Families and Addiction By Susan Shipley
All too often alcoholism and other drug addictions become a family legacy. More than 50% of today’s addicted adults are children of alcoholics, and there are millions challenged by other problems that result from alcoholism or drug addiction in their families.
Topics for Discussion • What happens to the family when addiction becomes part of it? • What are the effects of family trauma on children? • What happens when adult children of addiction have their own families?
What happens to the family when addiction becomes part of it? • Broad swings, from one end of the emotional, psychological and behavioral spectrum to the other, characterize the addicted family system. • Family members live with stress, emotional pain and trauma.
The entire system becomes absorbed by a problem that is slowly spinning out of control. Little things become big and big things get minimized as pain is denied and slips out sideways.
The family’s ability to self regulate is challenged. • They lose sense of what is normal. • They hide the truth. • They lose sense of who and what they can depend upon. • They develop patterns of relating that are increasingly more dysfunctional. Chaos, broken promises and untrustworthy behavior cause the children to become “parentified.”
The family becomes organized around trying to manage the unmanageable disease of addiction. The alarm bells in this system are constantly on a low hum, causing everyone to feel hyper-vigilant, ready to run for emotional or physical shelter or to erect their defenses at the first sign of trouble.
These families become systems for manufacturing and perpetuating trauma. • Continual emotional eruptions and unpredictable, inconsistent behaviors. • Chronic anxiety, confusion and fear. • Avoidance of expressing feelings that might lead to more pain or trigger disaster. • Guilt, shame and denial of the truth -- keeps the family from seeking help. • Withdrawal from authentic connection with others.
Trauma affects both the mind and body. • Intense stress can lead to deregulation in the limbic system – the system that helps to regulate our mood, emotional tone, appetite and sleep cycles. • Problems regulating the emotional inner world can lead to impaired ability to manage levels of fear, anger and sadness resulting in: chronic anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual and spending disorders.
Children from these families carry burdens into adult roles that cause trouble in their relationships and/or work lives. • Symptoms related to being a child of addiction emerge in adulthood. • The traumatized child lives in frozen silence until these frozen feelings emerge in adult actions and words as they search for a place to express their unprocessed, unspoken pain.
The Effects of Family Trauma on Children Trauma in childhood can seriously impact development throughout life and can have pervasive and long lasting effects.
Amygdala – The brain center for the fight / flight / freeze response. Fully functional at birth. This means that a baby is capable of a full blown trauma response. Hippocampus – Part of the brain where stimuli is assessed as to whether or not it is threatening. Not fully functional until age four or five. Prefrontal cortex – Not fully mature until age eleven or older. **This means that when a child is frightened, they have no way of understanding what is going on around them. **They do not have the developmental or cognitive capabilities of assessing frightening stimuli for its level of threat. **They need an external modulator (parent or caring adult) to help them to regulate themselves and calm down.
Without this help the painful stimuli may become locked in a sensory memory that lives within the self-system without insight, understanding or regulation.
Learned Helplessness Depression Anxiety Emotional Constriction Distorted Reasoning Loss of Trust and Faith Hyper vigilance Traumatic Bonding Loss of Ability to Take in Caring and Support Problems With Self Regulation Easily Triggered High Risk Behaviors Disorganized Inner World Survival Guilt Development Of Rigid Psychological Defenses Cycles of Reenactment Relationship Issues Desire to Self Medicate Characteristics of Adult Children of Trauma and Addiction
What Happens When ACOAs Have Their Own Families? • They can be mistrustful and suspicious. • They may have difficulty being vulnerable within intimate relationships. • Feelings of danger, chaos, rage and fear can be easily triggered and inappropriately expressed. • They may lapse into people-pleasing in order to alleviate potential “danger.”
Trauma and Addiction as an Intergenerational Disease Process • Children of addiction are four times more likely to become addicts themselves. • The emotional, psychological and behavioral patterns that get passed down through the generations put each generation at risk for perpetuating the trauma.
A rigorous program of treatment and recovery for the addict and all family members is recommended. Recovery is equally as important for the addict as well as those who have lived in, developed their sense of self and learned relationship skills in an addicted / traumatized family.
Support groups and programs for children of addiction provide sustaining benefits. • Groups provide education and a safe and supportive environment in which children can explore and express their feelings freely. • Groups build a sense of belonging, reduce isolation, and enhance protective factors. • Groups lessen children’s confusion and provide a framework for understanding their experiences. • Children are empowered in groups and they have FUN.
Core Values of Children’s Program • Children deserve the right to their own recovery and healing. • Children deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, value and worth. • Children deserve to be listened to and heard. • Children deserve the opportunity to be kids.
Topics for Children’s Program • Addiction • Feelings • Problem Solving • Treatment and Recovery • Safe People • Coping
Important Facts For Children Fact #1 Alcoholism / drug dependency is a disease. Fact #2 You are not alone. Fact #3 You cannot control your parent’s drinking or drug use. Fact #4 You CAN talk about the problem.
THE SEVEN Cs I didn’t CAUSE it I can’t CURE it I can’t CONTROL it I can help take CARE of myself by COMMUNICATING my feelings Making healthy CHOICES and CELEBRATING me
ReferencesDayton, Tian. "The Set Up: Living with Addiction." The Process Study Guide. Detroit, 2006.NACoA, comp. SAMHSA. National Association for Children of Alcoholics. Children of Alcoholics: A Kit for Educators . Rockville: Department of Health and Human Services, 2001.