Expect the Unexpected: Living with Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families

The statistics may not surprise you: in the United States, an estimated 14 million people are addicted to alcohol; more than half of all grownups know someone in their immediate families with an alcohol problem; and approximately 6.6 million minors currently live with an alcoholic parent. For those kids, life can be horrendous or at least extremely difficult. Perhaps there is incest. Perhaps when the father is drunk, he becomes violent, and hits or rapes his child or his wife. Perhaps when the mother is drunk, she becomes extremely vicious and unpredictable, and the safest thing is just to hide. Sometimes there is a more seductive violation of boundaries against the child, who is helpless to resist. Or maybe it doesn’t seem so bad, because he just drinks until he falls asleep in his chair most nights; she just becomes very happy and doesn’t really notice that the kids are there.

Even if they are not the direct recipients of violence, many children growing up with alcoholics witness violence directed at others in the home – the other parent, their siblings, and often, their pets. This environment of violence and unpredictability is both frightening and confusing. The child may identify with the other victims, or feel angry at not being protected by them. If the victimized parent seems weak, the confusion deepens because it’s hard to feel angry at them.

Even if the damage is not as obvious as sexual and physical abuse, verbal abuse and the consequences of neglect – physical or emotional abandonment – can be devastating on their own.

Kids in these families learn a lot of lessons: don’t tell; don’t have friends over; don’t air the family’s dirty laundry; keep a close watch for signs of an explosion; try not to be noticed; be ready to fix everything. Expect the unexpected. Life is chaotic and unpredictable, and people are likely to become violent or vicious at a moment’s notice.

Of course, these consequences are not limited to alcoholic homes – parents with other addictions, rage-aholics, emotionally disturbed or psychotic parents, or families characterized by other types of interpersonal dysfunction – all of these can produce the same constellation of long-term consequences:

  • symptoms of trauma
  • PTSD
  • a need for control
  • personal substance abuse
  • keeping oneself surrounded by crisis and chaos
  • guessing at what normal is
  • having difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end
  • lying, when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
  • judging themselves without mercy
  • difficulty having fun
  • taking themselves very seriously
  • having difficulty with intimate relationships
  • overreacting to changes over which they have no control
  • constantly seeking approval and affirmation
  • feeling that they are different from other people
  • tending to be either super responsible or super irresponsible
  • being extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that loyalty is undeserved
  • tending to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control of their environment. As a result, they spend tremendous amounts of time cleaning up the mess.

Most people will spot one or two items on that list that are characteristic of themselves, but for people who grew up with alcoholics, the list may be a little frightening because it is so descriptive. Maybe you always wondered why you are so hard on yourself, or why your relationships are so difficult, and never connected those things with growing up in an alcoholic household.

It can take a long time and a lot of work to learn to trust the world, and other people. To listen to your own voice, or even to trust your own sanity. Deep wounds need to be cleaned and healed, but healing and recovery is certainly possible. Psychotherapy can provide a safe, structured, and understanding environment for exploring these issues and addressing the symptoms. Many people find comfort and help from ACOoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) groups, Al-Anon (families with alcoholics) groups, CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) groups, or other self-help or recovery organizations. In any case, if you are feeling the crippling effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family, it is important to seek help and support.

Article Name
Expect the Unexpected
Growing up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home produces a range of difficulties, but these can be understood and healed with therapy and/or recovery groups.

About Marc Handelman, PhD

I am a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. My office is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia University. I work with adults from college age and up who want help addressing problems ranging from depression, anxiety, and relationship issues to addiction, co-dependency, and the effects of early trauma. I believe psychotherapy should provide a sense of comfort and support as the starting point for addressing emotional problems. I have more than 30 years' experience as a psychotherapist, and have been affiliated with The Hazelden Foundation since 1997. Please see my professional website for more information: http://www.psychotherapy-nyc.com
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