It is commonly understood that those who suffer from the chronic disease of addiction experience severe negative consequences related to the progression of their disease. These negative consequences often impact and consume every aspect of a person’s life from legal to financial, relational to physical, and emotional to familial. Addicts do not suffer alone. Like a black hole, the power of addiction’s gravity pulls not only the addict, but family and loved ones, into its vortex. The gravity in the addiction black hole is generated by the obsession and compulsion to use drugs over anything else. Easing fear-induced stress, using becomes a survival need overriding other survival needs such as food, shelter and love/connection. Addiction’s black hole has the power to rip those who suffer and those who love them apart—extracting the very light from life.
In a film documentary about addiction, a scene is highlighted. It is nighttime and two young parents are passed out after using heroin. Needles and syringes are scattered around the dirty and disheveled room. Their young child, maybe 3 years old, is lying asleep near them. The child awakens and looks for his parents, tapping them on the face to try to wake them up. They are alive but unresponsive. The child finds his bottle and upon noticing it empty, sleepily walks over to the refrigerator. In a moment of self-preservation, the young child manages to open the refrigerator, climbing and securing the milk carton. Removing the plastic nipple from the bottle, he pours the milk in and twists the nipple back into place. Finding a blanket, he cuddles himself, drinks his bottle and goes back to sleep. Sadly, there are an increasing number of these documentaries showcasing the realities of children living with addicted parents.
The parents in this film suffer from a chronic illness. They need our understanding and support as they reach out for meaningful help. We need to do better as a society in providing access to treatment and extended recovery support so parents just like this can find and stay in recovery.
But, what about the children? What about the little boy described above? The children of addicts and alcoholics are the most innocent victims of this chronic epidemic. Sometimes from birth, as young children, as teenagers and emerging adults, these young people are immersed in an environment of chaos and a family dynamic that is spinning out of control. How do we help them? The answers to these questions are as complicated as the disease itself.
To illustrate the chaos and out of control family dynamics experienced by children, Brown and Lewis describe in their stellar research on alcoholic families the progressive impact of alcoholism on the environment, family dynamics and individual development and growth. As part of their developmental model of recovery, before an alcoholic reaches out for help, the environment becomes progressively chaotic, dangerous and traumatic. Everyone who is within the environment is in danger of abuse, neglect and the long-term impact of death and trauma. Spinning out of control, the family interactions become centered on drinking, full of tension and anxiety with all behaviors and interactions geared toward the continuance of drinking. With devastating familial and individual consequences, individual growth and development is sacrificed to preserve this “system” of drinking.
Other research on this topic is clear and supports Brown and Lewis’ description of how children suffer. In their comprehensive review of the literature, purport that even in best-case scenarios, children who live in homes with addiction are at an increased risk for abuse and neglect. Consistent parenting and a nurturing environment is virtually impossible.
Even when extended family members get involved in raising children, this endeavor is fraught with problems. The complications of both practical and emotional concerns about raising a child generate a significant amount of anxiety, worry, tension, anger and disappointment for all involved. This strain of addiction gets in the way of well-intended family members striving to provide a loving and nurturing environment for the children in these circumstances. Imagine the impact of a child being raised in a home with active addiction, then being removed from that home and trying to adjust to another environment with other family members who are learning to deal with their loved ones’ addiction. These types of adjustments, although often necessary, can complicate the adjustment and healing of children as they face the loss of their parents and face instability, stress and conflict within another environment.
Is there hope for children who are impacted by the disease of addiction? Yes, of course! As dark as addiction can be, there is always hope and light in the promise of recovery.
Many families have embraced recovery and successfully changed the family dynamic. When individuals who suffer find recovery,
and when family members embrace a growth process of wellness, things can and do change for the better. Homes once dangerous and fraught with abuse and neglect transform with effort and time into stable, safe and consistent environments. Family interactions, where drinking or using drugs was the central component organizing the family, are now built on the principles of recovery: honesty, hope, spirituality, forgiveness, trust, service and connection. Families built on recovery principles are powerful in helping each member realize their full potential and promoting growth and wellness.
Important in the recovery journey is for each family member to take responsibility for their own recoveries. Family members who see their own need for embracing growth and change exponentially increase the likelihood that children will do so as well. As Brown and Lewis warn, families often take on a warring stance into recovery, arguing over who should be in recovery and who should not. The true answer is everyone needs recovery and must choose to embrace their own recovery journey – for themselves and for their children.
Children can also embrace the principles of recovery. Many pre-teens and teenagers, as well as emerging adults, find their own recovery support fellowships and embrace a community of wellness in support of family recovery. Adults should set an example and support and encourage such efforts.
As much as children suffer in addiction, they can thrive as all family members embrace recovery. Healing takes time and effort, but it can happen. To those who suffer from alcoholism and addiction and those who love them, it is important to reach out for help and recovery. Do it for yourself and do it for the children.
Dr. Thomas G. Kimball is the George C. Miller Family Regents Professor at Texas Tech University and the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities. He also serves as a consultant with MAP Health Management and is Co-Clinical Director. He is the author of several peer-reviewed articles on addiction and recovery and has consulted and presented on recovery related issues across the nation. He is the co-author of the book, Six Essential to Achieve Lasting Recovery.