The addict is:
Addicted: You cannot reason with an alcoholic while under the influence or when he or she is craving it. The addiction overrides everything else in life.
Assuming: The addict expects others to read their mind and know what they want, so the family members begin to predict the alcoholic’s behavior.
Arrogant: Thinks the family revolves around the alcoholic and they do!
Apologetic: Keeps spouse attached because they do promise to do better.
Blurred Boundaries: The rules change often in the alcoholic home. Boundaries vacillate from rigid to non-existent.
Broken Promises: Children learn not to expect anything good because the parent doesn’t remember it later, causing great disappointment to the child. The child learns not to believe people or hope a promise will be fulfilled.
Blame: Does not accept responsibility for their drinking, so they accuse others of being the cause.
Critical: Finds fault with others because they aren’t happy with themselves.
Callous: Alcohol numbs their sensitivity.
Cruel: Drinking often leads to abuse. At the very least, the family suffers emotional abuse because of all these other categories.
Our childhood experiences explain our current behavior but they don’t excuse it. Our challenge is to understand it and learn from it. Adult children of alcoholic parents are “para-alcoholics”. They grew up catering to the wishes of the alcoholic and other dysfunctional family members. They learned how to interact with the world according to how they functioned within their family of origin. Needy family members receive an inappropriate proportion of the family’s time, attention and energy, leaving little time for the children who should be the recipient of these things.
It is said that the only thing predictable about an alcoholic home is that it is unpredictable. A dysfunctional family does not teach effective living skills to children such as appropriate touch, problem solving, communication, social interaction, reasonable expectations, time and money management and the list goes on and on.
In the chemically dependent home, children adopt specific roles in order to cope. The addict is, of course, the dependent one. All the other family members are co-dependent, but the spouse is the primary enabler or co-dependent. (See last month’s blog for more on co-dependency.) The children fall into categories known as:
Characteristics of the Hero Child: The Hero is usually the oldest but not always. If there is only one girl in the family she may grow into that role, depending on societal and family expectations. The Hero is the responsible one, usually making straight A’s in school, taking care of other siblings, the peacemaker and the surrogate parent who feels responsible for making decisions when the parents don’t. Children in this role try to make the family look good by being perfect. After all, if the family has such a good child, it can’t be all that bad!
Characteristics of the Scapegoat: The scapegoat is the “troublemaker” of the family. He or she is the one who tries drugs or alcohol, gets pregnant, gets in trouble with the law, drives recklessly, bullies others or engages in other high-risk behaviors. Despite the trouble they cause, many experts believe the Scapegoat is actually the least selfish of all because they are willing to bring trouble upon themselves in order to take the attention off the main issues in the family.
Characteristics of the Lost Child: The Lost Child, on the other hand, makes himself scarce and stays out of sight. He is a loner who prefers to stay in his room reading or doing solitary activities. If possible, he stays away from the house and family. He doesn’t express opinions or engage in arguments. He (or she) doesn’t want to be seen or heard. Most likely, this role is taken on by a middle child.
Characteristics of the Mascot: Usually the Mascot is the youngest child. He’s the funny, cute one who makes the family laugh. He can detract attention away from the primary issue in the family by using humor or “performing”. He avoids the pain by being the center of attention.
These roles are coping mechanisms that allow us to function in a dysfunctional environment. They give us purpose and a way of making the family operate, although not in a healthy way. For example, each child has a distinctive way of problem solving. The Hero tries to “fix” a problem. The Scapegoat “creates” them. The Lost Child “avoids” problems and the Mascot “minimizes” them.
Whether you evaluate, obliterate, mediate, escalate, or create problems depends upon your adopted role within the dysfunctional home. While these roles help us survive childhood, more often than not these roles follow us into adulthood where it is no longer needed and serves only to cripple our ability to function normally.
Many adult children of alcoholics decide not to drink since they don’t want to be like that parent they grew up with but they unknowingly exhibit many of the same behaviors their alcoholic parent did. Children learn what they live and then they live out what they have learned. Thus, they never learn to problem solve or have clear communication, keep promises they make, have clear boundaries with their own children or other adults, etc. The adult who quits drinking is referred to as a “dry drunk” because they may have given up their addiction to alcohol but they retained all the other behaviors.
Physiologically, the brain of a child who grows up in a chaotic environment becomes addicted to chaos. When they are removed from the chaos they will invent their own. The child’s brain has been overly stimulated and finds it difficult to function in normalcy. Just because that person is removed from the environment either as a child or as an adult, doesn’t mean it automatically responds differently to the world around them. If abuse is added to the unpredictability of an alcoholic home, trauma occurs and the brain may not be able to reset itself without professional help.
The amygdala is the part of the brain whose job is to sound the alarm and let us know when there is danger. The hippocampus assists the transfer of initial information that danger is over. With repeated trauma the hippocampus shrinks, leaving the amygdala in a constant state of hyper-arousal and expectation that something bad is going to happen. In a future blog, we will further explore the effects of trauma.
Until then, we at The Rest of The Journey wish you all a very Happy New Year.
Dr. Karen McDonald
Dr. Karen McDonald is the author of Racheal’s Rest’s BLOGS. These BLOGS are thoughts, tools and experiences that Karen wanted to share with you and are in no way “counseling”. If you, or someone you know, has been the victim of sexual abuse, sex trafficking and/or domestic violence issues, contact us today to get more information about Racheal’s Rest private counseling, workshops and retreats to begin your journey to emotional health.