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.
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.
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, 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 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