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A childhood stolen: Growing up in an alcoholic family

July 1, 1993

Although it’s probably not circled on many calendars, the annual celebration of Children of Alcoholics Week began Sunday, Feb. 13.

This event offers an important chance for communities to increase awareness of the responsibility we adults share for the well-being of kids who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction in their families.

Growing up in a family where addiction is present is hard. And an estimated one in four U.S. children is forced to navigate such waters.

From the outside, it is really hard to tell the difference between a dysfunctional and a functional family. Both groups may live in the suburbs, dress their kids in designer clothes, carpool, and play recreational sports on weekends.

But clear-cut distinctions are revealed when we look at the quality of relationships in both situations.

In a healthy family, adults are able to attend both to personal needs and the needs of family members; they talk and listen on a literal and emotional level.

As a result, children learn to balance self-care with caring for others.

In the dysfunctional family, however, parents are much more self-absorbed. The substance-abusing parent focuses exclusively on his or her own emotional or physical pain and how to relieve it through drinking or discharging energy by yelling at whoever is closest.

Often, the non-chemically addicted parent winds up focusing on the acting-out spouse.

“It’s like looking at a bad accident,” said one father of two elementary school students. “I can’t look at my wife for too long when she is drinking. I hate her yelling and blaming and crying, but I also can’t look away.”

Unfortunately, this often means no adult is paying emotional attention to the kids.

It is very easy for children from such families to believe it is normal to be ignored and to sacrifice having their needs met by settling for scraps of attention. The result often is low self-esteem and/or chronic depression that is, in turn, self-medicated with alcohol and other drugs.

Some children in such families believe that adult unhappiness is their – the children’s—fault. They reason that if they were different—less needy, better students, better athletes—then both Mom and Dad would feel better and family life would improve.

Other kids believe they shouldn’t have been born and that the family would be better off if they were dead. Still others act out in a delinquent way, trying to show the world they are the “bad ones” in the family, not the parents.

The reality is that children growing up in such difficult situations often are excessively noble, compulsively independent, well saturated with feelings of inadequacy, and profoundly despairing—all at the same time.

Rarely do kids in an alcoholic family even consider asking for help. The code of silence ingrained in the family structure prevents them from reaching out. The code of “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” can last a lifetime.

The result is that in the name of keeping secrets, the dysfunctional family structure becomes a fortress that keeps out potential help, including medical, psychological, and peer assistance, and school and community resources.

Building community awareness is the first step to finding a solution.

Awareness means accepting that children from dysfunctional families come in all shapes, sizes, and behaviors. One child may act “burned out”; another may get straight A’s. One child may captain the basketball team; another may use drugs.

Awareness means offering self-esteem-building, meaningful activities to all kids, both in school and in the community, so that children can discover and develop their unique talents.

Awareness means teaching all kids the language of feelings so they can express the angst that is a normal part of growing up, as well as the pain involved in family dysfunction. It means offering parents this same knowledge and helping them develop the skills to truly listen to their children.

Awareness means communities take a proactive stance and devote funds to create a space for kids to discuss their feeling with trustworthy adults who are trained in the art of listening.

The intergenerational cycle of dysfunction can be broken. I can’t think of a better time to begin that process than during Children of Alcoholics Week.

Judy Shepps Battle is a New Jersey resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at writeaction@aol.com. Additional information on this and other topics can be found at her Web site at ww.writeaction.com.

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