This week, February 12-18, 2017, is Children of Alcoholics Awareness Week, a campaign led by The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) to raise awareness and support for children affected by parental substance use problems.
Many resources for alcohol use disorder (AUD) are focused on the person who is addicted, and only secondarily address family members who may be affected. But research shows that growing up with a family member with substance use disorder can have long-lasting consequences.
In a recent Huffington Post interview, Tian Dayton, a psychologist and author, discusses the long-term ramifications of being an adult child of addiction (ACoA) with Polly McCall, LCSW, an addiction specialist and individual and family therapist in New York City, who has been working with ACoA issues for over 30 years. Dayton discusses the distorted reality and sense of loss that ACoAs can feel as a result of the denial, silence, and secret-keeping that infiltrated their lives as children, and can continue to impact adulthood and relationships.
In the interview, McCall outlines issues that many ACoAs experience. These issues often bleed from childhood into adult life, such as a distorted sense of what is normal, a fear of asking legitimate questions, a view of themselves as inadequate, and a tendency to try to over-please others. She notes that ACoAs tend to feel anxious and alone and can find it difficult to trust others. They often try to manage their pain on their own and shy away from therapy and support groups like Al-Anon.
McCall’s strategy for helping ACoAs overcome past scars includes developing new patterns of interaction with the self and with others. She says ACoAs need support building basic trust and emotional flexibility, practicing conflict resolution, making informed decisions, and learning to react appropriately in the face of emotional discomfort. In addition to talk therapy and social support, McCall recommends breathing exercises, meditation, and physical activity as ways to mitigate anxiety and build resilience.
McCall also cautions ACoAs to pay attention to and be honest about their own drinking patterns. “Every ACoA I have ever had in therapy has said…I would never drink like my mother or father…I hated their alcoholism and it caused great damage to my life,” states McCall. “ACoAs believe this revulsion will keep them safe…WRONG. I said that, too, and went on to be a much worse alcoholic than my mother. Whatever decade you are in, if you are genetically loaded, you must keep your drinking under close supervision and maintain total honesty around it. Chart your drinking year to year. Have 2 glasses of wine become 4? We don’t know when the switch will flip and you may begin to crave alcohol. Accept that you are not a normal drinker because of genes. Watch very carefully that your alcoholism has not been activated.”
McCall notes that many ACoAs struggle to accept the reality of their childhoods; that their parents could not connect with them the way they wished. Many ACoAs still crave this connection, although their parents may never have developed the ability. “You were probably a wonderful kid and your parents were too distracted by addiction or their own problems to be really connected and empathic to your needs,” she says. “Figure out how to understand that hole in your heart and fill it with love of self and commitment to want to trust and love another.” McCall says groups such as Al-Anon and therapy can help immensely.
“Being an ACoA is a lifetime journey; by understanding what happened to you in your family of origin and that you are out of that place and able to see reality and to cope, you can get free of a painful legacy,” she states. “Know yourself, know your talents, what you like to do. Know what being in your family produced for you emotionally and MOVE ON. Deal with reality. Don’t deny feelings or push them inside. YOU can still have a really nice, open loving life even if your parents were not or are not able to have one, or to fully appreciate you, or to move into sobriety.”