Growing Up with Drinking or Substance Abuse
When a parent or important adult misuses or abuses alcohol or another substance, it can have a profound effect on the whole family,
but especially on the children. You may have asked yourself, “How was my family affected?”
“How does adult substance abuse affect families?”
Although each family differs, there are some common qualities within families where an adult abuses alcohol or another substance.
These similarities include: the fact that life feels chaotic, people feel inconsistent, roles are unclear, rules are arbitrary, and change
feels daunting. There may also be relational conflict, repetitious and illogical thinking, and perhaps violence and various abuses
including sexual, verbal, and physical. The family is dominated by the co-existence of denial and substance use. The substance use
becomes the major family secret, often denied inside the family as well as to outsiders. In an effort to hold the family together in the
face of difficulties caused by the substance abuse, the family changes its strategies for coping and the beliefs it shares.
Claudia Black, a leading author and theorist regarding the impact of adult substance abuse on children, has written about several
rules in alcoholic homes including, but not limited to, these:
Don’t trust. In alcoholic families, promises are often forgotten, celebrations cancelled and adults’ moods unpredictable. As a
result, children learn not to count on others and often have a hard time believing that others can care enough to follow through on
Don’t feel. Due to the constant pain of living with an adult substance user, a child must “quit feeling” in order to survive. After all,
what’s the use of hurting all the time? In these families, when emotions are expressed, they are often abusive, and are frequently
prompted by drunkenness. These outbursts have no positive result and, along with the drinking, are usually denied the following day.
Thus, children have had few if any opportunities to see emotions expressed appropriately, or used to foster constructive change.
“So,” the child thinks, “why feel anything, when the feelings will only get out of control and won’t change anything anyway? I don’t
want to hurt more than I already do.”
Don’t talk. Children of adult substance users learn in their families not to talk about a huge part of their reality – the drinking or
substance use. This results from the family’s need to deny that a problem exists and that drinking is tied to that problem. That which
is so evident must not be spoken aloud. There is often an unspoken hope that, if no one mentions the drinking, it won’t happen
again. There is also no good time to talk. It is impossible to talk when a parent is drunk; but when that parent is sober, everyone
wants to forget. From this early training, the children often develop a tendency to not talk about anything unpleasant.
“Was the adult in my life using a substance, or abusing it?”
Substance abuse disrupts the consistency and predictability that should be present in a family. It is this disruption, and the resulting
confusion and chaos, that are important — not a medical diagnosis. Even if the adult substance user in your family was not formally
diagnosed, you are probably able to recognize whether alcohol or substance use was, or is, an important influence in your family.
If so, it is important that you understand how you may have been affected.
“If my family is the root of all this, why do my brothers and sisters seem OK?”
Each family member tends to find his or her own way to live with these rules. Claudia Black talks about different “roles” that emerge
for children in their attempts to make sense of the chaos. You may identify with features of one or more of these roles, and some
roles may look more effective than others, but each has its own drawbacks and its own implications.
Hero: These responsible children try to ensure that the family looks “normal” to the rest of the world. In addition, they often project a
personal image of achievement, competence, and responsibility to the outside world. They tend to be academically or professionally
very successful. The cost of such success is often denial of their own feelings and a belief that they are “imposters.”
Adjuster: These children learn never to expect or to plan anything, and tend to follow without question. They often strive to be
invisible and to avoid taking a stand or rocking the boat. As a result, they often come to feel that they are drifting through life and are
out of control.
Placater: These “people pleaser” children learn early to smooth over potentially upsetting situations in the family. They seem to
have an uncanny ability to sense what others are feeling, at the expense of their own feelings. They have a high tolerance for
inappropriate behavior, and often choose careers as helping professionals, which can reinforce their tendencies to ignore their
Mascot: These children are “entertainers,” relying on their sense of humor to distract from or take away the family’s upset. They
tend to have difficulty focusing and making decisions, and have a low tolerance for distress.
Scapegoat: These people are identified as the “family problem.” They are likely to get into various kinds of trouble, including drug
and alcohol abuse, as a way of expressing their anger at the family. They also function as a sort of pressure valve; when tension
builds in the family, the scapegoat will misbehave, allowing the family to avoid dealing with the drinking problem. Scapegoats tend
to be unaware of feelings other than anger.
Abuse/Dependence versus “Co-Dependence”
“Co-dependence” is a term that refers to ways in which family members change, in relation to the substance user, in order to cope
with the disruption caused by the substance use. The most frequent ways are to focus on trying to control the abuse, or to “clean up”
or minimize its harmful consequences. You, your siblings, and even your other parent may have adopted this co-dependent focus.
As a result, you may have become quite good at taking care of others and at anticipating others’ needs, and feel responsible for
doing so. You may justify this behavior by telling yourself that you are only trying to help the person become sober, or trying to
minimize the harm to your family. However, the focus on your loved one can become self-destructive, causing you to lose your sense
of self as you take responsibility for another person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. This “enabling” can also prevent the person
from getting better, by helping them avoid the consequences of their behavior. Melody Beattie has written extensively about these
co-dependent adaptations, and many people have found her books to be very helpful for increasing self-understanding.
“The past is the past; I just want to move on.”
Trying to forget the past without understanding how it affected you will usually not work, and may prolong its costs. Because you
learned as a child to relate to others by following your family’s rules, you are likely to bring these same behaviors into your adult
relationships, even if you do not think you will. You may be surprised to find at college that you experience feelings of dissatisfaction,
apathy, or distance from other people, similar to those feelings you felt at home. Furthermore, even if you “swore off” alcohol
because your parent drinks, you may still begin abusing alcohol or other substances. Additionally, you may repeat patterns of
relating from your family of origin; you may have outbursts of emotion, or you may get involved with someone who is like the
substance user in your life or with someone like your parent who was the co-dependent.
The best way to “move on” is to squarely face the past, its importance, and its meaning for you. Often this means understanding
your parents and yourself, so that the healing process can begin. You can actively work to replace self-destructive behaviors with
healthy behaviors. Summarizing from Melody Beattie, recovery from codependency involves accepting your reality, becoming in
tune with your thoughts and feelings, setting boundaries in your relationships, expressing your wants and needs, and establishing a
sense of self-worth, self-love, and self-appreciation.
You can learn more about making peace with the past in several ways:
You may choose to read some of the excellent books written about adult children of alcoholics, or about co-dependence.
Twelve-step programs like those that help substance abusers to recover are also useful for members of the family, and have been
adapted specifically for family members. Many communities offer such groups, appropriate to the specific addictive process that
was present in your family (such as Al-Anon for families with alcohol abuse, or Co-Dependents Anonymous/CoDA), and at no cost.
Recovery is possible, you can get support, and you are worth it.
You may opt for individual or group therapy. Many university counseling centers offer films, workshops, support groups, and
individual or group counseling where you can explore your unique needs considering your family experiences. Contact your
university counseling center or local community mental health provider to learn more.
Counseling Center at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign