother. My father had been drinking and wanted to leave the house. Like a good codependent, my mother had hidden the car keys to keep him from leaving. I remember watching my father standing over my mother yelling and them grabbing her by her hair. That is when that feeling of fear came over me and the thought that I needed to do something to protect my mother and baby brother. I then threw the jacks out on the floor in front of my dad and it distracted him. I don’t remember what happened then, but I do know he left and I ran over to comfort my mother as she cried. I believe that was my first experience that created my subconscious belief that I could control the alcoholic and protect and rescue my mother and siblings.
Like the spouse, the children create roles and survival skills to relieve the tension in the home. Over time, these coping skills can be carried on into adulthood and all of our relationships. Although they may have provided a useful function for survival growing up, they prevent you from being your true authentic self. I can look back now and see the roles so clearly of our family and us four kids. I being the oldest, became the hero child. Super responsible and the one who identified the most with my mother the codependent. In a crazy chaotic environment we seek structure to create security and feel safe. We also can provide companionship to the non addict parent, help with family responsibility and help protect the younger siblings. We learn to become little adults very early and have a lost childhood and usually have trouble having fun and being spontaneous. Usually the hero child is very self reliant and has trouble trusting and receiving help from others and can become a super achievers and workaholic. Their self worth and esteem comes from achieving and performance. They also like to be in control of situations and control others to feel safe as the underlying emotion of control is fear. It has taken me many years to unravel and heal my unhealthy roles as a child. In the beginning of my relationships of dating and marriage I continually picked those that needed saved and were unavailable to me.
Looking back at my growing up in a abusive alcoholic home, I see how we all took on different roles as the hero child (me) , the Mascot (my sister who was the comedian to release tension in the family), the Scapegoat (my brother who acted out negatively to take the attention off my dad and starting using drugs at age 12), and the Lost Child (my sister the youngest child who withdrew in her own little fantasy world with books and other activities to escape the pain)
My mother was a wonderful mom when it came to nurturing and taking care of us. She was a very affectionate loving mother and very domestic. She would always teach us how to cook and do crafts and cared very much for certain needs such as affection and praising us. But she was emotionally unavailable as she was so pre-occupied with the alcoholic and all the crises we had. She also never had the courage to leave the abusive situation. This creates feeling of abandonment issues with children and feelings of insecurity.
Children who grow up in homes of active addicts, or other types of dysfunction, are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Children need to have consistency growing up to feel safe and secure. With inadequate mirroring from the parents, children learn that their needs, feelings, and thoughts are unimportant, wrong and shameful. They learn to perform, become people pleasers, repress anger, and act out. Children don’t know how to process the feelings that are going on inside of them and the dynamics of the home become “normal” to them. I remember that my first boyfriend at age 15 was controlling, abusive, and manipulative. Just like my father. I thought that was normal. Even though it was painful, it felt familiar. A child’s inner self becomes congruent around pleasing and performing for others approval in order to feel loved. They lack boundaries in relationships as none were ever mirrored to them. Instead of growing up with a strong sense of self with awareness of their needs, they look outside themselves to others and sometimes addictions to gain worth on the inside. Their relationships are based on need instead of healthy choice. One of the toughest challenges I have with clients is the process of teaching them how to have self love, self respect and re-parent themselves to heal the inner child and damage done growing up.
Shame is at the core of growing up in a home of addiction. The feeling of not being good enough or that something is wrong at home that children are ashamed of. Not feeling safe and secure or loved unconditionally.
If you are living with an addict, or an addict is dictating your personal and home life and children are involved, I encourage you with every fiber of my being to get the children into their own recovery with a good child therapist. There are many wonderful opportunities for the families today concerning the recovery of the whole family unit. When I grew up out in the Rural Route country in Indiana, we had no AA or Al-anon or recovery meetings. So our home life was kept secret. Which creates more shame. Do not underestimate the affect addiction is having on your children. Talk openly to them and appropriately for their age. Let them express their feelings. The best thing you can do is to get in recovery yourself to mirror that to your children. Children first is my motto. They are the ones that are innocent victims in the home and need our protection. Let’s help create healthy children and stop the cycle of the affects of addiction on our little ones. It is our responsibility and they will thank us for it on day.
Debbie Sherrick/ Holistic Codependency Life Coach
Addiction 911 Magazine/Editor

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