When we grow up, we are deeply influenced by the people who raise us. Besides the genes inherited from their parents, children also take on the habits, behaviours, communication methods, and values of the adults around them. There is no point in telling a kid how they are supposed to behave if the environment they grow up in does not support that.
Substance abuse, be it alcohol or drugs, is often referred to as a family disease because it does not only affect the individual that uses, but their family as well. And, in most cases, children of addicts carry this burden way into their adult years.
Many children that grow up with parents struggling with substance abuse don’t realize how much it shaped their personality growing up. They develop unhealthy coping mechanisms; they may have trouble fitting into the outside world or end up going to years of therapy just to identify the root cause of their issue.
In the UK, it is estimated that 12-29% of parents are hazardous drinkers, and an additional 2-4% are harmful drinkers. While the implications of living with an addicted parent go far beyond what can be put into words, below are some of the realities parental substance abuse is forcing children to live.
They have to learn what “normal” means
Growing up with an addicted parent brings up a new definition of a normal life, and it’s very different from what other families perceive as healthy. When they are young, children may not be aware of their parents’ addiction, but something surely does not feel right.
Why is mommy not eating with us?
Why is daddy never picking us up from school?
Why are you and mom fighting all the time?
These are all questions children of substance abusers ask their parents. Oftentimes, they don’t get any clear response. Add this to the daily arguments that spur from nothing, and you get yourself an insecure child that simply can’t understand what normal is supposed to be like.
As they grow up, children will start blaming themselves or trying their hardest to compensate for everything that went wrong. Because of this distorted perception of reality, they often end up becoming adults that strive for perfection and become frustrated when that can’t be achieved. They want to feel in control, so they may end up being harsh on others, jeopardizing their relationships with everyone around.
It’s not because they are bad people, it’s because they are people who still struggle to pick up what normal means.
Developing poor coping mechanisms
By definition, coping mechanisms are strategies we use to manage difficult or painful emotions. In essence, coping mechanisms should help us manage stress and avoid getting overwhelmed.
Some people use humour to make a difficult situation seem less severe. Children of substance abusers use manipulation, denial, escapism, or even risk-taking behaviours. They learn how to be manipulative before they even know what the term means, proving once again that children mimic what they see.
If one parent is an addict, they will try to manipulate the other one into forgiving them, making promises they rarely keep or exaggerate their behaviour to make them appear as the victim. Soon enough, children will pick up on that and try to emulate those behaviours, simply because they witness how successful they can be.
This type of behaviour carries over into their adult life and can jeopardize relationships with others, as experts from https://www.help4addiction.co.uk/ advise .
Craving the attention they never got as children
Children need a lot of care and attention when growing up, which they are not getting when living in a home where one or both parents are addicts. The addict is mostly focused on ensuring they are getting the substance they need while the other parent spends more time working, taking care of the house, or trying to convince their spouse to seek supervised treatment.
In both cases, children feel neglected and don’t know how to approach the adults in their life to ask for the needed attention. When they don’t get attention, children start acting up. Be it at school, with friends, or in other social situations, they will do whatever it takes to be acknowledged.
When they grow up, they start seeking attention in other places and can end up putting themselves in harmful situations. This results in toxic relationships with friends, partners, and possibly their future children as well.
The family roles are shifting
Sometimes, roles start to change, and children begin taking on the job of the adult in the house. This shift in dynamic robs them of their childhood and make them grow up too fast. They end up running errands, doing grocery shopping, prepping meals, cleaning up after their siblings, or even taking care of their parents when they are intoxicated.
In the book Codependency for Dummies, the author identified 6 roles children take up when growing up in a family where parental substance abuse happens:
- The Hero – usually the eldest sibling, they take on the parental duties. As an adult, they grow up to be responsible, good leaders, but they often tend to be anxious, lonely, or too driven.
- The Adjuster – adjuster-type children don’t complain about their situation and try the best they can to fit in and adapt. Later in life, they will have difficulty taking control of their life or setting and achieving goals.
- The Placater – they are usually sensitive to other people’s feelings, empathic, and caring. However, they end up neglecting their own needs and have trouble discovering what it is they want to do in life
- The Scapegoat – acting out or displaying negative behaviour, the scapegoat feels if they get into trouble, it will unite the parents towards a common goal and distract them from the addiction issue.
- The Mascot – they manage insecurity and fears by being funny or cute and attempt to relieve tension in the house.
- The Lost Child – usually the younger child, who turns to fantasy, music, or the internet for relief. They end up seeking safety in solitude, lacking social skills as an adult.
Growing up with a parent suffering from addiction changes people and often robs them of the joy of being a child. It is our job, as a society, to provide shelter for them and encourage speaking up and acting out when necessary.