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Addictionland - Addiction Recover Blog
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Last week I wrote about the power of one parent who remains emotionally sober to preserve the mental and emotional well-being of children growing up in a family struggling with addiction. A colleague,Glenn Richardson who is a trainer and consultant in Texas, responded to my post noted that 12 step guidance about emotional honesty, openness and willingness points the way for parents who are striving for emotional sobriety. I agree with Glenn that emotional honesty is a crucial pillar of emotional sobriety. But what exactly does emotional honesty in an alcoholic family look like? Two things come immediately to my mind.
First of all, there is the classic matter of acknowledging the elephant in the room. Are you (or the family you’re treating) discussing addiction as a central fact of life (perhaps the central fact of life) in the home? Recovering parents often ask me what…or if…they should speak at all about the problem. In fact, I think they must speak and must offer age-appropriate explanations of the addiction, just as families should openly and honestly discuss any other medical disorder that is affecting a loved one. Children who don’t receive important information about problems that are afflicting their parents are left to their own devices to explain the problem and the troubling events that stem from it. They will invent explanations using their own immature cognitive and emotional resources to do so. Children are “ego-centric” in the sense that, lacking the capacity to see the big picture, they seem themselves as the center of most family events. This leads them to believe that they are responsible for the problems–that the adults they love are experiencing distress and behaving badly because of them. This can cause real damage to the sense of self and self-esteem.
Another important aspect of emotional honesty is a willingess on the part of the adults in the family to express their own feelings about important events in the family–in a contained and proportionate way of course. Sadness and anger are natural things to feel about illness of any kind in a family. Children know when their parents are unhappy and worried, even when parents think they are concealing it well. Parents are often surprised at their childrens’ responses when they finally admit that they are sad/or angry about the circumstances the family’s facing. I remember well what happened when one father, who had been keeping a stiff upper lip about his separation from his drug-addicted wife, finally told his young son how sad he felt that his wife had left the home. His normally reserved son began to sob about his own grief. This dad had always believed that his son was temperamentally quiet and limited in his ability to express feelings. However, now it seemed that what he’d needed all along was his dad’s permission to grieve openly about his mother’s departure.
As I thought more about the importance of emotional honesty, another question came to mind: What are the barriers to emotional honesty in alcoholic homes (or in any home, for that matter)? My colleague’s comment about AA led me to look for what Bill W had to say about emotional sobriety. Pretty interesting things, as so often is the case. In a reflection on the roots of his own depression and the disappointing failure of his 12th step work to provide more relief from it, Bill W. defined emotional sobriety as the development of of “real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility)” and suggested that the things that tend to destabilize people come from (often less than conscious) striving for “approval, perfect security, and perfect romance”. (See http://www.barefootsworld.net/aanextfrontier.html) That is, people lose their balance when the “(demand) the impossible”. And he observed that such demands usually stem from “false dependencies” on people or circumstances” for “prestige, security and the like”. Bill W concluded that his own demands for “possession and control of the people and the conditions” surrounding him was blocking his own emotional sobriety and also, feeding the depression that frequently plagued him....
I recently updated Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home, a book I wrote in 1992 to help parents in recovery from addiction and co-dependence to heal relationships with their children. As I re-read and edited the book, I reflected on its essential message. I was heartened to discover that over 20 additional years of treating addicted individuals and their families has only strengthened my views about the most important things families in recovery need to know. Moreover, the central idea I was trying to convey then still seems to me to be the most important thing for parents in recovery to remember: A child’s chances of remaining healthy when a family plunges into crisis depends, to a great extent, on the ability of at least one parent (or other adult caretaker) to remain emotionally sober–that is, stable, supportive and capable of holding the child’s most basic needs in mind.
Certainly other factors, like the child’s basic temperament, influence a child's resilience in the face of extraordinary stress. However, even sunny, hardy children experience fear, sadness, anger, and many other kinds of emotional distress when a family is struggling to cope with severe illness. And typically, the younger children are, the less able they are to soothe themselves and maintain a hopeful and confident outlook when frightening things happen. Their cognitive and emotional resources are just too immature to help them assess the situation accurately and imagine a path forward for themselves and the people they love. So a parent’s ability to maintain his or her own emotional footing, and to notice and respond appropriately to a child’s pain is critical. (Please continue reading.)
A parent's response to a child in crisis does not have to be perfect. In many cases, it is good enough, at least in the short-term, if the parent perceives the child’s distress, conveys that it is normal under the circumstances, and offers assurance that it is okay to talk about feelings that are bubbling up. Even if a parent has no clear ideas about how or when the family’s problems will be solved, it is very reassuring to a child in crisis to be “seen” and to have painful feelings noticed and validated by a person she counts on. A parent who says, “I see you are scared, I see you are worried and sad”, and adds, “I understand why you feel that way and I want you to know we are working to figure this out and will make sure you are taken care of” makes a child feel safer and calmer. A good many of the people I see in my clinical practice grew up with an addicted parent. The ones who had at least one grownup they could trust and rely on during dark periods are the ones who find it easier, as adults, to find and form solid relationships with healthy friends, partners and therapists who can help them construct rewarding lives....