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Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can adversely affect our children’s future. Exposure to traumatic events is already unhealthy for children, so if they lack a strong adult presence and support in their lives, the damage can be unavoidable.
Children who experience trauma in their early years tend to develop survival mechanisms less than helpful in adulthood. And as if that’s not enough, children who suffer abuse, neglect, and household challenges end up with worse mental health and physical health outcomes.
I’ve seen the damaging impact substance abuse brings to families, especially to children of alcoholics. I’m a firm believer that so many of us could have ended up struggling with addiction if a few things turned out differently.
In this article, we shall highlight substance abuse and its unforgiving impact on the family and our everyday lives.
What is substance abuse?
Substance abuse is defined as a pattern of harmful use of any substance to alter your mood. It occurs when you use psychoactive substances excessively or in a way not intended or recommended.
These substances include alcohol, prescription medication, legal, and illegal drugs. Substance abuse is a multigenerational issue, and it differs from addiction.
How parental substance abuse affects everyday life
1. Damage to the family
One misconception that many parents dealing with alcoholism have is that their drinking is not affecting anyone else. The truth is parental substance abuse can have a wide-ranging impact on families. Children of alcoholic parents are the most impacted by this.
This type of abusive behavior strains personal relationships in the family unit. Family members change how they speak to each other, and the entire dynamic shifts to accommodate the challenges substance abuse brings. The family hardly recovers.
Poor health resulting from high stress levels, anxiety, depression, or neglecting themselves can also impact family members. The trauma itself can make holding a job challenging.
2. Impact on children
Children of alcoholics (COAs) are considered high risk as their chances of becoming alcoholics due to genetics or environmental factors are much higher.
The first time I encountered a teen addict was during my internship at a psychiatry center. It was heartbreaking to find out more than half of the patients admitted were 18 and younger. And the primary cause was either alcohol intake or drug abuse (the substance of choice back then was opioids and marijuana).
This particular case curiously opened me up to the reality of the direct link between addiction and childhood trauma. The teen addict I’d met didn’t just come alone; he had his brothers with him. His intoxicated father would regularly visit the adjacent hospital after an entire weekend of drinking a very lethal home-brewed alcohol. Then he’d go right back for more. Substance abuse has resulted in many absentee parents who’d rather spend their life away from their families.
High levels of stress caused by ACEs change can affect your child’s brain development, changing their behavior and learning for a lifetime. A child’s response to toxic stress is to overreact, especially as they grow older, pushing them to adopt substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
In her must-read book, Unspoken legacy: Addressing the impact of trauma and addiction within the family, author Claudia Black further explores this correlation between childhood trauma and addiction. She states that as much as we all experience some level of trauma in our life’s journey, healing is indeed possible.
3. Financial consequences
Substance abuse is a threat to the family budget. Financing this risky behavior does not come cheap. Most addicts end up depleting their savings and that of their enablers to quench their addiction, or they use up their children’s school fees or what could have been inheritance to maintain the lifestyle.
The family almost always foots the costly relapse care, and it’s the same family that will struggle because of it for years. Necessities such as food, clothing, rent, mortgage, and utilities will put a financial constraint on the family.
If caught by legal authorities, which is almost a guarantee, the family will now contribute to legal fees or the parent may even go to prison, adding another adverse childhood experience to their child’s list.
Given high unemployment rates in many countries, entry into the workforce is a huge issue. It’s also hard to keep the job due to poor performance or attendance. Addicted parents are already at a disadvantage, and the failure to get a job favors idleness, which favors substance abuse, so a vicious cycle is created.
4. Psychological and emotional effects
Growing up around drug-addicted parents affects how adult children see themselves and others and how they interact in relationships. When faced with such parental addiction and a wrecked home, children react either positively or negatively.
Somebody I knew once painted a picture of the toxic family setting he had using the hit TV show Shameless as a proxy. The dark satire stars the compelling Frank Gallagher and his 6 children, co-existing in a very dysfunctional, self-destructive home. Frank is addicted to alcohol, cocaine, weed, money, and he’ll do anything to get that. Including stealing from his co-dependent kids, who chase him out of the house every once in a while.
He portrays perfectly how addiction is truly a family disease. His drama and turmoil extend to his co-parent Monica, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and an addict too, who only shows up home when it’s time for a drug refill.
It’s naturally difficult for adult children to open up about their family issues or the trauma they went through, so I fully understood. Some take up the shame of the addiction on themselves. One thing that stood out for me was how he was determined to “not turn out like my alcoholic absentee father.” Unfortunately, all that he ever wished against happened to him, and he could only see himself as his father.
Adult children of alcoholics and their personality traits
Sometimes adult children of alcoholics develop anger that turns into resentment, putting an emotional strain on growing kids that can last years. Other times, they take on the traits of alcoholics without having drunk alcohol and exhibit denial, poor problem solving, poor coping skills, and form dysfunctional relationships.
The late Dr. Janet Woititz, in her groundbreaking book, Adult children of alcoholics, perfectly blends in her account as a mom of 3 with an alcoholic partner and her research findings that have been adopted far and wide.
Adult children of alcoholics and dysfunctional families struggle so much with guilt and the worry of unaddressed trauma that they end up going for therapy to avoid possible depression or addiction. At the same time, addicted parents continue to abuse drugs and alcohol. It’s tough.
The common traits of ACOAs, also known as the “laundry list,” are identifiable characteristics of adult children of alcoholics who grew up in dysfunctional homes that reveal past abuse or neglect. Dr. Woititz discovered that these common characteristics exist in alcoholic households and those who grew up in other dysfunctional systems. Traits such as shame, abuse, and abandonment found in ACOAs are also found in children from homes with gambling, chronic illness, behavioral addictions, strict religious practices, and some foster or adoptive families.
- Impulsive behavior: Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) impulsively make decisions without thinking and spend all the precious time fixing or covering the issues.
- Isolation: they often feel different from other people around them hence they should be rewarded. Isolation triggers relapses and shouldn’t be ignored. Those who feel they cannot function with other people as a result tend to withdraw from social situations, while those who feel they should be given special treatment and allowances for dysfunctional behavior make it difficult to maintain positive relationships. This particular type of isolation is dangerous especially for adult children who use and abuse substances as a means of handling those challenges.
- Inconsistency: ACOAs overcommit at home, work, and personal relations, yet they don’t make good on their commitments.
- Difficulty in romantic relationships: They stay in toxic relationships for too long.
- Overreaction to changes outside their control: They overreact emotionally to unsolicited change and do nothing to improve the situation.
- Perceived victimhood: They don’t acknowledge their mistakes and instead shift blame elsewhere.
- Judgmental behavior: they criticize themselves and the people around them a lot.
- Seeking approval from others: ACOAs prioritize other people’s opinions but have difficulty taking criticism of any kind, including the well-meaning ones.
- Lying when the truth wouldn’t be problematic: They are often unfamiliar with socially acceptable settings and responses; hence they choose the only way they know: lie, omit, exaggerate.
- Substance use disorders: Despite knowing how devastating substance abuse is, ACOAs may still develop substance abuse problems themselves. It could be due to genetics, environment permissive of heavy use, lack of coping mechanisms, etc.
Limiting the risk of substance abuse within the family
The lasting effects of substance abuse can damage health, opportunities, and potential in families. These risks can be prevented or, at the very least, minimized. Therefore we have to create safe, stable, and nurturing environments and relationships to help kids reach their full potential. This means addressing the risk factors at all levels from the addict or person with substance abuse problems, to his family members, to the community, and finally, societal level.
- Teach people about the importance of compassion. Avoid punitive approaches that promote stigma and addiction shaming. The social stigma against addicts and alcoholics discourages both parents and children from reaching out for help.
- Show support for families of alcoholics. Seek out treatment for all members of the family. Most families need care during the detox phase and for years following.
- Listen to and understand the family’s underlying issues to help ease the road to addiction recovery. Respect their experiences without the judgment of discrediting remarks.
- Children need our support and compassion now to face their difficulties in the future. When talking about the problems, let them know they did not cause, cannot cure, and cannot control family or adult problems.
- Work with counselors to create a plan that will help you avoid relapse. Also, encourage family members to seek mental health care to deal with the impact of the abuse.
- Talk it out as members of the family. Reestablish connections with your family to consistently work through the emotional trauma and remember to forgive each other. Repeat several times since it’s necessary to work through the emotional trauma.
- Find healing and self-discovery. Through a rehabilitation program that includes intense therapy, medication, peer group support, and family therapy.
- Learn ways to deal with stress as a family. Exercise, meditation, nature walks, turning off internet, etc.
- Tell your child you love them regularly. Reassure them that they should feel safe since adults are working hard to protect them.
- Have an age-appropriate conversation with your child about substance abuse. Find out what they know about drugs then build on it focusing on what knowledge they need at that age. Create parent-child time for the children to share what’s going on around them.
Addiction is not a disease that takes a toll on one person. It impacts the person struggling with substance abuse disorders and every member of the family in different ways.
Treatment is available to help every family member learn how to accept and move past these feelings and difficulties. Treatment providers should recommend the best rehab facilities for the patient’s healing needs that offer him/her therapy and medication.
Tell us: What’s your experience with adult children/substance abuse families?