Effects of addiction on adult children of addicts & alcoholics

Addiction affects not only the individual, but those closest to them.  Children of addicts and alcoholics are faced with many difficult challenges. Among the experiences of children of addicted or alcoholic parents, trauma is common. Instability during childhood can lead to a number of emotional issues for adult children of addicts and those with alcohol use disorders. These issues may carry through into other facets of life affecting interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, dealing with substance abuse in the home is not uncommon. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one child in four is exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence in the family before the age of 18. Later in life, children of addicts and alcoholics may face the following challenges:

  • Dysfunctional family dynamics: Children of addicts and alcoholics may experience a great deal of volatility during childhood. Unpredictability, arguments, explosive anger, unkept promises, and even intra-familiar violence may be commonplace. The parent, who should be fulfilling the caretaker role, may be otherwise occupied or unable to meet their parental responsibilities because of their addiction. This negatively impacts the family as a whole. In these situations, children may not have their emotional and physical needs met. Instead, they are stuck responding to the dysfunctional behaviors of their parents.
  • Mental health struggles: In order to cope, children of alcoholics and addicts must deny their feelings of hurt, pain, anger and rejection. If the emotional–and in some instances, physical–trauma resulting from growing up with an addicted parent is not addressed, one’s relationships and mental health can be impacted into adulthood.
  • Relationship issues: Many grown children of alcoholics and addicts adopt unhealthy behaviors in other relationships, including with a spouse or with their own child. Unfortunately, children often carry on unresolved issues from growing up with  drug-addicted or alcoholic parents. Trauma can be generational. Unresolved issues can manifest in a number of ways including trust issues, a lack of emotional availability, isolation, entering into relationships with other addicts, addiction, and fear of abandonment. In fact, according to a 1999 study, children with substance abusing parents were two times more likely than their peers to have a substance use disorder by the time they reached young adulthood. 


Characteristic of adult children of addicts & alcoholics

Growing up with drug-addicted or alcoholic parents, trauma is common. The unpredictability and chaos resulting from a parent’s addiction can force family members to pick up the slack, taking on parental responsibilities and putting their own needs and emotions on the back burner. Dysfunctional family systems may develop around the parent’s addiction. Family members adapt and take on specific roles in order to cope with the chaos and instability.  

Common roles and characteristics of individuals within dysfunctional family systems were originally detailed in the works of author and psychotherapist Virginia Satir, and later adapted by Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse to fit the addictive family system. Adult children of addicts and alcoholics may recognize themselves in one of the following roles within an addictive family system:

  • The addict: Using addiction to cope with emotions, guilt and shame, the addict has a great deal of difficulty accepting accountability and taking responsibility for his or her actions. The addict may deny their substance abuse as well as how it affects those around them. 
  • The enabler: Seeking to help, the enabler often protects the addict from the negative consequences of his or her behavior. Lying about the addict’s substance abuse, calling in sick to their work or school, and making excuses for inappropriate behavior are common behaviors for the enabler. The enabler wants the addict to change. However, their support actually helps the addict continue using without having to address their actions or impacts on others. The enabler may blame themselves for the addict’s substance abuse, feeling a sense of responsibility to “fix” the addict while neglecting their own personal and emotional self-care.
  • The hero: Seeking to balance out the negativity and shame surrounding the addiction in the family, the hero is a high-achieving perfectionist who values order and control. Usually the eldest child, the hero takes on a great deal of parental responsibilities. They may even act as a parent to the other children in the family. The hero may be a leader, highly motivated, and do well in school or in their career. However, they may struggle with extreme stress and the inability to give up control.
  • The scapegoat: The scapegoat may cope with negative emotions by acting out, running away, or behaving promiscuously. Although the addict’s behavior is generally the overall cause of familial issues, the scapegoat may be blamed instead. Their defiance serves as a distraction for the family. The scapegoat may appear to be underachieving, irresponsible, and struggle to express emotions. Their presence may shield the addict from blame and help maintain the dysfunctional family dynamics. 
  • The invisible child: Also known as the forgotten or lost child, the invisible child is usually shy and withdrawn. Growing up surrounded by addiction, the invisible child may isolate themselves as a way to escape the chaos. He or she may lack direction, have challenges initiating things, and struggle with decision-making.
  • The mascot: Usually the youngest child, the mascot adds comic relief and lightness to the family dynamic, distracting from a parent’s issues of addiction. He or she may seek the approval of others and have trouble addressing emotions. Instead, the mascot manages insecurity and fear by responding through humor and being the center of attention. The mascot may later develop issues of addiction by self-medicating.
  • The mediator: A peacemaker and people-pleaser, the mediator seeks to deescalate family conflict. The mediator is empathetic, highly sensitive to other’s emotions, and may take on the responsibility of creating peace within the family. They may avoid anger and conflict, neglecting their own needs and feelings while not receiving back what they give to others.

These one or more of common roles may be taken on by children of addicts in order to cope. While each role has some positive attributes, they still play into negative and unhealthy dynamics and result in many not having their needs met. Although this dysfunctional family system may develop during childhood, many adult children of addicts and alcoholics may find themselves continuing to play the same role well into adulthood. For children of  addicted and alcoholic parents, trauma and coping mechanisms that helped them in the past often create more issues in the present.


Signs that your parent has a substance use disorder

Many grown children of alcoholics and addicts are often aware of their parents substance use issue, especially if it has been going on since childhood. However, it is also possible that the problem was well hidden from you as a child, you were in denial of the issue, or that your parent has developed a substance use disorder later in life.  If you are unsure, there are several identifiable signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol addiction that you can look for:

  • Changes to appearance Red eyes, dilated pupils, significant changes in weight, a messy or unkempt appearance, strange odors, tremors, and slurred speech are symptoms of a substance use disorder.
  • Issues at work Your parent may frequently miss work, show less interest in their job performance and hobbies, or have trouble maintaining a steady job in general. 
  • Problems with money  Maintaining a drug or alcohol habit can be quite costly and money issues tend to follow. Your parent may ask you for money with no explanation, suddenly be unable to pay bills, or you may have noticed missing items from your home, as well as stolen money. 
  • Changes in behavior Irritability, unexpected mood swings, bouts of extreme lethargy or energy, disappearing for periods of time and behaving secretively are all indicators of a substance use disorder.


How can I help my addicted parent?

It is not easy dealing with addicted or alcoholic parents. Trauma, hurt, fights and abandonment can leave you feeling hopeless.  Although you can not force anyone to become sober, there are steps you can take to encourage your parent to seek help while enforcing healthy boundaries. 

Are you enabling your parent’s addiction?

As a child, your mother or father’s addiction may have forced you to take on adult responsibilities inappropriate for your age at the time.  Although this could be damaging to adolescent development, you were probably faced with no other choice to ensure day-to-day survival. Similarly to many adult children of alcoholics and addicts, you may find yourself continuing to accept these responsibilities, even acting as a parent to your mother or father. Unfortunately, this is neither helpful to you nor your parent. 

Adult children of addicts and alcoholics often take on a care-taking role can inadvertently enable a parent’s addiction. This means your parent knows that someone will always be there to clean up their messes or protect them from the harsh consequences of their actions. Your mother or father may have grown quite used to this dynamic, and, at some level, you may feel emotionally gratified by feeling needed. 

This relationship dynamic is neither beneficial to your parent’s sobriety nor to your own well-being. Healthy boundaries may not have been modeled during childhood, as addicts may rely on dysfunctional family dynamics to hide their substance abuse. Still, it is not too late to change the way you interact with your parent and their addiction. It is possible to develop boundaries with addicted of alcoholic parents. Trauma and childhood pain may take time to work through, but you can protect yourself and stop enabling their addiction.


Talking to your parent about their addiction

Talking to a parent about his or her addiction may be difficult and even intimidating. You may have been scared or unable to do so as a child. However, now you have the power to speak up. If you are ready to change your dynamic with your parent and want to talk to them about their addiction and treatment, there are some recommendable steps to take:

1. Prepare in advance for a difficult conversation 

Clearly explain to your parent how their substance abuse has affected you and what you would like to change. Although they may not be ready to receive treatment or fully take in what you have to say, expressing these feelings will at the least be beneficial to you. As an adult child of an alcoholic or addict, now is the time to find some form of healing.

Before approaching your mother or father, take some time to plan out what you would like to express during the conversation. This will require a  level of introspection and vulnerability on your part. By preparing in advance, you will be less likely to get off track or forget the overall objective of the conversation. Write out your feelings as well as what you would like to get out of the conversation. Be specific. If you would like your mother or father to join a peer support group or go to rehab, tell them this. Consider including other supportive family members who can share their feelings and perspectives. Also, be sure to find time to talk to your parent when they are sober and when there is enough time for the sit-down discussion. 

2. Include an intervention professional if needed

If you have tried talking to your parent previously, or know that you will be unable to effectively communicate your feelings, consider speaking to an addiction or certified interventionist specialist. Reaching out to a trained professional can facilitate a more productive conversation in a supportive and structured environment. Interventionists are specially trained to deal with such complex, emotional conversations. A formal intervention may help you and your family be more successful in expressing your concerns, feelings and wants to your parent.

 3. Be kind, vulnerable & remain calm

After enduring years of instability and chaos, many adult children of alcoholics and drug addicts hold a great anger toward their parents and their addiction. And rightfully so. There is likely a lot of pain and resentment that needs to be addressed. However, when talking about his or her addiction, let your parent know that you are concerned for their well-being and that you love them very much. Express how you have been affected and hurt by their addiction, but avoid name-calling and attacking. Your goal is to explain what you have experienced and witnessed, how you have been impacted, to let them know that help is available, and most of all, that you care. Although they may react with anger, try to remain calm and reasoned. If you feel that you are unable to remain calm, leave the discussion and pick it up at another moment.  

4. Avoid judgement and blame

Talking to a parent about their addiction is a challenge. It can be hard for them to hear about the ways in which their behaviors have hurt you.They may become quite defensive in response. As they are supposed to play the caretaker role, it is possible that they will feel weak, attacked, like a failure, or react with anger. Remind your mother or father that addiction is a disease, and not a moral failure. Tell them how their disease has affected you over the years, but try to avoid a judgmental or blaming tone, as your goal at this moment is to get them to enter into treatment.

5. Set new boundaries in your parent-child relationship

Have you been supporting your parent for many years and unwittingly playing the role of an enabler? Many adult children of alcoholics and addicts find themselves in this situation. Although you can not control your parent’s addiction or their behavior, you can control how you react to it and how you let it affect your own life. Take stock of the ways in which you may be enabling their addiction and acting as a parent to your own parent. Are you constantly solving problems for them, running to save them at the drop of a hat, supporting them financially, or excusing inappropriate behaviors? Let them know that you will no longer continue to enable their addiction. It is important for adult children of addicts and alcoholics to set boundaries around themselves emotionally, physically and financially as well as around their homes and families. Communicate these boundaries clearly as well as what will happen if the boundaries are violated. If your mother or father is older or unable to work and you do have to support them financially, avoid giving them extra money that they can use towards their addiction.

6. Present your parent with treatment options

If you are going to speak with your mother or father about their addiction, it is a good idea to have information about drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers on hand. If they decide they are ready to consider treatment, having some real options available will increase the likelihood that they follow through. Contact rehab facilities to speak with professionals and find the right program for your parent. For instance, Liberty Ranch offers free consultations so that you can learn more about what program may be appropriate for your mother or father.

7. Prioritize your own well-being

Adult children of addicts and alcoholics have a tendency to blame themselves for their parent’s addiction. It is important to remember that you cannot control your parent’s substance use disorder or choices. Going through treatment and recovery is not easy and requires a great deal of effort. An addict must want to achieve sobriety for themselves. You can do your best to express your feelings on your parent’s addiction, but you cannot force them to do anything. Know when to step back and take care of yourself. Although taking space may not be easy–as you may have grown accustomed to rescuing your parent–you are only in control of your own choices. If you are finding this especially difficult, consider seeking therapy or support. This will help you cope and find healthier ways to relate to your parent.


Helping your addicted parent find the right treatment option

Adult children of addicts and alcoholics can not force their parents to seek help. However, if your parent does make the decision to seek help, it is important to capitalize on the momentum by getting them into a treatment program as quickly as possible. This means finding the right accredited rehab center and deciding between inpatient or outpatient treatment services. Both of these decisions will depend on the specific needs of your mother or father, the severity of his or her substance use disorder, and the level of care required. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers a guide that can help you know what to look for in a treatment program. Treatment should not be approached as a one-size-fits all program. Consider the severity of your parent’s drug or alcohol dependency and the nature of their specific problems. Also, look at the appropriateness of a particular treatment program to their situation, the additional services offered, and the quality of interaction between patients and treatment providers.

If your parent has a very severe substance abuse disorder, can not be left alone or has other serious co-morbid mental conditions that require psychological support, an inpatient facility might be their best bet. Inpatient facilities have clients live onsite. While they can be more costly, inpatient programs offer 24/7 supervision. This may be necessary for some individuals. Outpatient programs, on the other hand, provide greater flexibility and tend to be more affordable. Outpatient programs meet two to three hours per session anywhere from two to five times a week. Generally, one can continue to meet most family and work obligations while putting newfound skills and coping strategies to work in the real world right away.  

If neither of these options feel appropriate for your parent’s situation, consider an intensive outpatient program. This offers a higher level of care than an outpatient program while remaining cost effective. Liberty Ranch offers an evidence-based intensive outpatient program that includes individual and family counseling services, partial hospitalization, psychiatric evaluations, and medication management.


How to support your parent in recovery 

There are a number of constructive ways adult children of alcoholic and addicted parents can support the recovery process while maintaining healthy boundaries. Although you may be used to taking on a great deal of responsibility for your parent, remember this is their recovery, not yours. You can only be there to offer support and to try and heal your relationship with them and yourself.

Engage in family therapy activities

A strong recovery program should consider not just your parent’s addiction, but also their relationships, mental health, communication and coping skills. Ideally the program will offer some form of family counseling. Actively engaging in these activities will be beneficial to yourself and your parent’s recovery. Adult children of alcoholics and addicts generally hold a lot of hurt, anger and resentment toward their parents. Part of this process could require you to relive some very painful memories. This will be hard. However, there are likely a number of ineffective and unhealthy communication patterns that must be broken. Participating in these activities might be painful, but it will allow you and your parent the opportunity to discuss these issues openly and hopefully provide you with some healing.

Expect changes in your parent-child relationship

Having an alcoholic or addict as a parent can force children to engage in a number of enabling, codependent and unhealthy behaviors as means of survival. As part of their treatment, your parent should be learning new and constructive ways to cope with their emotions and develop healthier relationships. This may also mean big changes to your parent-child relationship as it stands. While said behaviors might have become comfortable and even seem normal, healing your relationship will require adjustments from you and your parent. Unhealthy family dynamics must be broken, as they have likely protected your parent’s drug and alcohol abuse rather than prevented it. Be prepared for a long, difficult process. Try your best to follow the addiction specialist’s advice and avoid slipping back into old patterns. Both of you will need to participate if you want to rebuild a healthier, more productive parent-child relationship. 

Support your parents post treatment plan

Unlike in everyday life, while in treatment, one is provided with a great deal of structure through planned activities and appointments. Upon leaving rehab, one is bombarded with many triggers and situations from their old life that can challenge their sobriety. Maintaining some form of structure, using newly-learned coping mechanisms and continuing to focus on recovery will help your parent face these challenges. Before leaving rehab, your mother or father should work with an addiction specialist to develop a post-treatment plan that works for them. 

Remember, sticking to this plan is their responsibility, not yours. Adult children of addicts and alcoholics may be used to overextending themselves. However, there are ways you can support them in following their post-treatment plan. Peer support groups provide members with a safe environment in which they can share their recovery journey with others who understand, will hold them accountable, and listen.

A post-treatment plan may also require your parent to meet with medical or therapy professionals. If your mother or father is elderly or can not drive, they may have trouble attending these appointments. If there is no public transportation available, you can help them make it to their appointments by providing them with rides or speaking with other family members who can provide transportation. 

Seek support for yourself

For many adult children of alcoholics and addicts, most of the family focus has probably been on their parent’s addiction. Regardless of your parent’s recovery journey, it is important to address your own issues and heal. Although as a child you may have felt helpless, as an adult can seek resolution and move forward. Prioritizing your mental health and avoiding codependent behaviors are an important aspect of recovery for the family and the individual. Consider seeking therapy to address the ways in which your parent’s addiction has impacted your life. 

In addition to therapy, joining a family support group may be especially helpful, whether or not your parent has sought treatment. Groups such as Nar-Anon, Al-Anon and Families Anonymous allow those affected by a loved one’s addiction to share their struggle in a safe, confidential environment. Attending meetings will help you connect with others going through similar issues, learn healthier ways to deal with the addict in your life, and keep you accountable. 

Remind yourself that your parent’s addiction is not your responsibility

Dealing with constant anxiety over your parent’s well-being and having to pick up the pieces every time their addiction spins out of control can be exhausting mentally and physically. Many adult children of addicts and alcoholics struggle to maintain healthy boundaries during their parent’s recovery journey. Remember, that their addiction is not yours. Neither is their recovery. You can be there to support your mother or father in healthy ways, but you alone cannot heal them. Nor is it your job to do so. You may be used to acting as a parent to your parent, but it is important to change this and avoid stepping in to rescue them. Many children of addicts take on the burden of their parent’s addiction. Although it may be difficult, try to free yourself from the weight of your parent’s addiction and let them be responsible for their own recovery

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