Family dysfunction and addiction: 3 steps for better emotional health
For many of us who grew up around alcoholism or addiction saying, “No!” to responsibility that does not belong to us feels selfish. So how can we cope with family dysfunction as it relates to our own emotional health? More here on coping in families with addiction problems, with a section for your comments and questions at the end.
What is emotional health?
Emotional health means that we learn how to do only what we are capable of doing and to care for ourselves in the process. But we who have been raised in dysfunctional families have learned from an early age to ignore are own needs and focus on the ill adult, even when that is at our own expense. We would never expect a baby bird to feed its parent; that just seems ridiculous. So how does dsyfunction eat away at the kids within the system?
Healthy families create thriving individuals
When we think of a family, most of us imagine a structure that is hierarchical; at least one adult parent who is “in-charge” and children subordinate to the adult. This is a healthy system with adults providing structure, guidance and protection to those who are younger. We don’t encourage ten year olds to live on their own because they don’t have the physical, emotional or cognitive maturity to raise themselves. They might survive, but they are likely not going to thrive!
But…what happens in addicted homes?
In homes with alcoholism or addiction, the family structure might look like what we expect, but the family function is broken. Parents who are addicts are not able to provide for their children; children do not receive guidance and structure, and instead have to take on the emotional role of adults. Denying addiction can run deep in addicted families. These children don’t have the opportunity to learn what it means to be in an emotionally healthy family, they grow-up without understanding the difference in family roles.
We expect parents to care for children, to mutually care for each other if there are multiple parents, and to model behavior for taking care of self. In addicted homes, there is a disconnection from our roles and while someone might be called “dad” they are not providing the care we need from that person. Instead the person who is “dad” may himself need to be emotionally cared for, and we become responsible for making sure that he gets the attention he craves, or the right mood in the house; before they know what their own emotions are children have to become highy aware of tending to the needs of others and they ultimately fail to get what they need to be healthy adults.
The baby bird metaphor
Imagine a bird’s nest: when they are born the chicks are unable to fly, unable to feed themselves so the adults are supposed to do that for them. But what if one of the adult birds is ill and stays in the nest letting their partner do all the work. When the healthy adult returns with food the adult in the nest takes it, the chicks get whatever they can. If they grow into adults they won’t know how to effectively raise their own young.
Emotionally, cognitively and for many people physically this is what is happening when we grow up in a household with alcoholism or addiction. We have to unlearn the family model we were taught and teach ourselves how to be healthy adults. By identifying, understanding and acting we can give ourselves the opportunity to engage in a healthy life and healthy relationships that will break the chain of dysfunction coming from a home will illness.
3 steps to emotional health
1. Identify your role
First identify the role you have learned in your family: what are you responsible for? Who are you responsible for? Who do you take care of and in what ways do you provide care? These questions are critical to understanding where you are today and determining whether or not that is where you are supposed to be, or where you want to be.
2. Examine the consequences
Second, understand the consequences of taking on jobs or responsibilities that are not appropriately yours. If you started having to make dinner when you were twelve did that prevent you from being a “normal” twelve year old?Were you able to do homework or spend time with friends? Did you take on this job to build a skill or was it necessary for survival?
3. Adapt and change your beliefs and behavior
Third and finally, act based on who you actually are and what your job actually is. This is the hardest part and is the key to healthy emotional growth. Look at the family structure, draw a picture and circle where you fit in, then ask yourself: is it really my job to care for [fill in the blank]? If the answer is no then stop! If that means that someone else will be in physical danger ask someone you trust for help, but if the spot you circled in your picture is not a natural care-giver role, and you acting is necessary for survival then you need to get help, and you deserve to have help!
Emotional health is possible!
For many of us who grew up around alcoholism or addiction saying no to responsibility that does not belong to us feels selfish. We have learned from an early age to ignore are own needs and focus on the ill adult, even when that is at our own expense. We would never expect a baby bird to feed its parent that just seems ridiculous. Emotional health means that we learn how to do only what we are capable of doing and to care for ourselves in the process.