The trauma of children of addicts and alcoholics

Living with an addict (including alcoholics) [1] it can feel like life in a war zone. The addict’s personality changes caused by addiction create chaos. The family dynamic is organized around the substance abuser, who acts like a tyrant, denying that drinking or using is a problem, while bossing around and blaming others. To cope and avoid confrontation, family members often tacitly agree to act as if everything is normal, not to rock the boat, and not to mention addiction. Family members deny what they know, feel, and see. All this has a high psychological cost, which often causes trauma, especially in the most vulnerable, children. However, more than half deny having an addicted father.

Dysfunctional Parenting Causes Codependency

In families with addictions, parenting is unreliable, inconsistent, and unpredictable. There is never a sense of security and consistency, allowing children to thrive. Most experience emotional, if not physical, abuse and thus have trust issues and anger about their past, sometimes directed at the sober parent as well. In some cases, the sober parent is so stressed that he is more impatient, controlling, and irritable than the alcoholic, that he may have withdrawn from family life. Children may blame the sober parent for neglecting their needs or failing to protect them from abuse or unjust decrees issued by the alcoholic. In high-conflict couples, both parents are emotionally unavailable.

Children’s needs and feelings are ignored. They may be too embarrassed to have friends and suffer from shame, guilt, and loneliness. Many learn to become self-sufficient and it is not necessary to prevent someone from having power over them again.

Because an addict’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable, the vulnerability and authenticity required for intimate relationships are considered too risky. Children live with continual fear and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, creating constant anxiety well into adulthood. Many become hypervigilant and suspicious and learn to contain and deny their emotions, which are usually shamed or denied by parents. In the extreme, they can be so detached that they are insensitive to their feelings. The environment and these effects are how codependency is transmitted, even among children of addicts who are not addicts.

family roles

Children often take on one or more roles that help ease tension in the family. Typical roles are:

The hero. The hero is usually the oldest son and the one most identified with a father role, often helping with parental duties. Heroes are responsible and self-sufficient. They sacrifice and do the right thing to stay calm. They are good leaders, they are successful, but they are often anxious, motivated, controlled and alone.

the adjuster. The adjuster doesn’t complain. Instead of being in charge like the hero, the adjuster tries to fit in and adapt. Therefore, as adults, they have difficulty taking charge of their lives and pursuing goals.

Pleasure. The appeaser is the most sensitive to the feelings of others and tries to meet the emotional needs of others, but neglects his own. They must also discover their wants and needs and learn to pursue their goals.

The scapegoat. The scapegoat engages in negative behavior to distract the addict’s family and express feelings that he or she cannot communicate. Some scapegoats resort to addiction, promiscuity, or other exaggerated behaviors to distract themselves and control their emotions. When in trouble, parents rally around a common problem.

The lost Boy. The lost child is usually a younger child who withdraws into a world of fantasy, music, video games, or the Internet, seeking safety in solitude. Your relationships and social skills may necessarily suffer.

The pet. Also a younger or younger child, the pet manages fear and insecurity by being cute, funny, or flirtatious to ease family tension.

Adult children of alcoholics and addicts (ACA)

While these roles help children cope with growth, as adults they often become fixed personality styles that prevent the full development and expression of the self. Roles prevent the authentic communication necessary for intimacy. As adults, deviating from a role can feel just as threatening as it would have in childhood, but it is necessary for full recovery from codependency. Roles can also hide undiagnosed depression and anxiety. Depression is often chronic and low-grade, called dysthymia.


Many develop traumatic symptoms of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, with painful flashbacks and flashbacks similar to those of a war veteran. Physical health can also be affected. The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult negative health symptoms and childhood trauma. The ACE incidents they measured included divorce, various forms of abuse, neglect, and also living with an addict or substance abuser in the family. Children of addicts and alcoholics often experience multiple ACEs.

drinking second hand

Lisa Frederiksen, the daughter of an alcoholic mother, coined the term “Secondhand Drinking” or SHD to refer to the negative impact an alcoholic has on other people in the form of “toxic stress.” It is toxic because it is relentless and children cannot escape. In her own recovery, she made the connection between ACE and SHD and how toxic stress can result in generational addiction, including her own struggle with an eating disorder.

Both SHD and ACE are two of the key risk factors for developing addiction (of which alcoholism is one). The two key risk factors are childhood trauma and the social environment. Given the genetic link to SHD, a person experiencing SHD-related ACEs has three of the five key risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).”

Conversations with her mom helped Lisa forgive her and allowed her mom to forgive herself:

During our conversations, mom identified with five ACEs and that her own mom (my grandmother) had a drinking problem…All of us had long-term exposure to second-hand alcohol use. To be clear, not all ACEs are related to SHD, of course. My mom had two and I had one of those too.

“Mom and I discussed my realization that I had blindly participated in passing on the consequences of my own untreated SHD-related ACEs to my daughters in the same way that my mother had blindly passed hers on to me. And these consequences were not limited to developing alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder These were the consequences of insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, self-criticism, unclear boundaries, accommodation to the unacceptable, constant worry and other physical, emotional and quality of life from toxic stress.It was this powerful insight that motivated me to treat my untreated SHD-related ACEs and help my daughters treat theirs.

“The bottom line is that these discoveries helped my mother finally forgive herself the way I forgave her years ago. It’s not the kind of forgiveness that excuses behaviors that cause trauma, but the kind of forgiveness that stops wanting a different outcome. It’s the kind of forgiveness that recognizes that we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.”

[1] In the recent DSM-5 manual for mental disorders, alcoholism is now referred to as an alcohol use disorder and alcoholics are now referred to as a person with an alcohol use disorder. Similar changes were made for other substance-related disorders, classified by substance, such as opioids, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, and cannabis.

©Darlene Lancer 2017

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