Addiction dysfunction and chaos are the legacy adult children of alcoholics. We’re going to give the laundry list of traits you may have inherited. Nothing is normal in a family where there is substance or alcohol use because those those substances change behavior and brain function. You already know that, right? You can’t have order when people are not functioning at full capacity. We’re not supposed to say addiction anymore. We’re supposed to say alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder.(SUD) But how does a name change help us to cope with a childhood of adverse experiences and unloving relationships?

Do new terms contribute to our willingness to talk about the consequences of addiction? Is it better to say my parents have an addiction? Or is it better to say my parents have a substance use disorder? I’ve actually never heard anyone say that a loved one has a SUD. In a way it feels like making the problem worse. It’s clinical yet the experience couldn’t be more personal.

What is family addiction dysfunction

Anyone else grow up in an alcoholic family system? Well, then you know how crazy and painful it is. You simply can’t believe you’re so unhappy. Every day there’s a crisis. Nothing works. Parents and siblings are full of rage and secrets. Children are abused both mentally and physically. When you grow up with alcoholism and addiction, family members have only one objective: keep the addiction secret at all costs. This sworn duty to lie, deny, and protect has 14 long-term effects. Many children of alcoholics bring these childhood behaviors into their adult relationships with a strange paradox. It’s almost impossible to relate their present-day problems back to their past.

14 traits of addiction family dysfunction children of alcoholics have to overcome

This timeless list best describes the issues many adult children of alcoholics face. But there is more to it than even these problems. The pain needs to be numbed, so children of alcoholics and addicts tend to repeat the use because it is familiar to them, but there are many more traits people often don’t even know they have.

  1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
  2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  3. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  4. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
  5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
  6. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.
  7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
  8. We became addicted to excitement.
  9. We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
  10. We have “stuffed” our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (Denial).
  11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
  12. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
  13. Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
  14. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.

Denial is the foundation of addiction dysfunction

Denial runs deep. It’s almost always easier to minimize, rationalize, or excuse the root cause of our problems. But the truth behind most of our problems often lies somewhere in this list above. Taking care of the dirty laundry involves three concise steps.

1. Talk about your family with family members and with people who understand

Addiction is a family disease that affects generations.  Working through the dirty laundry of addiction isn’t usually a healthy family activity because many of us are still sworn to secrecy.  Therefore, the best way to recover is to find a recovery program.  Many people find hope and healing in 12 Step programs like Al-Anon, ACA, Nar-Anon, CoDA and Celebrate Recovery. All of these programs are known for welcoming newcomers and showing them the ropes.

2. Sort out the difficulties the way you would laundry

Imagine collecting all of the clothes that a family of five has worn for the last 30 years and cramming them into one small washer? Wouldn’t it be lovely if all of those clothes would fit into one load?

Family addiction dysfunction shapes every aspect of our lives. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication and decision making are all developed in the rickety scaffolding of a shaky foundation. Children’s emotional growth in some areas is often stunted while other areas develop too quickly.

Challenging these life-long habits takes small steps and lots of repetition. Which areas of your life is the most stressful right now? Finances, family life, work, health, relationships? Pick one or two key areas to start talking over with a trusted friend, sponsor, counselor, or accountability partner.

3. Soak, spot, treat, and salvage the pieces of your life you want to keep

Picture your favorite white shirt or dress. Now, let’s pretend your neighbor’s dog drug it out of your laundry basket through a pile of mud out in to the street. Then it got run over by a car. As you were reaching down to scoop it up, you accidentally spilled a sippy cup of grape juice and a chocolate mocha on the garment. Would all be lost? Would you love the item any less?

With enough time and special care, there’s an outside chance your favorite item (family member, old habits) might still be usable. It probably won’t be as perfect as it was in the store, but it can still be worth holding onto. Maybe you’ll be able to re-purpose at least part of the item and give it new life. We’re talking about loved ones here. Can you repair relationships in recovery? We know you ca.

Recovery isn’t a miracle cure, and sometimes it seems like reconciliation will NEVER happen, but don’t give up too soon.  By learning to detach, set boundaries, and take care of yourself, many adult children can eventually forge a new relationship with their parents and siblings when both work on the change. The amount of time spent together might change drastically, as well as safe topics to discuss, but many can learn to salvage some small part of the relationship.


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Leslie Glass

Leslie Glass became a recovery advocate and co-founder of Reach Out Recovery in 2011, encouraged by her daughter Lindsey who had struggled with substances as a teen and young adult. Learning how to manage the family disease of addiction with no roadmap to follow inspired the mother and daughter to create Reach Out Recovery's website to help others experiencing the same life-threatening problems. Together they produced the the 2016 ASAM Media Award winning documentary, The Secret World of Recovery, and the teen prevention documentary, The Silent Majority, distributed by American Public Television. In her career, Leslie has worked in advertising, publishing, and magazines as a writer of both fiction and non fiction. She is the author of 9 bestselling crime novels, featuring NYPD Dt.Sgt. April Woo. Leslie has has served as a Public Member of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education and as a Trustee of the New York City Police Foundation. For from 1990 to 2017, Leslie was the Trustee of the Leslie Glass Foundation. Leslie is a proud member of Rotary International.

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