Adult Children Of Alcoholic and Other Dysfunctional Families
Where they have experienced emotional or physical trauma
If you grew up in an alcoholic, drug addicted, or another type of
dysfunctional family system you were probably affected by the consequences of
living in an abusive home environment. Yet, with new awareness and knowledge,
you can make new choices about how to live your current life by discovering
and changing conscious and unconscious behavioral patterns that presently
cause you difficulty. Are you still suffering from the impact and struggling
with the influences of growing up in a dysfunctional family system? If so,
you may identify with many of the following characteristics:
- Do you frequently have to guess at what normal behavior is?
- Do you have a tendency to lie when it would be just as easy to tell the
- Do you often judge yourself without mercy?
- Do you have difficulty having fun?
- Do you frequently take yourself to seriously?
- Do you experience difficulties with intimate relationships?
- Do you overreact to changes you can't control?
- Do you constantly seek approval and affirmation?
- Do you feel different from other people?
- Are you sometimes super-responsible or irresponsible?
- Do you sometimes exhibit impulsive behavior?
- Are you extremely loyal to others when that loyalty may me undeserved?
(Adapted from the work of Ann G. Wolitz Ed. D.)
If you are still suffering the impact of many of these counterproductive
behavior patterns that may be a legacy from your troubled past, a deeper
self-understanding may help set you free from their enduring consequences.
For Adult Children of Alcoholics and individuals from other
dysfunctional families, there is often a mistaken belief, formed in
childhood, which affects every part of our lives. As children, we fought to
survive the destructive effects of alcoholism, drug addiction, or other forms
of abuse, and began an endless struggle to change our troubled family, into
a loving, supportive one. We reach adulthood believing we have failed, unable
to see that no one can stop the traumatic effects of family dysfunction.
Following naturally from this pervasive failure are self-blame, shame and
guilt. These self-accusations ultimately lead to self-hate. Accepting our
basic powerlessness to control alcoholic and other forms of abusive behavior
and its effect on the family is the key that unlocks the inner-child and lets
re-parenting begin. We must confront "denial," mourn the early loss of
security, trust and love; and learn skills for re-parenting ourselves with
gentleness, humor, love and respect.
Moving from isolation is the first step the Adult Child makes recovering the
self. Isolation is both a prison and a sanctuary. Adult Children suspended
between need and fear, unable to choose between fight or flight, agonize in
the middle and resolve the tension by explosive bursts of rebellion,
or silently endure in despair. Isolation is our retreat from the paralyzing pain
of indecision. This retreat into denial blunts our awareness of the
destructive reality of family dysfunction and is the first stage of mourning
and grief. It allows us to cope with the loss of love and to survive in the
face of neglect and abuse.
The return of feelings is the second stage of mourning and indicates healing
has begun. Initial feelings of anger, guilt, rage, and despair resolve into
final acceptance of loss. Genuine grieving for our childhood ends our morbid
fascination with the past and lets us return to the present to live as
adults. Confronting years of pain and loss at first seems overwhelming and we
may actually believe that if we allow ourselves to feel that we may lose
control and never stop crying. The pain of mourning and grief is balanced by
being able to freely experience joy in life. The need to re-parent ourselves
comes from our efforts to feel safe as children. The violent nature of our
dysfunctional family systems darkened our emotional world and left us
wounded, hurt, and unable to feel. This extreme alienation from our own
internal direction kept us helplessly dependent on those we mistrusted and
In an unstable, hostile, and often dangerous environment, we attempted to
meet impossible demands of living in abusive environments and our lives were
soon out of control. To make sense out of the confusion and to end our
feelings of fear, we denied inconsistencies in what we were taught. We held
rigidly to a few certain beliefs, or we rebelled and distrusted all outside
In childhood, our identity is formed by the reflection we see in the eyes of
people around us. We fear losing this reflection-thinking the mirror makes us
real and that we disappear or have no self without it. The distorted image of
family dysfunction is not who we are. And we are not the unreal person trying
to mask that distortion. In counseling we stop believing we have no worth and
start to see our true identity.
As Adult Children grow to maturity, we see the need to separate emotionally
from our dysfunctional homes. Only in complete separation can we find the
freedom to express who we are and to create the experience of intimate
closeness we so desperately needed as children.
A dysfunctional home can be a violent place. Children exposed to such
violence come to believe they are to accept punishment and abuse as a normal
part of existence. They identify themselves as objects of hate, not worthy of
love, and survive by denying their underlying feelings of hopeless despair.
In loving homes, children are eager to see themselves reflected by those
around them. A positive self-reflection increases their sense of security and
feelings of self-esteem, and give them confidence in relating to others. They
see respect for their need to be protected from harm and relate to authority
with trust not fear. They come to believe they have value because they are
accepted and loved.
...continued on page 2
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