Growing up with an alcoholic or substance abusing parent can be chaotic and unpredictable. Rules and expectations can change on a daily basis. Children are to be seen but not heard. Any expression of your feelings is forbidden or ignored. And, there is absolutely NO talking about the elephant in the room…the parents’ addiction!
This leaves children feeling insecure, frustrated and angry. Moving toward adulthood this can cause difficulties with relationships where honest emotional expression is key. Children of substance abusers are also at risk for developing their own problems with addictions.
Growing up with a parent who is chronically mentally ill or disabled, sets up a situation where the family responsibilities fall to the older children. From a young age they may be called upon to care take their younger siblings, get food on the table, and attend to adult responsibilities. This often leaves them feeling inadequate and guilty, and those feelings can follow them in to adulthood.
Growing up with the helicopter parent who is overly controlling and overly involved, can leave a child feeling resentful, inadequate and powerless. These parents try to control and dominate everything their children are involved with. As adults, children raised this way can have difficulty making their own decisions.
Growing up with a parent who is verbally or physically or sexually abusive leaves the deepest scars. Verbal abuse can be very direct such as criticism or belittling, or it can be more subtle, such as put-downs disguised as humor. Physical abuse can be disguised as “discipline” but creates an environment of fear, terror and anger. Children who grow up in an environment of verbal and physical abuse have difficulties developing feelings of trust and safety as adults.
Growing up with sexual abuse can carry feelings of self-loathing, shame and worthlessness. Children with this history are often self-punishing and have serious difficulty with sexuality in relationships. Sexual abuse is physical contact between an adult and child where that contact must be kept secret. It is the most blatant example of an adult abusing a child purely for that adult’s own gratification.
Take steps to become whole again.
- It’s OK to feel angry. When parents behave badly, children often blame themselves and feel responsible for the family discord. This leaves them with feelings of guilt, shame and low self-esteem. Place the responsibility where it belongs, with the responsible adults. It will take time to work through the anger and come to a point of forgiveness, but the first step is to acknowledge your true feelings.
- Denial is a survival mechanism used to survive. Feelings are tamped down or ignored, as they are too painful to acknowledge. To become whole again, you will need to allow your feelings to surface. Experiencing them will feel unsettling at first, but allow them to unfold. Get back in touch with your true self. Experiencing the full spectrum of emotions is what makes us human. Bravely face the difficult emotions of anger, fear, shame and sadness.
- Learn to trust yourself. Adult children from dysfunctional families trust in an all-or-nothing manner. They either dive all in or hold people at arms length. Learning who to trust and how much to trust is a process that will take trial and error. Take things slow, let your intuition guide you, and trust that you know best who and what you need in your life.
- Redefine your relationship with the dysfunctional parent. If your troubled parent never showed you approval, attention, or acceptance, they are unlikely to change. If their lives continue to be centered around their addictions and self-centeredness; or if they are just trying to survive their own debilitating health problems, they will continue to not be there for you. Recognize their limitations. Seek out other adults who can give you the love and support you crave, but don’t get, from your troubled parent. Don’t get entangled in their drama. You’re an adult living your best life, let them live theirs, even if it is not pretty.
- Get outside help if you feel you need it. And, if you come from a family where you were sexually or physically abused, the dangers to you and your children may be too great to risk any contact at all with the offending family member.
An article from the Kansas State University counseling service center on “Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming Their Effects” was referenced for this blog.
Listen to my podcast on “Abusive Dysfunctional Parents”, and “Surviving a Dysfunctional Family”, for more commentary on this subject.
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