Although each family differs, there are some common qualities within families where an adult abuses alcohol or another substance.
These similarities include: the fact that life feels chaotic, people feel inconsistent, roles are unclear, rules are arbitrary, and change feels daunting.
There may also be relational conflict, repetitious and illogical thinking, and perhaps violence and various abuses including sexual, verbal, and physical.
The family is dominated by the co-existence of denial and substance use. The substance use becomes the major family secret, often denied inside the family as well as to outsiders. In an effort to hold the family together in the face of difficulties caused by the substance abuse, the family changes its strategies for coping and the beliefs it shares.
Claudia Black, a leading author and theorist regarding the impact of adult substance abuse on children, has written about several rules in alcoholic homes including, but not limited to, these:
Each family member tends to find his or her own way to live with these rules. Claudia Black talks about different “roles” that emerge for children in their attempts to make sense of the chaos. You may identify with features of one or more of these roles, and some roles may look more effective than others, but each has its own drawbacks and its own implications.
: These responsible children try to ensure that the family looks “normal” to the rest of the world. In addition, they often project a personal image of achievement, competence, and responsibility to the outside world. They tend to be academically or professionally very successful. The cost of such success is often denial of their own feelings and a belief that they are “imposters.”
:These children learn never to expect or to plan anything, and tend to follow without question. They often strive to be invisible and to avoid taking a stand or rocking the boat. As a result, they often come to feel that they are drifting through life and are out of control.
:These “people pleaser” children learn early to smooth over potentially upsetting situations in the family. They seem to have an uncanny ability to sense what others are feeling, at the expense of their own feelings. They have a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior, and often choose careers as helping professionals, which can reinforce their tendencies to ignore their own needs.
: These children are “entertainers,” relying on their sense of humor to distract from or take away the family’s upset. They tend to have difficulty focusing and making decisions, and have a low tolerance for distress.
:These people are identified as the “family problem.” They are likely to get into various kinds of trouble, including drug and alcohol abuse, as a way of expressing their anger at the family. They also function as a sort of pressure valve; when tension builds in the family, the scapegoat will misbehave, allowing the family to avoid dealing with the drinking problem. Scapegoats tend to be unaware of feelings other than anger.
Trying to forget the past without understanding how it affected you will usually not work, and may prolong its costs. Because you learned as a child to relate to others by following your family’s rules, you are likely to bring these same behaviors into your adult relationships, even if you do not think you will.
You may be surprised to find at college that you experience feelings of dissatisfaction, apathy, or distance from other people, similar to those feelings you felt at home. Furthermore, even if you “swore off” alcohol because your parent drinks, you may still begin abusing alcohol or other substances.
Additionally, you may repeat patterns of relating from your family of origin; you may have outbursts of emotion, or you may get involved with someone who is like the substance user in your life or with someone like your parent who was the co-dependent.
The best way to “move on” is to squarely face the past, its importance, and its meaning for you. Often this means understanding your parents and yourself, so that the healing process can begin. You can actively work to replace self-destructive behaviors with healthy behaviors.
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