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Posted by on in Co-dependency


Increase“Trauma is to mental health as smoking is to cancer.”-Dr. Steven Sharfstein, Past President, American Psychiatric Association

Last week, I posted the first in a series of articles about children of alcoholics who remain trapped in an alcoholic lifestyle as adults. I examined the neurological underpinnings of a compulsive and  “infinite loop” of ongoing and deeply painful  involvements with partners and activities that reproduce the chaos of the addicted family of origin and endanger physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. But while psychologists are increasingly interested in the neurology of compulsive behavior, we tend to believe that it stems from a variety of causes.  Most  of us look for“biopsychosocial” explanations for behavior, including the  compulsion to repeat.  When treating adult children who are recapitulating a  painful past,   one psychosocial angle we typically want to explore is the quality of parent-child relationships in a patient’s family of origin. The nature of parent-child interactions is important for several reasons.  In this post, I will discuss howrelationships with caregivers either perpetuate an adverse infinite loop, or inoculate a child against an alcoholic lifestyle by shaping self-esteem and expectations of others, and by affecting a child’s ability to regulate intense feelings and to process and heal from difficult events.

Nearly everyone understands that our earliest  relationships affect us all our lives because theyprovide a model for us to follow as we engage with people outside the family. From the first moments of life, we form impressions of the world through interactions with our caregivers. Over time these impressions evolve and  are stored in the mind as mental representations of the self and  the other. Characteristic exchanges between self and others are also stored. When we internalizenurturing figures along with a representation of ourselves as loveable, it gives us a huge head start with respect to healthy adult adjustment.  It stands us in particularly good stead  as we strive to form healthy relationships with people outside our families.  The  support, encouragement and unconditional regard we receive from our parents forms the basis for good self-esteem and instills optimism about the world as a welcoming place.  If our parents cherish and love us, we tend to feel that we should be, and are likely to be valued and loved by others. In addition, our positive mental representations of our parents can be recalled and recruited, when no one else is around, to establish a sense of calm and hopefulness when troubling events occur. The ability to self-soothe is a critical resource in life, and it is a source of protection against the abuse of substances and activities that we might otherwise turn to in order to numb emotional pain. (Please continue reading.)

It is hard for parents who are preoccupied with alcohol and drugs, and stressful conflicts about alcohol and drugs, to be reliable sources of support and love for children.  Children in addicted families are more likely to be abused, exploited and neglected.  As a result, their mental representations of themselves and others, and their expectations about the type of treatment they can expect from others are pessimistic. Even if they can’t quite verbalize this, and don’t consciously think about it, they view others as untrustworthy and potentially dangerous.  And they view themselves as unlovable and unworthy of respect. Children from addicted families are more likely to accept insensitive and abusive treatment from other life partners because this is what they feel they deserve, and because it seems “normal” to them—it fits with the information they’ve stored in their minds about how relationships are supposed to go. If they grew up feeling responsible for their parents’ pain, as so many children in addicted families do, they may also feel compelled to rescue and reform partners who are desperate and even abusive.


Posted by on in Co-dependency



The term “infinite loop” comes from the field of computer science and refers to a programming error that leads to the perpetual and unsuccessful recapitulation of an algorithm, or problem-solving procedure. In my book Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Struggle for Self and intimacy in Adult Life, I used this concept as a metaphor for the way in which many adult children seem irresistibly drawn to an “alcoholic lifestyle”.  The alcoholic lifestyle can include compulsive drinking and drugging, ongoing destructive involvements with addicted or enabling parents, and the acquisition of new life partners who reprise important psychic themes of the childhood home, including instability, exploitation, dishonesty, and betrayal.

In recent posts, I’ve talked about genetics, trauma,  and substance-related  changes in the brain as the “usual suspects” behind many addictive problems.  They are also frequently the culprits when adult children–even those who avoid substance abuse and dependence–remain ensnared in the destructive and painful relational dynamics they experienced as children. It is well-known that genetics affect temperament as well as risk for mental illness and substance abuse and addiction.  But environmental factors such as stress and trauma are also powerful factors that influence the development and maintenance of an alcoholic lifestyle.  This is the first in a series of posts aimed at helping ACOA’s with an alcoholic lifestyle  to exit their infinite loop, and it explains how trauma-related changes to the brain predispose them to become mired in it.

It is important to know that many adults who grew up with addicted and  codependent parents, whether or not they abuse substances themselves,   manifest brain anomalies that can predispose them to a variety of psychological problems, such as  depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and compulsive involvement with substances, activities and destructive partners. These changes occur as a result  of chronic and severe levels of stress that so often occur in families where parents are preoccupied and propelled by the disease of addiction. The neurological impact of  the physical and verbal abuse and neglect that are common in alcoholic families can be seen  when imaging studies of the brain are performed, and they occur in some of the same  areas of the brain that are affected by drug and alcohol abuse.  For a good discussion of how adverse childhood events (ACEs) affect the brain, see this article: /


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