Patterns of Behavior in Children of Alcoholics

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. When you trade in your reality for a role…You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.”- Jim Morrison

The ongoing cycle of addiction in families is well documented. Studies show children who grow up in an alcoholic home are four times more likely to have a drinking problem than those who do not. These children frequently encounter strong emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger, confusion, and depression. Each child learns to cope with the stress and pain of living in an alcoholic home in their own particular manner. Over time these ways of reacting become ingrained patterns of behavior that are limiting and ultimately non-productive.

The strategies children develop in response to their uncomfortable situation have a certain commonality.

*Some children fall into the role of an overachiever. They take on a deep sense of responsibility for the functioning of the household. Because addicted parents struggle to fill their own parental role, the child may make an untold sacrifice. They assume duties far greater than their own such as housework or care of younger siblings. ‘Parentified’ children see the lack of stability in the home and attempt to take charge themselves. This is not uncommon with the firstborn child but may apply to any of the children. In an alcoholic home, this may be a full-time job. The responsible child is often weighed down by an overdeveloped sense of perfectionism.

*Some children become emotionally detached and isolated. They withdraw as a way of coping with the discomfort of the alcoholism and/or drug addiction in the home. They may even withdraw from classmates and have few friends. Their feelings of embarrassment preclude them from inviting others to their homes. A deep-seated sense of inadequacy follows them into adulthood. Loneliness, depression, and even suicidal ideation can manifest.

*Other children become risk-takers themselves and are frequently targeted as the ‘black sheep’ of the family. They come to the conclusion that negative attention is better than no attention and learn to ‘act out’ to fill their needs for attention. This may take the form of frequent troubles in school or with peers including aggressive behavior towards other children. Taken to the extreme, it may involve delinquent behaviors like stealing or acts of violence.

* Certain children feel compelled to create levity through laughter. They attempt to soothe the level of distress by diverting attention to themselves. Their attempts to distract others helps them deal with their own discomfort. The pressure to uphold this role challenges a more well-rounded response to life.

*Children deal with the uncomfortable conditions in the home by being caring and supportive themselves. They attempt to do all they can to help solve the problems they encounter. Often the problems they face loom greater than their level of competence. Feelings of inadequacy stem from trying to extend beyond their age-appropriate ability.

All people have a natural inclination to manage intense circumstances to the best of their ability. The tendency to diffuse frightening or upsetting situations is universal. Children have a certain temperament and innate desire to placate the tension in the home. Often what begins well contributes to an unhealthy and limiting set of behaviors. As we are aware of these behaviors and the roles children adopt, we can help them explore more authentic, healthy alternatives. To recognize and release these roles is paramount to the family’s ability to recover.

Most children in an alcoholic home find it difficult to ask for help. Some even refuse help. Despite their initial resistance, it is best if they receive assistance from others. Helping them understand their typical responses can allow them to explore other effective alternatives. Relatives, teachers, and/or educational programs can become important facets in a support network of support to present new and different coping skills. Child psychiatrists, family therapists, and drug and alcohol counselors with strong family programs can help address the underlying feelings and offer a safe place to heal the distress of children and the entire family system.


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