Breaking the Cycle: How Former Addicts Can Protect Their Kids from the Dangers of Drugs and Alcohol
Through their irresponsible and selfish behavior, those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol cause a lot of heartache for those who are close to them. But for the children of addicts, the legacy of growing up in a home where substance abuse has been a part of daily reality can be especially devastating. Addiction tends to be a multi-generational problem, and children with parents who are addicts are more likely to abuse intoxicants when they reach maturity than those who came from different backgrounds.
While many believe there is a genetic component to all of this, heredity probably plays only a minor role in repeated familial patterns of substance abuse. Environmental influences are undoubtedly more decisive, as something similar to Freud’s concept of repetition compulsion appears to be taking place when the children of addicts become addicts themselves. According to this psychological theory, human beings can develop a negative fixation on the traumas they experienced as youths, and rather than avoiding the mistakes of the past they somehow become condemned to repeat them, even though they know very well the kind of suffering that substance abuse can cause.
Fortunately, many addicts who are also parents are able to overcome their drug or alcohol dependency, and it is concern over how their behavior is affecting their kids that is often the decisive factor. If substance abusers are able to get their acts together before their children are actually born, this is of course the ideal situation. However, in many cases this is not how things work, and the sons and daughters of addicts often have to endure several years of stress, disappointment, fear, and uncertainty before the parent responsible for their suffering finally manages to beat addiction. In this situation, even though substance abuse is no longer an immediate problem, the scars on children’s souls still remain, and this is something that a parent who used to be an addict needs to face up to openly and honestly if he or she is serious about breaking the cycle of intergenerational substance abuse.
Learning to Be a Mentor
Even though parents are authority figures, they are also role models, and everything they say or do has an impact on the psychological development of their children. But when a parent has not been the best role model in the past, it may not be enough to simply change in the present. So parents with a history of addiction who want to stop their children from following in their footsteps will need to become mentors, as this is the kind of relationship that will allow recovering addicts to begin using their experiences to subtly guide impressionable minds in the right direction.
In order to establish a productive mentoring relationship with their own children, parents who have a history of drug and alcohol abuse will have to be very forthright about everything that happened in the past, about everything they did and about why they did it. Meanwhile, children of former addicts should be encouraged to talk about what they felt and experienced when their parents were still drinking or using, and parents in turn should be ready to listen to anything their sons and daughters have to say no matter how painful it might be to hear. The idea here is to reframe the discussion about drugs and alcohol so that each side can express themselves in an atmosphere that is supportive, non-judgmental, and sympathetic. Once the addiction itself has been recast into the role of the family’s enemy (a role formerly occupied by the substance abusing parent), for the first time it will facilitate productive conversations about the topic of drug and alcohol abuse in general, conversations that won’t be tainted with memories of unbearable personal pain and sorrow. From then on, it will be possible for the parent to share everything they have learned about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse with children who are ready to listen. Preaching and lecturing about the evils of addiction will not work; in fact they are likely to have the opposite effect of what is intended. But if a relationship can be established where everyone feels safe expressing themselves, this will make it possible for older but wiser parents to share their hard-earned wisdom and insight.
Of course, how these conversations are framed will depend on the age of the children, and here there is really no clear guide that can be relied upon – parents simply have to make sensible decisions about what their children may or may not be ready to hear, and they need to adjust their conversations accordingly. But these discussions should begin early, and they should evolve as the children age and are become prepared to handle more complex versions of the truth.
Healing the Family from Within
To break the cycle of addiction, parents with a substance abuse history must find a way to communicate with their children that will ultimately make a bigger psychological impact on them than the years of suffering they endured in a house that was possessed by the demons of addiction. Trust is the salve that can heal all remaining scars, and if trust between parent and child can be firmly and irrevocably re-established the likelihood of future substance abuse occurring in the family will be dramatically reduced.
As has often been said, those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. But on the flip side, that means that those who do learn from their mistakes can set themselves free from just about anything.