The effects of growing up in an alcoholic dysfunctional family are detrimental to mental, emotional, spiritual and physical development as a child growing up with an alcoholic parent(s) and/or grandparent(s) will often lose their authentic sense of self and attempt to escape their traumatic reality by creating survival traits and many seeking refuge behind "masks". According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, "The effects of parental alcohol misuse don't just disappear once children reach eighteen or move away from home. Problems often continue into, and sometimes only become apparent in adulthood." For many adults who grew up in an alcoholic dysfunctional family the ramifications start to appear in adulthood. Many adult children of alcoholics become perfectionists and workaholics, while others become alcoholics and/or drug addicts.
I had the opportunity to ask Claudia Black Ph.D. about the consequences of growing up in an alcoholic family. Black is the author of the recovery classic "It Will Never Happen To Me" and is the Clinical Architect at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center at The Meadows in Arizona, USA. "In an alcoholic family young people live with fear not knowing what to expect and become vigilant to every possibility. Emotions become repressed and twisted. Feelings are often not shared and when expressed often punished. I find by the time a child is nine years of age they have their own well developed denial system particularly around their emotions."
In the addiction field alcoholism is often described as a "family illness" and for many people this can be a difficult concept to fully grasp. Black explained. "This means the entire family becomes negatively affected and in turn systematically impact upon each other. The addiction becomes the central organising feature that others are reacting to. This reactivity is often an attempt to stabilise, and in doing so there is a tendency to ascribe to rigid roles which are inappropriate, such as a child becoming a parent's confidante. They engage in unhealthy ways of communicating and unhealthy boundaries occur. All of this is in an attempt to bring order to chaos, predictability to unpredictability, so the intent is not bad but it nonetheless creates dysfunctional ways of relating."
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated with adult children of alcoholics. I asked Claudia Black Ph.D. what her view was with respect to adult children of alcoholics receiving appropriate treatment for PTSD. Black answered. "I have no doubt that when working with people who grew up with addiction, I am often working with someone with trauma responses and in some cases it is as severe as PTSD. But I think some people confuse the two. People's long-term trauma responses can be simple or complex, mild or severe."
Black continued. "PTSD is often described as a set of accumulated, chronic, unprocessed fight, flight, and/or freeze responses. I personally think the depression, the anxiety and the addictions which people who grew up with addiction often experience themselves are just that - their fight, their flight and their freeze."
According to Black some adult children can confuse PTSD with PTSS. She explained. "The term posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) is a newer term which describes the more common and less severe short-term trauma responses. And even more will experience consequences more subtle but nonetheless hurtful to their lives."
As someone who works in the addiction field, I am a believer that adult children of alcoholics will benefit greatly from practising mindfulness. Claudia Black Ph.D. shared. "Mindfulness practices of any sort are wonderful for adult children. They help to attend to the trauma we hold in our bodies. They calm the limbic system, the emotional part of our brain. They allow us to be focused in the here and now and not live a life based in our fear reactions; they make it possible for us to think more clearly, they lessen our obsessive and ruminative thinking."
Black continued. "Tai chi and yoga, crafts such as beading and knitting are quite meditative and research strongly shows the benefits. Drumming, song, dance, are all ways one can engage in mindful practice. Colouring, as silly as it sounds, is beneficial. Walk into any bookstore today and you will see a stand for colouring books for adults. People are finding they are less stressed when they colour! There is a growing body of research that correlates any kind of engagement in the artistic process as healing. Our relationships with animals are another resource for many people."
If you are an adult child of an alcoholic and/or dysfunctional family, recovery is possible one day at a time. Attending support groups, therapy and mindfulness can be very beneficial.
Christopher Dines' new book, The Kindness Habit: Transforming our Relationship to Addictive Behaviours, co-authored with Dr Barbara Mariposa is out now.