Adult Children

It’s always uncomfortable to see someone go off the deep end. If the person is a neighbor or someone in a psychiatric facility, there is always someone to call, their doctor or a local emergency service. But what if someone is having a meltdown on an online forum? An anonymous person in a foreign land? An anonymous person who wants to make vitriolic personal attacks on YOU?!??

First of all, if you’re thinking this might be about a particular person or situation, this is Thanksgiving week, and holidays are well known as stressful times, times when there are an unusual number of suicides, so it could be about anyone. Too many times, a family history of alcoholism is behind all of it.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where alcohol was not used. But I have known people who did grow up in alcoholic homes and have seen the agony it caused in their lives. Friendship with these people was not easy. At times they turned on me, accusing me of alcoholism or whatever issue was uppermost in their minds. At other times they turned on themselves, attempting suicide. But they could also be outgoing and entertaining. At first I was curious about them, how they got that way and what they could do about it. Now I avoid them like the plague. I am an intensely private person; I like long silences and avoid the limelight, while they seem to need constant excitement, reassurance, and contact with people. They are heartbreaking and they soak up your energy without giving you anything in return.

But as someone who worked in social services and mental health for waaay too many years, even while someone is engaging in a vicious personal attack on me, I can’t help but sense their pain and turmoil, and try to throw them a lifeline before running like hell in the opposite direction.

So what do I recommend for someone whose life is out of control?

Not pop psychology, “the study of the obvious by the incompetent”, with its glib assertions, and often destructive sex role stereotypes, not to mention a thinly veiled contempt for the people it describes, while the author rakes in millions from their shattered lives. People in pain will grasp onto anything, whether true or not, whether it helps them or not.

There is Adult Children of Alcoholics, very helpful for some:

We lived life from the standpoint of victims. Having an over developed sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we trusted ourselves, giving in to others. We became reactors rather than actors, letting others take the initiative.

We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. We keep choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents….

Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable solutions….

Their solution seems to be something called “reparenting” which I’m not thrilled about–it seems like psychobabble to me–but maybe it’s the glue that holds together the real value, a support group for those who need people around them constantly and have exhausted the emotional resources of their friends and families.

Then there are the more educated group of writers, often adult children of alcoholics themselves, who do have credentials, but have made a study of the subject out of personal interest, and not to make millions by poking fun at someone else’s pain.

The best one I have seen is: Children of Alcoholism: A Survivor’s Manual by Seixas and Youcha.

Then there is the immensely popular Codependent No More by Melodie Beatty, preview in google books.

Another, a little simpler, is Adult children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz, which has the advantage of having some information online:

The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children

1. Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
4. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.

and so on.
Reading a few reviews on the Amazon link will give more recommendations.

Finally, there is a more useful set of paradigms.

Wegscheider (1981) developed the family role identification theory that has become the primary paradigm for researchers and clinicians addressing alcoholism and ACOA issues. She labeled her four family roles the Hero, the Scapegoat, the Lost Child, and the Mascot. The child fulfilling the Hero role within an alcoholic family appears competent, serious, and overachieving to others, but often feels inadequate and guilty. This child usually assumes responsibilities greater than those of same age peers, and tends to engage in a wide variety of care-taking behaviors. Heroes receive self-validation through the feedback of others. This child serves the purpose of bringing esteem to the family system through his or her accomplishments. Heroes are generally well organized, and tend to assume control or responsibility for situations and others. This child often becomes a pseudo-parent/spouse (Goglia et al., 1992) as s/he grows up.

The family Scapegoat is the child who typically presents with oppositional or defiant behaviors and attitudes. The significance of this child to the family is the opportunity to focus the blame for problems on a source other than the alcoholic. As the family’s “bad seed,” s/he is frequently blamed for the negative atmosphere in the home. Consequently, s/he often develops a preference for non-family activities and is typically the first child to adopt peer group values. This tends to happen at an earlier age than for most children and often leads to involvement in anti-social or destructive behaviors.

The Lost Child’s behavior reveals a withdrawn child prone to solitary pursuits away from the activities of other family members. These children do not generally develop adequate social skills, and tend to compensate through the formation of a vital and active fantasy life. The Mascot is an individual who relies upon humor when facing uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, or situations. The function of the Mascot is to bring relief to the family that is experiencing adverse consequences related to parental drinking, and the behaviors of the Scapegoat. The Mascot becomes keenly aware of his/her influence upon others, and develops beliefs that the best way to survive is to give people what they want or need–at the expense of developing an awareness of what the Mascot feels, wants, or needs.

The process of adopting one of these roles is initiated in an effort to satisfy the survival needs of each family member (Huberty & Huberty, 1986; Ruben, 1992) as well as the family system. The roles adopted by children in alcoholic families tend to emerge initially as effective behavioral responses to persistent feelings of fear, anger, shame, insecurity, confusion, guilt, resentment, loneliness, powerlessness, or rejection (Murphy, 1984). These responses are engendered through the presence of an alcoholic parent, and the child’s effort to manage what is typically a progressively worsening family situation.

Difficulties emerge for children from alcoholic families because of the rigidity with which they adhere to their role. They engage in the behaviors consistent with their family role both inside and outside the home (Perkins, 1989), and tend to perpetuate their role into adulthood (Harris & MacQuiddy, 1991). The lack of flexibility in response to the specific and changing demands of their environment increases the likelihood their behavioral responses and decision-making will be relatively ineffective.

Something should also be said about boundaries here, but I’m not sure of a particular author to recommend. One common side effect of the alcoholic family is that the children somehow don’t differentiate between their emotions and the alcoholic parent’s emotions.  They may feel embarrassed for their parent’s actions while missing the point that they have no control over those actions.  The parent may confuse them further by claiming the child or the spouse is responsible for the parent’s drinking.  I’m not sure what else to say about this except to perk up your ears when someone makes the bizarre claim that they have no autonomy over their own actions and that someone has forced them to do something.  Is someone holding a gun to their head?

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Now, there are some things that cannot be said on some blogs, but this is my blog and I can say them here.

1. Sexual abuse of children is wrong. It is called pedophilia. It is illegal. It is hurtful. Yes, it has been practiced in various cultures historically. So has slavery and torture. I would like to think we as a culture have made progress in protecting the weak from abusers. I will not be using the phrase “child brides” to whitewash pedophilia so that destructive people  don’t have to feel socially awkward. I will be using the word “pedophilia”.

2. Genocide is genocide.

3. “The Taming of the Shrew” is not a model for healthy gender roles. A person who believes women should be silent, obedient, and subjected to brutal treatment is deeply disturbed.

4. Dressing up like a woman in order to act uneducated and stupid perpetuates ugly and damaging stereotypes of women and is deeply offensive. What would we think of someone who dressed in blackface and pretended to be an obnoxious black person in order to discredit blacks?

Is a person on a forum who takes issue with pedophilia, genocide, brutality against women, and offensive gender stereotypes merely being provocative? Or is the person who uses a forum to promote these practices being provocative?

More to the point, for those who have a blog, what kind of world do you want for your children, your grandchildren, and yourself? Because the comments you allow or disallow, for or against hate, shape the world we all must live in.

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