Our Stories Count Too!
“Great strides have been made in bringing the shame of addiction out of the shadows and getting America and the world to believe in recovery. However, the biggest little secret remains the countless kids who are being hurt each and every day who don’t get talked about, funded, donated to or brought out of the shadows nearly enough. Those children whose lives are hamstrung by having one parent struggling with being an addict and the other parent struggling with managing that addict who is living ever at the precipice of self-destruction.” – Tian Dayton, PhD
Silently suffering by the millions, children of alcoholic and/or drug-addicted parents need and deserve better efforts from society to protect, support, and empower them to come out of the shadows. They need to hear the stories of other children and families being set free from the pain and confusion of the family system, and take the first steps to freedom in their own personal recovery—through Alateen, Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or structured family therapy and recovery support.
The 2016 theme is “Join the Voices of Recovery: Our Families, Our Stories, Our Recovery.” There is a growing and increasingly powerful recovery movement in our country, supported and often driven by the stories of people in long-term recovery, but its focus is almost 100 percent on the addicted family member and supporting that person’s recovery. Yet, when addiction slips in and takes over a family, all are hurt by this maddening disease and a persistent and debilitating silence overwhelms, trapping each family member in it and creating a fertile field for chaos.
A chaotic or trauma-engendering family can make it difficult to create a sense of safety and cooperation. Children in that environment learn they cannot communicate their needs and desires to the people they depend upon for their very survival. They feel left out in the cold, as if they were floating above the heads of those to whom they yearn to be connected. They feel unseen and misunderstood, and this experience, when repeated over and over and over again, can morph into cumulative trauma. It becomes the learning place that children build upon and carry into all their interactions.
These are the forgotten victims of the substance use disorders devastating millions of families and profoundly impacting the emotional and brain development of its children—children who are lost in the painful confusion and fear this disease generates. All need age-appropriate recovery support, and most will not get it, even though the effects of parental addiction on children can lead to hopelessness, as the people they love and depend on for safety and support are the same people who frighten them. The family silence, driven by the disease, is ingrained in the family and spills over into society. It enables the immediate damage that regularly assaults the child and, too frequently, leads to a lifetime of negative health and relationship consequences.
Children stand scared and braced for danger in those moments, prepared by eons of evolution, ready to flee for safety or stand and fight. They simultaneously yearn for connection and to be seen and understood. The result is that they become confused and lose heart. Isolation is a common feature of both trauma and depression and it is no wonder why. If they cannot keep themselves feeling safe, if escape seems impossible because they are children growing up trapped by their own size and dependency within pain-engendering families, then something inside them freezes. Just getting through, just surviving the experience becomes paramount. They can grow up in other areas, for example intellectually, and remain very closed and immature in their capacity for intimate connection.
This chronic emotional trauma impacting the family creates a vulnerability to adolescent depression, anxiety disorders, and early use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. These children genetically are the most at risk for substance use disorders, and for continuing the generational transmission of both the family trauma and the family disease. Should they not get caught in the jaws of addiction, without help they will still grow up to be parents who are “yesterday’s children,” still trapped in the silence where healthy emotional development cannot live.
There are countless untold family recovery stories lurking in the shadows. They must come out into the light to break the vicious generational cycle of shame, embarrassment, and abandonment that will plague its victims for a lifetime if we do not step up, name the reality, and take action. Far too many adult parents in recovery themselves see their history repeating in their children. We know it doesn’t have to be that way, that children who participate in recovery support programs in treatment centers or in student assistance programs in the schools can go on to lead balanced, productive lives, even if their parents do not recover.
So long as we wait for the children of addicted parents to develop behavioral health problems before we intervene we perpetuate the silence and encourage the familial transmission of the disease. That silence is ingrained in our society and has been deafening for too long. There are public awareness campaigns—COA Awareness Week in February, Alcohol Awareness Month in April, and Children’s Mental Health Week in May—and all are opportunities for breaking the silence. All provide tools to help start the conversation at the dinner table, over lunch, in faith communities, in the classroom—from first grade to graduate school—and in the clinician’s office.
These awareness campaigns crack open the door to start the conversation that can free these invisible and trapped victims. But unless we continue the conversation all year long, the hopelessness of the impacted family members will continue.
Any society that considers itself civilized takes care of its most vulnerable children. Children of alcoholics live in a world that does not take care of them—a silent world of fear and confusion where the people who should nurture and support them are the ones that are hurting them. What would happen if the Best Interest Principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child were turned into reality?
What would happen if you, the reader of Counselor, started the conversation with your clients who are parents and helped them to talk to their children in a constructive and supportive way about the truth of addiction in their families through the generations?