Thursday, February 21, 2013

Addictive Families Part 5: Don't Trust

“I am always on my guard with people. I want to trust them, but it is so much easier to just rely on myself. I’m never sure what other people want.”

Children raised in addictive families learn that it is not safe to trust others with the real issues in their lives. To trust another means investing confidence, reliance, and faith in that person – virtues often missing in the addictive home. Children need to be able to depend on parents to meet their physical and emotional needs in order to develop trust. Parents are not consistently available to their children because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, physically absent, mentally and emotionally consumed with their addiction or preoccupied with the addicted person.

In order for children to trust, they must feel safe. They need to be able to depend on their parents for friendly help, concern and guidance in response to their physical and emotional needs. In addictive homes, however, children often cannot rely on parents to provide safety and are continually confronted with reasons to be insecure in their surroundings, to not trust.

Honesty is the single most important ingredient in a nurturing relationship. Addicted people lose their ability to be honest as the disease progresses. It is difficult to trust a person who constantly embarrasses, humiliates, disappoints, or puts you in physical jeopardy. It is even more difficult to trust when family members minimize, rationalize, and/or blatantly deny certain events are taking place. Children need focused attention. Focused attention represents not only physically being with a child, but also interacting with the child in a way, that says, “You have all of my attention — mentally and emotionally.” Focused attention says to a child, “I care. It’s important for me to be with you.” Children are highly sensitive to the degree of focused attention they receive.

Children need focused attention most when they are under stress. Unfortunately, in an addictive family this is when they are least apt to receive it. Stress often becomes the norm in this environment and the attention centers around the addict.

Because of broken promises and not being able to rely on the consistency of positive interaction, children are often confused. Children don’t trust the motivation behind true focused attention. Trust is one of those vital character-building blocks children need in order to develop into healthy adults. Being raised in an addictive family structure often denies or distorts this portion of a child’s development.

“I have a hard time trusting my mom.” — Chuck, age 6

Monday, February 4, 2013

Addictive Families Part 4: Don't Feel

Don’t Feel It has been my experience that by the time a child being raised in an addictive family reaches the age of nine, he has a well-developed denial system about his feelings and his perceptions of what is happening in the home. Children do whatever they possibly can to bring stability and consistency into their lives. They will behave in any manner if it makes it easier for them to cope and survive. Learning to focus on the environment, or on other people, or learning to detach oneself from the family, assists children in not feeling.

Children learn not to share and, inevitably, deny their feelings. Family members frequently discount and invalidate their feelings. “You have nothing to be afraid of.” … when in fact they may very well have something to be afraid of. “You have nothing to be angry about.”… when there are often many reasons to be angry, leading to emotional isolation. Being alone with feelings of fear, worry, embarrassment, guilt, anger, loneliness, etc., leads to a state of desperation or being overwhelmed. Such a state of being does not lend itself to survival, so children learn other ways to cope. Some learn how to discount and repress feelings, while others learn simply not to feel. These children do have access to their feelings, but only with the help of a trusted person. For the majority of children growing up with addiction, however, trust and trusted persons are not a consistent part of their lives.

These children are building up walls of self-protection. They are learning unhealthy coping mechanisms to protect themselves from the fear of their reality. The reality is that their parents are failing them. As the addiction progresses, the substance becomes the parents’ obsession. When family members experience the results of this obsession, they ask the questions, “Why?” “Why does my mom disappoint me at important times?” “Why does my dad embarrass me like that?” “Doesn’t he love me?” “Why is my dad drinking so much?” “Are my parents ever going to get better?” “Is she crazy?” “Is it my fault?” “Am I crazy?” It is frightening for family members to ask such questions of themselves. It can be even more frightening to allow themselves to answer honestly.

As a result, these children often learn to discount and inevitably deny those feelings entirely. The reason for denying is to convince themselves, as well as others, that their unhappy family life can be made happy by pretending, or denying reality. The greatest problem here is that when someone minimizes and discounts feelings for not just weeks, but months and years of their life, it becomes a skill they take with them into adulthood that will permeate every significant area of their life.