A Further Look at Adult Children of Addiction
Resilient qualities are not only what we are born with, but also the strengths that we build through encountering life’s challenges and developing the personal and interpersonal skills to meet them. The idea of growth through suffering or pain is not a new one, though the systematic study of it is. “Posttraumatic growth” (PTG)—a term coined by Drs. Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, editors of The Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth (2006)—describes the positive self-transformation that people undergo through meeting challenges head on. It refers to a profound, life-altering response to adversity that changes us on the inside as we actively summon the kinds of qualities (e.g., fortitude, forgiveness, gratitude, grit, and strength) that enable us to not only survive tough circumstances, but to thrive. But what factors contribute to our ability to mobilize our own strengths? Is it nature, nurture, or a combination of both?
Our framework for understanding trauma has expanded in the past decade to go beyond seeing trauma as a one-time or even a set of repeated painful experiences. We are now understanding that the way in which we are loved by those who raise us can be trauma engendering or can help us build our capacity to deal with and bounce back from life’s inevitable struggles.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies performed by Robert Anda (2006) and his team at Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, California, we will all experience four or more serious life stressors that may be traumatizing, and according to positive psychology’s research, most of us will grow from them.
Does Parental Addiction Play a Role Here?
Growing up with one or more parents who are addicted is one of the childhood ACEs that popped up again and again in Dr. Anda’s research as a predictor of health problems later in life. Children who grow up with parental addiction also tend to grow up inside of a cluster of other forms of abuse and neglect that often become part of addiction’s sad orbit. Parents who are preoccupied with managing their own moods and addictions tend to be erratic caregivers. Behaviors in their children that send them through the roof on one day might go completely ignored the next. They are inconsistent at the least and abusive at most, often blaming their children for being the “cause” of their own uncontrollable behavior. For small children, these inconsistent and unpredictable parenting styles—along with experiencing themselves as the cause of parents’ pain, anger, abuse, or neglect—can have long-term resonance in terms of their capacity to form satisfying, nurturing relationships.
How We are Loved: Attachment, Connection, and Disconnection
Our nervous systems are built to resonate with the nervous systems of others, and to achieve balance within a context of connection (Schore, 1994). The nervous systems of babies are not fully developed at birth, says Alan Schore in Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (1994). Rather, each tiny interaction between parents and children actually build the neural networks that children will rely on throughout their lives to attain emotional balance. The cooing and wooing on the part of parents that brings children from the outer edges of crying into a more balanced state, for example, act as an “external regulator” that is slowly absorbed by children and becomes their own ability to soothe themselves when parents are out of reach. Or, it defines their capacity to take in caring from others, as a template for mutual regulation has been set into motion.
The highest and most evolved system, our social engagement system, is activated by a deep and inborn urge to communicate and cooperate. From the moment of birth, our mind-body reaches out toward our primary attachment figures to establish the kind of connection that will allow us to survive and find our footing in the world. We fall back on our more primitive systems of defense—such as fight, flight, or freeze—only when we fail to find a sense of resonance and safety within this primary connection (Porges, 2004).
How Relational Trauma Disregulates Our Capacity to Connect in Satisfying Ways
“Neuroception,” a term coined by Stephen Porges (2004), former director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes our innate ability to use intricate, meaning-laden, barely perceptible mind-body signals to establish bonds and communicate our needs and intentions.
Neuroception is a system that has evolved over time to enable humans (and mammals) to establish the mutually nourishing bonds that we need to regulate ourselves in the context of others. It is also our personal security system that assesses, in nanoseconds, whether or not the situations that we are encountering are safe or in some way threatening (Porges, 2004). According to Porges (2004), our neuroception tells us if we can relax and be ourselves or when we need to self-protect. If the signals we are picking up from others are cold, dismissive, or threatening, that system sets off an inner alarm that is followed by a cascade of mind-body responses honed by eons of evolution to keep us from being harmed.
In trauma-engendering interactions,people are not able to use their interactions to regulate their physiological states in relationship, they are not getting anything back from the other person that can help them to remain calm and regulated. Quite the opposite. The other person’s behavior is making them go into a scared, braced-for-danger state. Their physiology is being up regulated into a fight/flight mode (Porges, 2004).
A failure to successfully engage and create a sense of safety and cooperation, or to communicate needs and desires to those people we depend upon for our very survival, can be experienced as a traumatic form of rejection and a hurtful, disequilibrating lack of attunement. Being unwanted or feeling unseen or disliked by a parent or parents we need and love can become a template for seeking out love in all the wrong places. We simply do not know what to look for because we do not have that felt sense of how love feels on the inside, and we also have not learned the easy give and take that is necessary for living comfortably in close connection. We lack the kind of emotional balance and insight into our own behavior that healthy relationships require, and we cannot mentally reverse roles with other people and empathize with them. Therefore, relational trauma can occur at very subtle levels of engagement or a lack there of, as well as in its more obvious forms of living with abuse, neglect, illness, or addiction.
Recover or Repeat
When those we rely on for our basic needs of trust, empathy, and dependency are abusive, unattuned, or neglectful, it constitutes a double whammy. Not only are we being hurt, but the very people we would go to for solace are the ones causing us pain. We stand scared and braced for danger in those moments, prepared by eons of evolution to be ready to flee for safety or stand and fight. If we can do neither, if escape seems impossible because we are children growing up trapped by our own size and dependency within pain engendering families, if we cannot stop waiting for the parents we love to come out from behind their drunken rages and remember that it is us they are yelling at, then something inside of us freezes.
Our mind-body fight-or-flight goes on tilt—our thinking mind shuts down whilst our limbic system goes on red alert. As a result, we take in through our limbic/sensory processing system all of the sights, sounds, smells, and so forth in the situation, but our thinking mind, which would make sense of it and create a narrative that might help us to understand what happened, is not functioning properly. We are left with unconscious hurt and confusion that we do not even know is there until it gets triggered later in life when we try to form our own deep attachments. Partnering, parenting, and simply being in a new family can trigger us in ways we never thought possible. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we become that hurt three-year-old standing in our adult body, yelling at our own three-year-old, or we become a wounded five-year-old hurting all over again when our spouse does not respond as we wish and we scream at them, saying what we never said to our parents, because we did not dare or we simply did not know the words.
But these dysfunctional patterns of attachment often remain unconscious simply because it is those very relational patterns that wounded us the most deeply, that are the ones we tend to be invested in repressing and disowning. And because there is no narrative attached to them, we may even think they never happened to begin with. ACoAs, in other words, do not know that we do not know. We go through life repeating relational dynamics and behaviors that were learned in the midst of drunkenness and dysfunction, whether or not we ourselves are drinking or using drugs. We imitate dry drunk behavior even when we are perfectly sane and sober. And we think it is the person or circumstance in the present that is causing us the full amount of pain we are in. We cannot feel or see what we are importing from our past that might be fueling our intense reaction of either hurt and rage or avoidance and withdrawal in the present.
It is really paying attention to what triggers us the most intensely that can give us the hints we need to illuminate this old, unconscious relational pain. It tends to be through life itself, or role play types of therapy, that this kind of pattern emerges so that we can actually feel and heal it. Until we can somehow come in touch with what pain we are hiding from ourselves, we are at risk for recreating pain-filled relational dynamics from the past in our present relationships.
But there is no need to live with or pass along this kind of posttraumatic pain. Therapies have been developed today which are designed to address these sorts of mind-body issues such as neuropsychodrama, EMDR, neurofeedback, and others. Treatment programs increasingly incorporate these new and effective methods and Twelve Step rooms create a self-help container for processing this sort of pain with the support of others.
So make friends with what triggers you, find professional help, walk into a Twelve Step meeting room, and become curious about what vibrates underneath. The way out is the way through.
About the Author
Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.
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Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (Eds.). (2006). The handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Porges, S. W. (2004). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three, 24(5), 19–24. Retrieved from https://stephenporges.com/images/neuroception.pdf
Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.