parentification

The cost of parental addictions on children

It’s tragic when a parent suffers from the chokehold of an addiction. It’s usually the case that an addiction is an unhealthy coping mechanism, or tool, a person uses to deal with painful emotions or thoughts. Parents were once children who might have experienced trauma of one sort or the other. If they don’t learn to overcome these challenges, or deal with them in a healthy way, the drugs, alcohol, or some other addiction can become their escape valve. Substances dull the senses. How tragic not only for parents, but for the children who lose their own sense of safety and connection to the adult who should be their protector.

Children in these homes often have inverted relationships: they become the parent too early and lose their innocence and childhood. The parent is the “child” and needing to be protected and taken care of.

In a class I teach, adult students reflect on any addiction they witnessed as a child. Thankfully, many do not have anything to report; their parents were mature, caring, and responsive. Those that report addictions have sorrowful stories. Every semester I hear them. There are the ones you expect of alcohol and drugs, but it’s amazing what other addictions these grown up children are still affected by and feel the burden of the painful past. Social science has shown that intergenerational transmission of addiction and abuse is the tragic legacy addicts are at a greater risk to leave to their children. It’s inspiring to read my students’ reports and how they have chosen to be the transitional character and break the chain of family addictions.

The following is a sample in their own words.* Are there any smaller patterns of addictions you might be indulging that you need to discard to have a fuller, healthier relationship? What are your children watching, learning, and carrying with them to adulthood? Consider these as cautionary tales of what your own children might report one day.

“I grew up with a father who was there… but not really there. He spent a lot of time playing computer games and didn’t really know how to connect to his daughters. He spent a lot of time on his computer with my brothers and had a pretty good relationship with them. My dad’s “addiction” to his computer games caused a lot of problems in my parents’ marriage and divorce has been discussed at least 3 times in my lifetime between my parents. To me, this is addiction. My dad gives so much of his time and energy to his video games that now that I am in therapy as an adult; I have come to realize that a lot of my tendencies from my teenage years to adulthood come from me being needy of male attention because I never got it as a child from my dad. I became pregnant as a teenager due to the unmet need of wanting a male to show attention to me and to love me.”

“My parents both have the same addictions. I hold the same addiction as them. They are both addicted to eating food and drinking soda.”

“I’d argue that the worst addiction my family has is tension. My dad, sister, and I all show an unhealthy addiction to creating and living with tension. That is to say, none of us grew up in environments where emotional relaxation was a luxury. When things seem to have been good for too long, we all poke at our life to find any negativity there. If we don’t find it, we create it. My sister and I have especially learned about this addiction in the past year with our own significant others and have sought out to find out why and how to fix it.”

“My parents both adamantly say they are not addicted to anything. But I have always noticed they are addicted to working. My dad has worked two full time jobs his whole life. He could retire and live comfortably but he always says he loses his mind on his days off and must be doing something. My mother is the same, goes to work, comes home, and works on the house until she goes to bed. They both never stop.”

“Within my immediate family my mom was addicted to caffeine. Her breaking point happened one day when she realized that she was happier to wake up in the morning, looking forward to having her bottles of Dr. Pepper instead of seeing her own four kids. She knew she had to stop. Once she gave up this drinking, she became more present with us. She was not as grumpy or moody when things didn’t go right. Her headaches stopped. She saw within herself that she was happier instead of depending on that addiction to bring her happiness. I learned second hand what having an addiction can do to a person as well as a family through my family being a foster home for children. It was heart breaking to see the state of these children who were ripped away from their parents because they were not being properly cared for. My parents taught me that if I do not want to be addicted to something it is better never to start. But if you were to get addicted, there is always a way to stop if you desire it enough.”

“I know that my parents can’t save money to save their lives. When I was in high school, my father got fired from a job where he made a six figure salary. My parents spent their money extravagantly, always having nice cars, a nice house, and the newest technology, not to mention making impulse purchases everywhere. Within two months of my father being fired, my family had to declare bankruptcy.”

“I inherited a negative body image from my parents. They are both fit and look nice, work out compulsively, but make critical comments about their bodies. I have had an eating disorder because of my inability to view my body as beautiful for what it is. I’ve recovered, but it can still be hard to feed my brain and body positivity when I am surrounded by comments that can be triggering. I am most definitely a perfectionist and I workout consistently.”

“My mom told us stories about her awful childhood to justify why she was always drinking. Since I can remember, my mom always had a beer in her hand, or alcohol in her cup. I knew it was alcohol when she would tell us not to drink out of her cup because it was only for adults. Drinking seemed to calm her down, her temper was not as bad when she drank. When she was drunk, she was funny and would make us laugh, we had a good time with her. After I grew up, I also found out my dad smoked weed and religiously around me and my sister.”

“My parents’ marriage ended because of lies and secrets due to a prescription drug addiction that my dad picked up when I was around 12 or 13. My mom found out about it and did everything in her power to help him for close to five years but the stress of raising a family and running a house by herself finally caused her to file for divorce.”

“My father had an alcohol addiction. Shortly after his second divorce he started to drink. It started with just a wine here and there, but it shortly led to an addiction. As a teen I would go to his business and his lips would be stained purple from his wine he drank the night before. On some weekends, he would have my friends and me drive him to Reno and drop him off to a bar. He would give us money to go to a movie or dinner so I loved taking him, but after we were done, we would sit around and wait for him for hours. Finally, we would go looking for him across town. He would end up at a different bar and he would always be so far gone. I had to drive him home and take care of him, even when I was an unlicensed, underaged driver. My dad spent all his extra money on his addiction.”

“Because of my dad’s job, we were very well off. No debt, no money issues, no problems. But because of that, we traveled whenever we wanted, we shopped whenever, ate out all the time because nobody had the energy to cook or make any food. A habit formed called retail therapy. Happy? Treat yourself to a new outfit. Sad? Treat yourself to a spa day, shopping, and whatever else you need to make yourself feel better. Mad? Angry? Annoyed? Hurt? Excited? Treat yourself. No limit. Because of that mindset, never having to cook a meal, and not having to worry about money- I have caused some financial issues in my marriage. I am learning that not every occasion needs a new outfit, not every emotion needs something to comfort and validate my actions, and grocery shopping is cheaper than eating out every day.”

“Just as any stressful situation leads most people to vices, my dad loved to gamble, drink, and I recently found out he also liked to look for relationships outside his marriage. Our family vacations were restricted to Las Vegas.”

“Addiction has plagued both sides of my family for generations. Our family’s drug of choice is alcohol. Alcoholism is extremely prevalent on my mother’s side – it has affected her, her father, his father, and for a period of time me. Through personal experiences, I have watched addictions of all shapes and sizes destroy families, including my own. They grow like weeds uprooting the foundations of marriage such as trust, loyalty, dedication and replace them with betrayal, dishonesty, and apathy.”

“The older I got the worse her addiction got. She would drink usually from 12:00 in the afternoon to midnight. I rarely saw her without a drink in her hand. When I was five years old, she had an accident and hurt her back. She did need surgery and after that is when the prescription pain and benzo medication addiction started.”

“Addiction is very prevalent throughout my lineage. In my immediate family alone, we’ve dealt with substance abuse, pornography, and sex addictions. My family has a genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression, which is directly correlated with addiction. With extensive rehabilitation and therapy, my family has worked to overcome dependency on alcohol, pornography, and sex. Having been exposed to addiction from a very young age, I’ve come to recognize it as more of a disease. So often people view addiction as a result of choice. To that I ask, who would choose to have a disease? In most cases, addiction stems from trauma. To cope with the tragedies of life, people rely on different vices to escape their reality. Having experienced it in my own home, I recognize addiction as a result of circumstance. Just as you would never blame anyone for having cancer, I don’t blame those in my family for their addictions. Rather, I’ve learned to support my loved ones to encourage healing.”

*Some specifics have been changed to protect the identity of the students.