Living with the legacy: the impact of growing up with parental addiction

It’s hard to talk about the effects of growing up with parental addiction despite much more evidence showing us the long-term impact this can have. There is still so much shame around this experience and the need to protect the family often makes it very hard to acknowledge the effects. One in three people are addicted to something; it is a reality our society struggles to acknowledge given that the figures are staggering.

Often children blame themselves when they can’t make sense of a hostile reality they live in. As a result, their sense of self can become compromised as they see themselves as the cause of their parents’ addiction and part of the problem. Recognising they were not/are not to blame and that they had no control, is the first step to review the ‘script’ they may have created for themselves to make sense of an unmanageable situation.

Some of the effects of growing up with parental addiction include:

  • Being potentially more at risk of developing an addiction. Environment and parental attitudes play an important role here as well as genetic influence. Families affected by addiction live with spoken and unspoken rules and roles where denial, shame and blame are never far away. Addiction becomes the ‘family organising principle’. The relationship with addiction becomes ‘all consuming’ emotionally and financially at the expense of all other significant relationships.
  • Lack of trust in self and others. Often denial on the part of the person/s with the addiction and/or the family can become the main mode of functioning. This results in one’s own perception of reality being tested or invalidated. Often families report walking ‘on egg shells’, being hyper vigilant, not being able to trust the environment and its unpredictability. Substance abuse in particular is associated with increased conflict, maltreatment and neglect. It is difficult for any child to thrive in this situation and build a sense of trust in self and others.
  • Learn to anticipate the worst scenario. Children learn early on that you cannot trust good things to come and it is best to think the worst so you are prepared and can avoid getting hurt. Whilst this is an admirable strategy in the short term, in the long term it keeps good things from happening and can cause unnecessary distress and isolation.
  • Depression. Children of addicted parents may be more likely to develop depression than other children. Some of the unspoken rules of the family are ‘don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t move, don’t trust’. Communication is fraught with difficulties and feelings are dangerous, so in order to cope children learn very early on to suppress or minimise them and they learn ‘not to need’ as well as ‘not to feel’.
  • Lack of sense of agency and adequate self-care. They have learnt early on to ‘go without’ and ‘not to ask’. They may struggle with confidence issues and their learning may be disrupted and impaired, never having had sufficient encouragement. They can be prone to over-work, over-care, have incredibly high, unachievable standards and neglect themselves.
  • Devaluing self/loss of self and ability to establish and maintain relationships. When children do not feel loved/cared for, they do not learn how to value/love themselves. They may struggle to have good boundaries and lose themselves in relationships where they replicate some of the family dynamics they have grown up with the hope of a different outcome.

Therapy and helpful organisations who specialise in addiction can help individuals/families to recognise the potential long-term effects that growing up with parental addiction can have. This can make a huge difference emotionally to a child and an adult. It can validate their reality which was denied, free that part of themselves that was left somehow responsible and imprisoned by such huge burden.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Shaftesbury, SP7

Written by Cinzia Altobelli

Shaftesbury, SP7

Cinzia Altobelli MSc RGN is a UKCP registered integrative psychotherapist/counsellor and supervisor with additional expertise in families and addiction. Cinzia has 20 years' experience working therapeutically in the NHS, the charity and private sector, helping individuals, couples and families with a wide range of moderate to complex problems.

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