Many children grow into adulthood carrying baggage they picked up during childhood. Dysfunctional behaviors and belief systems which they learned from their parents are often carried into their adult relationships.

Father vacuum. One of the roles the father plays in the home, whether he knows it or not, is that of modeling our heavenly Father. Many children have grown into adulthood with a distorted view of God our Father because they could not trust their earthly father. When you say "father" to some children, they think of a father who may have been abusive, neglectful, or not there when they needed him. Robert S. McGee in his work, Father Hunger, states, "When the average person in the pew thinks in terms of a father who was unexpressive, absent, workaholic, alcoholic, or even, abusive, what is he or she likely to think of God as a heavenly Father?" (19).

Of course, no father can compare with our heavenly Father because no earthly father is perfect. A study of the names of God is a good place to begin for the person who is suffering from a father vacuum or for the man who wants to be a better father. The heavenly Father is the model for the earthly father as provider, healer of hurts, and example of righteousness. Children should see holy living in action through their father. The father should carry the banner of God's love, be the shepherd of the family, and be a presence of peace. One of the names of God that brings assurance and should be practiced by all fathers is being present-Jehovah-shammah "THE LORD IS THERE" (Ezekiel 48:35). Those who have a father vacuum can be assured that "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1).

Guilt-Ridden Parents
One of the most difficult issues for a parent to work through is realizing late in the parenting process that he or she has been a failure as a parent. A father who was helping me one day at our home said, "My son has run away from home and has been gone over a year. We continue to check with the police, but they have no clue as to his whereabouts." Then he said with a broken voice, "I have been a terrible role model. I am now serving the Lord; however, during my son's important years, I was not there for him. My home was the bars."

People who have tremendous guilt due to feelings of failure as a parent often give into inappropriate behavior by their children. A mother who had a 21-year-old son living in her home told my wife and me that sometimes she permitted her son to abuse her verbally and physically. He was also allowed to drink alcohol in the home, and this was against her values. I asked her why she permitted her son to abuse her and drink in her home, and she said, "He had a difficult time during my divorce, and I don't want to hurt him anymore!"

This mother had not been the best of mothers as I later learned. She had committed her life to Christ and was now involved in ministry; however, her past haunted her, and she felt guilty as a parent and would not uphold her newly established value system. It was apparent that the son had lost respect for his mother.

How should this mother respond to her son? I encouraged her to do four things: (1) Have a talk with her son and apologize for her past mistakes as a mother, (2) tell him she loves him too much to permit him to continue his disrespectful attitude and unconcern for her standards in the home, (3) tell him she will always love and pray for him, and (4) tell him she is going to hold him responsible for his actions as God holds her responsible. Along with this information, I encouraged her to be consistent and do all she could to keep the lines of communication open even if he left home.

Some mothers prepare their teenage daughters for premarital sexual activities by helping them with birth control plans. They may feel guilty asking their teenage daughter to abstain from sex outside of marriage especially if they did not. By their own drinking habits, some fathers prepare their sons for their first drink; or by making sexually explicit materials available, they prepare them for premarital sexual encounters. Whether working from guilt or not, this line of thinking contributes to an addictive society. Just because parents have broken the rules does not mean that children must follow in the same pattern. Stand firm, holding them accountable for their actions as long as you are supporting them whether they are living in your home, in a dorm room, or in an apartment.

Fifty-Year-Old Boys

An addictive society is the perfect environment for a life of irresponsibility (all play and very little work). Add to this environment many people who have come from a home where there were irresponsible or absent parents, and you find many who choose to pursue pleasure as their chief goal instead of facing the challenge of life. The consequences of such pleasure seeking are 50-year-old males who are still boys. Michael Horton in his work, The Law of Perfect Freedom, explains the mind-set that is centered on self. "In our self-centered, individualistic, now-oriented culture, we can leave our debts from the past in a nursing home and our debts for the future to our children. But for now, it's Miller Time" (134).

While traveling on a busy freeway in Los Angeles, I heard a preacher on the radio describe the difference between a man and a boy. "Boys play house-men build homes. Boys make babies-men raise families. Boys demand their rights-men assume responsibility. Boys look for ways to get out of work-men look for work." The Apostle Paul says, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childless ways behind me" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

The breakdown of the family and its effect on young men have become a social sore that is festering. Over 30 years ago, United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then the Assistant Secretary of Labor, discussed this issue.

From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future-that community asks for and gets chaos . . . [In such a society] crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure-these are not only to be expected, they are very nearly inevitable (Bennett, 53).

If you are dealing with hand-me-down baggage, please go back to the story of Josiah found in 2 Chronicles 33-35 and prayerfully study this passage. Also, look again at the 1 Peter 1:17-25 and focus on this passage. Ask the Lord to help you start a new model of living that will glorify Him.

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries
All Rights Reserved

Moses writes in Exodus 20:5-6, "For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." Much is said about children being under the curse of their parents' sin. Children are not responsible for their parents' sin. There are scriptures that clearly support this fact. "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin" (Deuteronomy 24:16). "The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son" (Ezekiel 18:20).

Notice again in Exodus 20:6, "but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." Our focus should be on this part of the so called "generational curse" in these verses. In a court case it was stated, "There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents." Children often grow up to be dysfunctional in their lifestyles when their parents were that type of role model. "If we, as parents, live sinful and psychologically unhealthy lives, there will be a profound effect upon our children, grandchildren, and perhaps other descendants as well. God is not punishing our offspring for our sins, we are, by not living the right way" (Meier, Ratcliff, and Rowe, 45).

In 2 Chronicles 33-35, there is a narrative of hand-me-down behaviors and a stop to this trap. Josiah was raised in what is called today a dysfunctional family. His grandfather, Manasseh, was a very wicked king. His influence harmed many people. "But Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites" (33:9).

Amon was Josiah's father. Amon continued in his father's ways. "He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, as his father Manasseh had done. Amon worshiped and offered sacrifices to all the idols Mannasseh had made" (33:22). He was assassinated by his own officials, and Josiah became king at the age of eight.

Josiah did not follow the example that had been established by his father and grandfather but chose another direction for his life. He focused on "what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left" (34:2). He focused on the future instead of wallowing in the past.

While he was still young, Josiah went directly to God for direction. "In the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David" (34:3). He put action to his prayers by purging Judah and Jerusalem of false gods. He had the Baal alters destroyed and smashed the Asherah poles and idols. Instead of feeling sorry for himself and blaming his state of condition on the lack of funding by the Judean government, he assumed responsibility as evidenced by his action.

As in any society, when Josiah sought God and became responsible, his heart was drawn to the temple of God. The temple had been neglected, so he gave instructions to have it repaired. Money was given, and the workers were organized and worked faithfully. As they were working one day, "Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, 'I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD' " (34:15). When Josiah received the book from Shaphan, he repented and saw that his father had not kept the word of the LORD and had "not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book" (34:21). He immediately placed a priority on God's Word as the sole authority and proclaimed it to the people both small and great.

He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the LORD. The king stood by his pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the LORD-to follow the LORD and keep his commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in the book (34:30-31).

The chain of hand-me-downs was broken in Josiah's life. His influence brought about a turn in the lives of the people throughout his entire life. "As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the LORD, the God of their fathers" (34:33).

Hand-me-downs are also discussed in the New Testament. "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (Luke 1:1-2). God's Word and influence can be handed down to the next generation. However, unhealthy paradigms can be handed down also. Peter described them as "the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers" (1 Peter 1:18). Futile behavior patterns, traditions, and lifestyles are often handed down from generation to generation.

There is hope for sons and daughters who have been handed down dysfunctional pain. First, God is fair. Our Father "judges each man's work impartially" (1 Peter 1:17). Children reared by an abusive or neglectful father often have an incorrect view of God, picturing Him as their earthly father. The good news is our Heavenly Father is perfect and fair.

However, God's impartiality does not take away our personal responsibility. Although we may be influenced by genetic inheritance and social surroundings, this does not negate our personal responsibility to God. We can choose life or death, good or evil.

When one chooses futile behaviors, he or she can be led into enslavement. Paul asked, "Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey-whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Romans 6:16). In his book, Daniel Speaks Today, Myer Pearlman said concerning sin, "A man is free to begin, but is not always free to quit" (54).

Second,Christ offers release from enslaving hand-me-downs. This comes "not with perishable things such as silver or gold . . . but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18-19). Christ paid the payment of this release with His precious blood. Jesus said, "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).

Third, Jesus knows each of us personally. Before the world began, God had a plan for your release from hand-me-downs. "He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last time for your sake" (1 Peter 1:20). You are more than a number on a computer screen or just another name in a counselor's appointment book. Jesus knows who you are, and He knows your family tree.

Fourth, God will help you walk in His behavior patterns. "Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22). As we believe and obey God's truth, a cleansing power will help us develop godly behavior patterns.

It is interesting to trace our family tree and even do generational behavior studies; however, freedom comes first by being "born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Peter 1:23). To live a life free from enslaving hand-me-downs, it is imperative to walk out God's behavior patterns.

A person who receives Christ as Savior should immediately start a discipleship program to deal with hand-me-downs. Some people who have been saved for years still carry the baggage of hand-me-downs. They also need discipleship. God has boundaries that, when observed, bring His love and blessings. "Stay always within the boundaries where God's love can reach and bless you" (Jude 21, TLB).

Christ-centered support groups which provide both support and accountability can help people who struggle with hand-me-downs. The focus should be on Christ, and the curriculum should emphasize biblical principles of behavior. Confession has its place, but without faith in Christ, one will walk away empty. Paul said, "They must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21).

The grip of dysfunctional hand-me-downs can be broken. "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever" (1 Peter 1:24-25).

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries. All Rights Reserved

Family members often hand down inspirational and valuable items to their children-antiques, rings, the family Bible, and property. My wife's grandmother lived nearly 104 years. She did not have many earthly possessions, but her godly life-style has been handed down to family members. In her family are ministers, medical and business professionals, and church and community leaders. Grandma's hand-me-downs, though not silver and gold, are an asset to society.

Other hand-me-downs can result in pain, dysfunction, and aimlessness. A child sits in a restaurant with his parents and observes them drinking alcohol. Unknowingly, they may be training the child to take the first step that could lead to addiction.

A husband shows no respect for his wife and, by example, teaches this behavior to his son. His son will likely show a lack of respect for his wife. Abusive parents are often the products of abuse or neglect themselves.

Immediately after Max concluded his presentation on "Family Dependencies" to a high school faculty, a teacher approached him with tears in her eyes. Margaret, a math teacher, explained that she was a divorcee of three months. Her former husband was controlled by alcohol and compulsive spending. She explained how she was physically and emotionally abused during this ten-year marriage. The couple was in debt to the point of having to declare bankruptcy. Concerned about her children because they were being neglected, she chose a painful divorce to alleviate this family tension.

As the conversation continued, Margaret explained that her father was an alcoholic. As a child, she had given much of her time serving as the mom of the family since most of her mother's energy and efforts were given to her alcoholic husband. Margaret would sometimes help the younger children prepare for school and cook their meals when her mother was not available to care for them. In this lengthy conversation, Margaret finally got to the point. "Max, you have given a description of my family. With all the pain and suffering I have experienced with my former husband and father, I can't believe what I am doing. I have started a relationship with a nice man who accepts me, and we are making plans for marriage. Here's the problem! I believe he is also an alcoholic. How could I do this again to my children and myself?"

Whenever a family member has a life-controlling problem, the entire family is affected. These strongholds can be handed down from generation to generation if the chain of sin is not broken. Moses writes: "'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation'" (Numbers 14:18). "Church and community are concerned with the stability of family life. Family instability contributes inordinately to human suffering 'unto the third and fourth generation' " (Turnbull, 221).

Various theories explain why dependencies run in families. Some experts believe it is hereditary; others contribute it to a person's environment. Frank Minirth, a noted psychiatrist, has said:

Alcoholism runs in families, but it is not clear whether this pattern relates more to hereditary or environmental influence. If an "addiction-prone" trait is passed genetically, the specific trait has not been identified. . . .

There is reason to believe that there may be some genetic difference in many but not all alcoholics. But genetics is not the only reason individuals become alcoholics. Nor does every person with this genetic difference become an alcoholic (60-61).

Although much attention is given to alcoholism running in families, this is also true of other dependencies. The children of compulsive gamblers learn behaviors that are transferred to the next generation. They have many of the same symptoms that are seen in drug addictions. Child abuse is another problem that runs in families. "Abusive parents frequently were themselves abused or neglected in childhood" (Collins, 455, 1980).

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries
All Rights Reserved

"'I hate divorce', says the LORD God of Israel" (Malachi 2:16). God hates divorce but loves those who have experienced divorce. It is not surprising that God hates divorce because of all the pain and suffering that divorcees and their families experience. The effects of divorce cause psychological problems on both parents and children for years. With the high rate of divorce and fragmentation, families are faced with complex and difficult systems with which to work. Some of the more common units are single parents and blended families.


Single Parents
Single-parent homes are not necessarily dysfunctional. The authority lines already described in the dysfunctional, disengaged, and functional system are the same except there is only one parent instead of two. The single-parent home can be functional when the communication lines are open with the children. As in two-parent homes, the single parent is encouraged to make the final decision in regard to the children's well-being. Sometimes the single parent is helped in a desire for a functional family by children who notice a mom's or dad's hard work in caring for the family.

Although single-parent families can function in an effective way, the challenges can be enormous. Lack of financial resources causes pressure, and the lack of community often causes such families to feel isolated. These pressures can be very discouraging to single-parent families and can be the cause for depression. The local church should be the extended family for the single-parent home. Married couples need to include single parents in their social and ministry activities in the local church.

Blended Family
About 80 percent of the people who divorce from their first spouse will remarry. A blended family is a family with at least one child in the household from a previous marriage. There are several factors that will need to be addressed in a blended family, some of which are to redefine the meaning of father and mother, boundaries, the children's uncertainties toward their role, and their relationship with the absent birth parent.

Dr. Raymond T. Brock in his work, Parenting the Elementary Child, has done extensive work in the area of "blended families." He states that "it is difficult to call two men 'father' or two women 'mother,' when this involves the comparison between a birth parent and a stepparent. . . . The child should be given a choice in selecting the name he or she will call the new parent" (58). The child should not be forced to call the new parent mom or dad. The new parent will need to earn the trust of the child or children. This takes time. The goal is not to replace the biological parent.

When a blended family comes together, clear boundaries should be established. Respect for each person in the family should be taught and modeled by the parents. "Rules must be clearly established for contact as well as distance regarding sexuality, conflict, and territory" (Brock, 59). Each person needs his or her own space. Respect for each family member's space and property should be clearly defined and upheld. As children from a previous marriage enter into a blended family, they face the ambiguity of their role in the new family. This uncertainty of their role will usually bring anxiety, questions, and sometimes fear, particularly if the children have not been prepared. For example, in the previous marriage a child may have been the oldest in the family, but in the blended family he is the middle or even the youngest child. Each child will need time to adjust to their new role as it relates to birth order. Dr. Brock states that "responsibilities and privileges should be linked in a hierarchy that is constantly communicated" (Brock, 59).

Perhaps one of the most difficult and often uncomfortable challenges is the relationship with the absent birth parent. In the case of a divorce, there may have been strained and even bitter negotiations regarding the divorce settlement which placed the children in a difficult position. This is a state that no child deserves, but unfortunately, it happens all the time. In this case, both parents need to focus on the well-being of the child while trying to make the proceedings as painless as possible. "Children need to be taught that to give love to a new stepparent does not subtract love from the absent parent. It is not a matter of loss or disloyalty, it is a matter of enlargement of the heart" (Brock, 58).

Rebellious Children
Children should be taught they are accountable to God for their actions as the parents are responsible to be a godly covering for them. Solomon writes in Proverbs 1:8: "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching." Children should be made aware of God's law of authority even though we live in a society that is unbalanced in its declaration of rights and responsibilities. Much emphasis is placed on personal rights but very little is said about being responsible for our own actions. Paul writes in Romans 13:1: "Everyone must submit himself to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."

If children refuse to walk under their parental covering (authority), they should be taught there will always be another authority in line. However, the next first line of authority under God may not be as kind and caring as their parents. For example, if Johnny refuses to obey his godly (parental) covering and decides to use drugs, his authority may become a judge, prison, or hospital system.

Having a functional family system does not guarantee that children will never go astray. Children have choices to make also, and it is not right to always pin the blame on parents. Youth are instructed in Proverbs 4 to guard their hearts against the wicked. If children rebel, parents should keep the lines of communication open but hold their loved one accountable for his or her actions.

Paul warns fathers against the abuse and neglect of the children. "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). The functional family is characterized by loving parents who serve as role models. Moses writes: "Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to the children after them" (Deuteronomy 4:9).

With the decline in role models in various walks of life including sports, religion, and politics, children desperately need to have parents who are good role models. "Don't do as I do, do as I say" is poor logic. Children will learn to pattern their behaviors based on what they see from their parents. Children in functional families will learn more from the values modeled by their parents versus those taught but not practiced.

Boundaries for children are established by the parents in the functional family. "Stay always within the boundaries where God's love can reach and bless you" (Jude 21 TLB). Young people will have more respect for established rules if there are open communications between the parents and children. If the boundaries are broken, then the youth should be held accountable for their actions.

Young people want boundaries. As they become older, young people often resent their parents for not providing these boundaries. These boundaries help to provide a "safety zone" for children. Sometimes the boundaries give them a good reason to say no when they may otherwise give in to negative peer pressure. I heard a seventeen-year-old high school student say, "I wish my father would ask me not to drink." After receiving help, another student who was chemically dependent thanked his parents for intervening in his addiction.

In the functional family, parents will know where their teenagers are and with whom they associate. They will find out the answers to such questions as, "Is alcohol served in the home where the teenager has been invited to attend a party?" "Will there be adult supervision?" "What time does the party end?" The parents will have a curfew and insist on its observance.

Children need help in dealing with negative peer pressure. Paul writes: "Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character'" (1 Corinthians 15:33). Peer pressure not only affects young people, but it can also influence parents. They may try to "keep up with the Joneses" or spend too much time with their peers and not enough quality time with their teenagers. The lack of attention from parents can cause children to turn to their own friends for their values, acceptance, and self-esteem. In the functional family, the parents are the first line of defense for the children against negative peer pressure. Recognizing the need for open communication with their children, the parents do not expect the local church, youth group, or high school to take on this primary responsibility. An effective church youth group can be tremendous support for teens during their formative years, but it does not take the place of parents in a functional system. Helpers working with families affected by a member's life-controlling problem should encourage parents to stand together in guarding against coalitions. When a single parent makes a decision to stand firm or a husband and wife stand together in helping their son or daughter, it is not uncommon for the child to try to start a coalition with a grandparent or a friend close to the family.

The helper should remember that each person is not an island. Each person is a part of a family system. Although dysfunctional patterns may have developed over a period of years, helpers can encourage family members to restore proper relationships.

A Final Thought

You may have read this chapter and thought about all the wrong things you have done in your family life. Maybe some are in a marriage where one partner wants to follow God's plan for the marriage and the family wholeheartedly while the other partner prefers to do his or her "own thing." Whether you read this chapter while considering following Christ as Savior, having just recently received Christ as Savior, or having been a Christian for several years, you may now have an important question on your mind. "My family is in a mess; I've been a poor parent. My kids are messed up on drugs, and I am in my third marriage. My third spouse is about to leave me, and my youngest son is going to prison. What should I do?" In 2 Samuel 24, David sinned greatly against the Lord by his disobedience. God instructed Gad to "Go and tell David, 'This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you' "(v11). None of the options were good.

David gave Gad his decision. "I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall in the hands of men" (v14). Although God held David responsible for his actions, David preferred to "fall in the hands of the LORD." Then what shall we do with our failed marriage and family relationships? First, fall into the hands of God. Second, do all you can to follow God's principles in all your marriage and family relationships. And finally, leave the consequences to God.

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries
All Rights Reserved

After concluding his sermon on Sunday morning as guest minister, Max was greeted by a young man. With tears flowing down his cheeks, eighteen-year-old Mike presented Max with a tough question: "What is a normal family?"

He explained to Max that both of his parents were alcoholics. He went on to say that he was converted to Christ one year ago. He had made plans to enter seminary with the assistance of his extended family, his church. Having been raised as a child of dependent parents, Mike had no idea what a normal family life was like. His church loved him enough to show him God's love, but he still struggled with painful memories.

Forty-year-old Raymond explained to Jim that he had a good marriage. His family was active in church, and he was a successful businessman. He explained that he was thankful for his family because he could not remember ever being a child. His parents sexually abused him and were also alcoholics. Raymond said, "Although I have a good family, I still mourn because I did not have a childhood." Then he asked Jim a difficult question: "How long must I mourn?" Although Jim did not have the answer, he did suggest that Raymond allow God to turn his mourning into compassion for other children of dependent parents.

Various Stages
Children of dependent parents go through similar stages. Although there has been much written on children of alcoholics, the children of gamblers, sexaholics, even workaholics face similar problems. When a parent is in bondage to a life-controlling problem, there is instability in the home. Gary Collins in his work on Christian counseling states:

When parents are not getting along with each other, children feel anxious, guilty and angry. They are anxious because the stability of the home is threatened, guilty because they are afraid that they may have caused the strife, and angry because they often feel left out, forgotten, and sometimes manipulated into taking sides-which they do not want to do. Sometimes there also is a fear of being abandoned. Unstable homes, therefore, often (but not always) produce unstable children (206, 1980).

Learned Behavior. Living with difficult situations, these children learn to cope with stress. They learn how to protect themselves from possible harm. They learn not to talk about the problem. The addicted parent is like a big, white elephant in the living room. Everybody sees him, but nobody talks about him. Being raised in an unstable home causes children to lose trust. They learn to suppress their feelings. Oftentimes, they become nonfeeling individuals.

Seeking out Behavior. During this time of searching, a caring person may see hints of a problem in these children. They will usually exhibit characteristics of being a perfect, rebellious, withdrawn, or funny child. In this stage they may attempt to control their parent's dependency. Delusion sets in and enabling behaviors start in this stage.

Harmful Behavior. The children's compulsiveness will display a forceful defense in this stage. They feel locked in without strength to make choices. Their behavior becomes a role to deny pain and to cope. They feel responsible for their parent's dependency and blame themselves. "As we have seen, it is a normal part of the development process for children to feel that they are the center of the universe and consequently responsible for the good and the bad things that happen to their friends, siblings and parents" (O'Gorman, 112). Their painful lifestyle becomes normal.

Escape. Children of dependent parents may act on negative feelings. Escape from the painful lifestyle often results in separation, desertion, or even suicide. As these children approach adulthood, they are likely to carry their defensive lifestyle with them to the next relationship. Unhealthy relationships are common among the adult children of dependent parents.


Children of dependent parents learn to repress their feelings. To prevent rocking the boat, they restrain their emotions. Anger builds as the children move back and forth between a love and hate relationship with their parents. Feeling responsible for their parents, they blame themselves. This self-blame internalizes, bringing on painful emotions. These children may have low self-worth with shameful feelings.

Their feelings are affected by a life of isolation and loneliness. These children live with the fear of being abandoned by their parents at any moment. They fear the unexpected since their parents' behavior is so unpredictable. For example, the father tells his son he will take him fishing on Saturday. He breaks his promise because he is hung over from his alcohol consumption on Friday night. When they receive very little attention, these neglected children experience painful emotions. They feel mixed-up, confused, and boxed-in since they are trapped without options that may free them.

Survival Behaviors

Children condition themselves to cover their pain. Concerned about getting their needs met, they may give in to behaviors that betray their values. The oldest child in the family may take on the role of the mother or father in being responsible for the other children. "I've seen five-year-olds running entire families," says Janet Geringer Woititz (Leerhsen and Namuth, 63). These children are known to be loyal to their parents even when loyalty is harmful or undeserved. To protect themselves from physical harm during a parent's drunken condition, some children have been known to sleep with large knives or hammers under their pillows.

Having a need to survive, these children develop certain roles. Usually the perfect child takes on the responsibility of the other children. This is often the oldest child. This child is likely to excel in academics, sports, or other school activities and usually becomes a leader in adulthood. Having an unhealthy desire to be perfect, this child needs help in understanding his or her feelings.

The rebellious child acts out negative feelings and frustrations. In an attempt to get attention, this child will probably resort to antisocial behavior. The child may turn to drugs as a means of escape. Such a child needs boundaries and should be made responsible for personal actions. It is common for other family members to take out their frustrations on this child.

The withdrawn child, often the middle child, suffers from poor self-esteem. This child is usually a loner with limited self-expectations and has difficulty building friendships. Not knowing where he or she fits in, this child may have difficulty with personal identity. Since there has been parental role inconsistencies, this child needs help in overcoming fear. Helpers should assist the victim in recognizing personal strengths.

The clown is usually the youngest child who has been overprotected by other family members. The child is likely to be immature. Although intelligent, he or she may have difficulty in concentrating. This child needs help in accepting responsibility. Getting caught up in the child's silly behavior is not helpful; rather, accountability and meaningful self-direction is needed. Understanding these roles as defense systems is important for the helper. Charles Leerhsen and Tessa Namuth further report:

A high achiever in school, the Hero always does what's right, often discounting himself by putting others first. The Lost Child, meanwhile, is withdrawn, a loner on his way to a jobless adulthood, and thus, in some ways, very different from the Scapegoat, who appears hostile and defiant but inside feels hurt and angry. . . . Last and least-in his own mind-is the Mascot, fragile and immature yet charming: the family clown (67).

Although much has been written concerning children of alcoholics and the roles they play, these roles also exist in most families. However, in dysfunctional systems, they are more noticeable since they become coping devices.

Without Help

Without help, the children of dependent parents may have a trail of problems. Feeling responsible for everything, they may become workaholics or develop other compulsive behaviors. They are likely to show little zest for life. Having a lack of trust, they have difficulty in building meaningful relationships. Their potential may never be discovered.

They are likely to marry a dependent person, starting the merry-go-round of problems again. Having no guidelines for parenting, adult children of dependent parents often resort to the way they were raised. Normal behavior for a functional family is unknown to them. They often make decisions without consideration for the consequences. Judging themselves harshly becomes standard practice.

With Help
With assistance, children of dependent parents can develop functional relationships. Having self-discipline, they can become good leaders, dependable, and responsible. They learn to accept responsibility with an understanding of reality. Some of the best role models and creative people are children of dependent parents who have received help. They are normally willing to help others. Although many of the children have lived in horrible conditions, they can learn to let go and have fun.

Ways to Help Family Members
Living in a state of delusion, children of dependent parents have a difficult time seeing reality. Inviting them to share their concerns helps build a trust relationship between the child and the helper. The helper should be a mirror of reality for the victim while modeling honesty. Since the child's needs may have been neglected, the helper should be an active listener. Separating the person from behavior should be practiced by the helper. As with the codependent, the victim should be shown that the child did not cause the parents' problem, the child cannot control it, nor can the child cure it. It is important for the helper to remember that children (and adults) from families with dependencies learn: don't talk, don't trust, don't feel.

The church can play a key role in helping families with dependencies. Each family member needs help in developing a healthy relationship. Although a family member may have a dramatic conversion, the addict and the other family members still need support. Having support groups that meet regularly can benefit these people. They can be comforted and learn to comfort others who have similar needs. Paul writes to the church at Corinth: "On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers" (2 Corinthians 1:10-11).

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries. All Rights Reserved

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