An adult child is a term used to describe an adult that experienced living with an addict or alcoholic parent or parents as a child. The term can also apply to children with parents with mental health issues. Living in a world in constant chaos as a child can stunt mental or emotional growth. It can leave long-lasting effects on a person, which are usually negative.
The Adult Children
We all look to our parents for cues during childhood. As children, we are taught how to be a good person. We are educated on how the world works. We are being prepared for adulthood. Unfortunately, some children are forced to learn on their own or taught and shown all the wrong things. The Adult Child Syndrome does not deal with new issues, as far as therapy goes, it addresses why you are who you are. It can help explain why you react the way you react. It takes us back in time to discover where, for example, those antisocial behaviors come from. Sometimes, it may have been better for a child to hide rather than be a part of the dysfunction. This syndrome is “a global look at a pattern of functioning in which the burdens of adulthood are accepted but the joys of adulthood are not”, according to Michael Samsel.
Growing up with addicted or alcoholic parents leaves children with responsibilities way past their age-related capacity. The way you grow up steers the ship of your life. You learn coping mechanisms and develop your moral compass. Adult children lack the foundation of security and the coping mechanisms we need for life. For them, they have had to develop early to handle the situation at hand. These coping mechanisms may morphe, but rarely change without some form of therapy. There are a lot of traits that adult children share. Here are a few from Michael Samsel’s article:
- Emotional Dependence. There is a tendency to live as a responsible child rather than an adult. Straight forward tasks are performed, while difficult decisions, asserting your desires, and responsibility for overall conditions is left for others.
- Poor Boundaries. This is more than an inability to defend boundaries, it is actual desensitization to intrusion or exploitation.
- Emotional Numbness or Alexithymia (the inability to identify or name one’s feelings). This is “shoving down” feelings until the capacity to feel is either lost or frozen.
- Black and White Thinking. This type of thinking is an artifact of living with a tyrant where everything is either pleasing or displeasing, but this is not a balanced assessment for most things in life. In the natural world, almost everything is “gray”. This type of thinking often leads to the feeling that there are only two options. Usually, those two options are dysfunctional and opposite extremes.
- Fear of Authority. In the home, power, and control, masquerading as an authority, was harsh and empathetic in the childhood home. Later in life, the authority may be understood as legitimate or even helpful, but there will at least be avoidance.
There are children trying to be their own caretakers and all that effort in trying to feel any type of normalcy takes away from the chance to learn how to be a healthy adult.
Parts of childhood are replaced with becoming the parent because of a parent’s addiction. Role reversal is common with addicted parents. There is a lack of structure or routine because the parent is unable to set or maintain rules or boundaries. This environment requires children to grow up overnight. The child of an addicted parent may become the parent’s safe place, even if the child never felt that safety from the parent.
Whether they become the ones managing the house or caring for younger siblings, they have had to become part parent. As the child takes on these responsibilities, the parent becomes dependent on the child to continue doing their job. This can happen physically (as mentioned), emotionally, and mentally.
Some parents can become emotionally dependent on their children for validation. Regardless of a child’s efforts, they may ultimately blame themselves in some ways and have deep resentments toward their parents. These types of environments can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem, leaving them feeling anxious, depressed, and have difficulty forming or maintaining meaningful relationships. Children of these homes can grow up and become successful and some can continue the cycle of addiction. However, both of those children will still feel some sort of guilt, anger, or shame from their childhood.
Breaking the Cycle
Being an Adult Child means that you may need help morphing your coping skills or need help with the negative feelings you are left with. By no means does having an addicted parent sentence you to a life of chaos. Do not feed into the shame that follows growing up that way. Addiction is a nationwide problem. Many of those addicts and alcoholics have children. Children of addicted parents are often told not to talk to other adults about what happens at home, through outright intimidation or emotional manipulation. These feelings won’t just go away. It is not a betrayal to talk about what happened.
Talking about what your experience is or was is the best way to get to a healthy place. Mentally and emotionally, those experiences are always with you. Getting help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are truly starting to “grow up”. We do not need to follow in our parent’s footsteps. We are the ones that break the cycle.