Helping Children from Addicted & Dysfunctional Families

A. Understanding the Problems of Children from Addicted Families

In the US, twenty million children are experiencing physical, verbal and emotional abuse from parents who are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. This is tragic when we consider that childhood is the foundation on which our entire lives are built. When a child’s efforts to bond with an addicted parent are thwarted, the result is confusion and intense anxiety. In order to survive in a home devoid of healthy parental love, limits, and consistency, they must develop “survival skills” very early in life.

In a chaotic, dysfunctional family, the lack of external control through consistent loving discipline results in an inability to develop internal discipline and self control. They learn not to depend on their parents to meet their needs – instead, it is all up to themselves. And, because they can’t trust their own parents, they become generally suspicious and mistrustful of all human beings. Yet, they are defenseless against the projection of blame and often feel responsible for parents’ addiction. They become “little adults” that feel compelled to accept responsibilities well beyond their years.

One authority on these matters, Dr. Tim Cermack, says children from addicted homes actually suffer from emotional and psychological symptoms that are best described as a combination of codependency and a variant of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is most widely known as a malady afflicting Vietnam veterans. According to Dr. Cermack it

…occurs when people are subject to stresses of such intensity and nature that they clearly lie outside the range of normal human experiences. The effects are especially severe if the stress is caused by a series of traumatic events, and is of human origin. The effects are even more severe if the individual under stress has rigid coping strategies, or if the person’s support system includes those who encourage denial of the stress. *

Growing up in an alcoholic family is certainly traumatic. In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. Survival becomes a full-time job. PTSD also leads to a condition called “psychic numbing” experienced as a sense of estrangement and being detached to the point of feeling there is no place or group to which we truly belong. Emotions become constricted, especially in the areas where intimacy, tenderness, and sexuality are involved. Is it any wonder that these children are eight times more likely become addicts themselves or to marry an alcoholic or drug addict.

B. Common Struggles of Children from Alcoholic/Drug-Addicted Homes

1. Guessing at what is normal.

2. Difficulty having fun.

3. Judging themselves mercilessly.

4. Difficulty with emotional relationships.

5. Feeling “different” from other people.

6. Tendency to be impulsive.

7. Either super responsible or super irresponsible.

8. Desperately seeking approval and affirmation.

9. Suffering from chronic anxiety.

10. Lacking self discipline.

11. Compulsive liars.

12. Suffering from a critical deficiency of self-respect.

13. Fear and mistrust for authority figures.

C. Healing Begins by “Breaking the Alcoholic Family Rules”

Early intervention significantly lessens the life-long effects of a traumatic childhood. The way Christian workers can best help these children is to lovingly assist them to “break the rules” of their dysfunctional family. These rules, according to Claudia Black in her book It will Never Happen to Me are “don’t trust, don’t feel, don’t talk.”

The first need of children from addicted families is learn that they are just normal kids who have been trying to cope in a extremely stressful and chaotic environment. While their alcoholic home is not normal, they are normal kids. Their biggest problem is usually not having anyone they trust with whom to they can talk openly about how they feel and what they are experiencing. Opening up and sharing from the heart in a safe atmosphere is a tremendously healing experience. We must make sure to provide time for such experiences. Still, it may take quite a while to gain the trust of children from troubled families. Usually they need enough non-confrontive interaction with workers and the opportunity to observe them in action as they relate to others. Opening up can be extremely difficult, especially because they have learned their entire lives that they must protect their families secrets. They can feel like traitors, betraying their family and the illusion that everything is all right at home.

Children from addicted families have learned to survive by suppressing their emotions. They are told that their perceptions are wrong and that their feelings are not acceptable. So, we need to let them know that it’s OK to have feelings and that they won’t be rejected for having them.

D. Some Other Suggestions

  1. Learn more about alcohol and drug addiction and its impact on children.
  2. Help them learn to take care of themselves and that it is OK to think about their own safety when faced with dangerous situations.
  3. Help them to learn to have fun.
  4. Help them to learn from the Bible how God sees them. And that His love is unconditional, not performance-based.
  5. Talk about honesty and its rewards.
  6. Bring them to structured support groups where they can share their experiences with others.

E. Resources:

Confident Kids support groups are a wonderful resource for helping children from alcoholic and dysfunctional families.

Official web site of Adult Children of Alcoholics International

* Timmen L. Cermack, MD, A Primer on Adult Children of Alcoholics, Health  Communications, Pompano Beach, FL, 1985

From RESCUE Magazine, January/February 1996 issue. The journal of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

The Homeless and Addiction Recovery

drinkEvery substance abuse counselor has probably at one time or another pointed to the “skid row bum” and said, “You don’t have to be like him to be an addict or alcoholic! ” While this type of person may represent only 5% of all addicts, Christians who are in recovery have a lot more in common with him than they may think! A drive through the streets of any major city reminds us that the “skid row bum” has not disappeared. Alarmingly, he has been joined by hundreds of thousands of people now called “the homeless. ”

Who are they? 18-35 year old men, women who are 16-30 years of age, and single parents with children now represent the bulk of the homeless population. Most are minorities and local people, not transients, who have been homeless for one year or less. On today’s “skid row” we find people who are dependent on a variety of drugs, emotionally dysfunctional, mentally ill, and medically at-risk, especially for HIV/AIDS. A high percentage of them have been sexually and physically abused.

Besides not having a home to call their own, most of the 500,000 to 3 million people identified as homeless have something else in common – addiction and mental illness. According to one study, up to two-thirds of homeless adults suffer from alcoholism and at least half suffer from drug disorders. (1) In their book, A Nation In Denial, Alice Baum and Donald Burnes shatter many of the myths surrounding the root causes of homelessness, which have little to do with the economy, governmental social policies, lack of affordable housing, and so forth. According to their research at least 65-85% of all homeless adults suffer from chronic alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, or some combination of the three, often complicated by serious medical problems. At least 1/3 of the homeless suffer from severe and persistent chronic psychiatric disorders. Forty to fifty percent of these individuals are “dually diagnosed” – suffering from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, as well. (2)

Ultimately, the condition labeled “homelessness” is best described as a state of “disaffiliation” or complete alienation from meaningful human relationships and the social support systems most people have working for them. Most homeless people are either addicts themselves, or are the products of dysfunctional families and broken homes that were significantly impacted by addiction. These are root problems and, unless they are adequately addressed, any other help we provide will not be effective.

While millions of dollars may be spent on education, housing, and employment for the homeless, these efforts do little to improve their lots if they are unable to stay sober by working through the very same recovery issues that many of us are dealing with in our own lives. Sadly enough, while these problems are on the rise, the resources that are available are usually priced beyond what those who need help the most can afford! Between 1978 and 1984 there was a 17% decrease in treatment beds for the indigent (those without insurance or funds to pay for care). According to recent congressional figures, only 12. 5% of the nation’s 6.5 million drug users have access to publicly funded treatment. (3)

Christian Recovery & Homelessness

Is it possible that what we’ve called the “Christian Recovery Movement” could be helpful in solving this problem? Recovery in the Christian community is still largely a phenomenon of the middle class. Most Christian support groups meet in predominantly white suburban churches, usually outside of the reach of inner city people who could greatly benefit from them. Additionally, almost all of the Christian self-help literature is written with a cultural and educational bias aimed at this social strata. There are, however, some encouraging signs.

Rethinking Rescue Missions

For many people, the stereotype of the “rescue mission” or “gospel mission” is that it is a place for middle-aged alcoholics gathered for a sermon, bowl of soup, and a semi-clean place to “crash” for the night. To the contrary, the types of people who now look to inner city missions for help have changed dramatically. They are younger men and women, and entire families, with deeper problems in their lives than ever before. Many rescue missions are responding by developing some very progressive and effective programs.

Comprehensive recovery-oriented programs, using the   Twelve Steps   and other   treatment strategies   are now operating to help these homeless men and   women   lead healthy, stable lives. Just how effective “Christian recovery” can be is powerfully illustrated in an SRI Gallup study of recovery from homelessness conducted for a rescue mission in Knoxville, TN. This study, conducted by a secular research organization, had no thought of “Christian recovery” principles factored into it. They identified six critical “life themes” that were strongly present in the lives of people who were able to recover from homelessness. (4) Interestingly enough, these “life themes” clearly reverberate through the Twelve Steps. The following are listed according to their degree of importance:

Spirituality – as a source of personal strength and as the basis for rebuilding relationships with other people.

Self-Insight – by overcoming denial, acceptance leads to a new and accurate knowledge of oneself.

Security – feeling safe both physically and emotionally

Self-Awareness – being in touch with one’s own emotions

People Support – having others who care enough to be truly involved with one’s life (the total opposite of “disaffiliation”)

Suppression – being reconciled with one’s past and able reject negative thoughts, worries, and a poor self-concept

The movement to bring Christian recovery to the homeless is still very much in its infancy. Countless gratifying “12th Step” opportunities exist at inner city missions for Christians in recovery who are willing to transcend their cultural ” comfort zones.” Rescue missions throughout the nation are in desperate need of staff members and volunteers who understand recovery and can share it with others. If you would like to become involved, contact the AGRM for more information.


“Mental Illness and Substance Abuse in the Contemporary Homeless Population,” Paper Submitted at the Professional Symposium, Recent Findings and New Approaches to the Treatment of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse, Pamela  J. Fischer &a mp; William. Breakley, Tulsa, OK 1988

A Nation In Denial, Alice Baum & Donald Burnes. Westview Press, Boulder, CO 1993  Baum & Burnes

“Rescue Ministries of Knoxville, Tennessee Recovery Study, Summary of Research,” SRI Gallup, Lincoln, Nebraska, July 1992

This article appeared in the Summer 1994 edition of STEPS magazine, journal of the National Association for Christian Recovery.        © NACR, 1994, all rights reserved

Romantic Relationships in Early Recovery

Why do you say addicts should avoid new relationships with members of the opposite sex in the first year of recovery?

A. Avoid losing the focus on personal issues – For addicts, real lasting change occurs only after a long and often painful process of self discovery.   This involves understanding their own addictive behaviors, repressed emotions, and destructive thought patterns.   However, their denial uses the feelings and behaviors of others to avoid facing their own pain and dishonesty and from assuming responsibility for their controlling and shame-producing actions.   Introducing a romantic relationship, with an intense focus on the other person, too early in recovery inevitably “short-circuits” the important process of reconnecting with self and learning to become responsible for one’s own feelings and behavior.

B. Avoid the illusions and dishonesty of infatuation – The beginning phase of recovery is always a very emotional and painful time.   Still, all this pain can be an important motivator for recovery, providing great incentive to take the difficult steps necessary for real change to occur.   However, “falling in love” (and taking the focus off self) can easily create a false sense of well-being.   In the “scary,” unfamiliar, and often painful time of early recovery, becoming “special” to a person of the opposite sex is a tremendous ego booster. For addicts, this can create the illusion of being much farther long in the process of recovery than they really are.   Additionally, the commitment to “rigorous honesty” is usually forsaken as they strive to make the best possible impression to win the affections of the other person.

C. Avoid relapse from the stress of codependency – One definition of codependency is simply using other people to create good feelings within ourselves.   People in early recovery can easily transfer their dependency on alcohol and drugs to dependency on another person.   Until they understand the issues related to their own codependency, they are certain to fall right into old dishonest and unhealthy ways of relating.   By itself, the stress of early recovery often results in relapse.   Using inadequate and unhealthy relationship skills to deal with a person of the opposite sex is certain to create frustration and even more stress.   The likelihood of using drugs and alcohol is sure to increase because this is the way the addict has always attempted to manage difficult emotions.

D. Avoid the sex trap – Addicts in early recovery are especially vulnerable to sexual temptation.   If they get into a romantic relationship too early, they are virtually guaranteed to fail in this area.   They become involved in sexual activity because they simply do not know how to relate in a truly intimate way with the opposite sex and suffer from a serious lack of self control.   Additionally, to most addicts, sex is just like another “drug.”   The altered state of consciousness it creates can give hurting people a false sense of well-being and ease feelings of pain and insecurity.   Failure in this area can be extremely devastating to a new Christian, causing a tremendous sense of defeat and discouragement.   And, if they do not repent of sexual failure, the result is a serious state of dishonesty that totally derails the recovery process.

E. Avoid “enablers” and “fixers” – Those who are romantically attracted to individuals whom they know are in recovery programs usually have serious problems with codependency in their own lives.   People who are “enablers” and “fixers” are actually attracted to troubled people of the opposite sex.   Additionally, since these individuals are in denial about their own need for recovery, they usually put pressure on addicts to leave programs prematurely, convincing them that they are not “that bad” or that all they need is a good partner to get better.”

  F. Avoid cutting off relationships with others in recovery – Because addicts have used people to create good feelings within themselves, all of their relationships, especially romantic ones, have been completely self-centered.   Therefore, one of the most important phases of early recovery is learning to relate to others of both sexes on an honest, non-romantic and intimate level.   This can be a tremendously healing experience.   However, becoming entangled in an “exclusive” relationship is certain to circumvent this process.   The result is missing out on the blessing of positive and meaningful relationships with other recovering people in mutual honesty and self-revelation.

G.   Avoid situations   where drugs and alcohol are found – One final thought to consider; sometimes as newly recovering people pursue romantic relationships they may end up in situations where alcohol and drugs are used.   Often the people they are attracted to are substance abusers themselves.   It is not uncommon for men and women who have just begun the recovery process to forsake their commitment to abstinence to please – and even to get closer to – people to whom they are attracted.   When this happens, they are sure to find themselves back on the road to destruction.