It has recently been reported that current government investments are looking at funding some proper support for children of alcoholic parents, and recognising the long lasting effects of this legacy.
Finally, there’s some formal acknowledgement of the ongoing devastation caused to children growing up in a family where one, or both, parents are addicted to drink.
As therapists working with adult relationship issues, we usually ask clients to outline their family backgrounds. As soon as the phrase ‘my mother/father was an alcoholic’ comes up, this will give a lot of clues as to how this person may have been raised and what difficulties they could have faced while growing up and trying to make sense of family and relationships.
Many of these alcohol dependent parents will have no idea of the effects their habit has on their families, but the fall-out is generally profound and long-lasting and can impact on their children well into adulthood, if not forever.
Growing up in the family of a drinker is likely to involve secrecy, there’s the possibility of not knowing how the parent will react as there’s often no consistency in their behaviours. Unpredictability becomes the norm. They may be unreachable, or break promises. Sometimes one parent will cover for the other and truth becomes a fluid concept. The children will have no ongoing feelings that trust and safety are a given. If you can’t trust the people that are your role models, then hope of future solid relationships becomes a lost ideal.
Well, there just isn’t any, but for the children in these household, chaos or change is their normal, as this is the way that family life continues for them. They may view other ‘ordinary’ families, but we are all mostly affected by our own day-to-day life, and if this is a helter-skelter of experiences, then that’s what we shall accept as reality.
It can be hard for these children to grow into adults who can accept a smooth path, it can also be hard to differentiate between good and bad role models or to integrate into a ‘normal’ family model.
Ideally, children should grow up in a situation where anger can be seen as an ordinary part of any loving relationship. Parents can row sometimes, that’s a normal part of couple life. Parents can get cross with children, that’s pretty normal too. But it only works when it doesn’t get out of hand and the child sees that an occasional heated disagreement doesn’t break the caring bond between people. The knowledge that a hug, a kiss and a loving attachment underpins annoyance and is the stronger part of any connection will render reasonable anger as safe and negotiable. The child of an alcoholic is likely to fear any conflict and find it tricky to safely express negative emotion in a healthy way. Assertiveness can later be interpreted as anger and the legacy may be that of constantly seeking the approval of others and hiding their own feelings. Showing need can be dangerously disappointing.
Growing up in these unpredictable environments will often lead a child to become an adult with an over sensitive view of themselves, lacking self compassion and with low self-esteem. Always having to cautiously fit around another, powerful figure leads them to lose their own sense of robustness and identity.
This is a real loss for these clients, as safe intimacy relies on vulnerability. We have to be able to trust another with our deepest feelings and allow them to know our fears to be in an authentic relationship. For the child of an alcoholic, expressing fear can be an alien concept. Losing control will feel massively unsafe. This can also lead to a raft of other, seemingly soothing or distracting habits.
Addiction, eating disorders, co-dependent relationships, or other compulsive behaviours – not inevitable, but if necessary these are important things to be able to express in a safe, therapeutic situation.
Often, these clients have been assigned the role of ‘rescuer’ as a child – this can mean confusing love with pity. Finding a partner they can concentrate on ‘helping’ to avoid looking after their own needs will repeat this pattern. Alternatively, many will find a partner who is emotionally unavailable, thus repeating the absence of feeling special in their original family.
Staying alert and vigilant was often their natural defence against the fear of the nameless dread that exists when a child feels unsafe on a deep level. Taking this mindset into adult relationships will undermine the safety and easy companionship that we all need in adult couples.
This might seem a depressing list, but as couple therapists it’s our job to help our clients acknowledge their past. Nothing can change the places we all come from and few of us have a perfect upbringing, but by naming the fears and looking at the full context, together we can begin to make sense of the patterns they may have inherited.
It may be important to look at the unhappy, chaotic parental situation with some compassion. People with addictive personalities are usually suffering themselves and easily afflicted by distorted thinking.
In a safe therapeutic situation we can begin to think about helping clients to distance themselves from this past drama and understand that it need not control the present. Learning to let go is a difficult but rewarding task. Future relationships need not echo those that have gone before.
Let’s hope that the investment in helping today’s children to achieve a healthier childhood will lead to more adults finding loving family relationships of their own in the future.