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Coping Strategies of Addiction Affected Families
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In the last section, we discussed why families of addicts
are resistant to trying new strategies to improve their situations. These
were being locked into past habits; relegating themselves to the sideline;
and "feeling comfortable".
In this section, we will discuss survival skills practiced by the families of
addicts. These are being a contortionist, trying to keep the addict happy,
inventing new ways of connecting, and unspoken rules.
4 Survival Skills for Families
♦ Survival Skill # 1 - Being a Contortionist
I find that children of addicts are like contortionists.
They twist and bend to counterbalance their parent's addiction. They contort
themselves to gain approval from a parent who does not fully attend to their
needs. They balance between attracting positive attention and avoiding the
wrath of addiction. These contortions are their survival skills,
and the beginnings of character defects and problems that may haunt them their
One difficulty families of addicts face is the difficulty
of communication. Addiction discourages healthy communication, so families
must resort to extreme measures to get their messages across. The volume
on everything is turned up: concern becomes panic, persuasion becomes manipulation,
and disagreement becomes hostility. Children, especially, learn they must
be larger than life to communicate.
♦ Survival Skill # 2 - Trying to Keep the Addict Happy
I find that a second trap that families fall into is
trying to keep the addict happy to maintain relationships. Sharon has been
married to Larry for forty years. By the time their children reached school
age, Larry's heavy drinking had turned into alcohol addiction. Although his
alcoholism never interfered with his work, he was emotionally unavailable
to his family.
After a few beers, Larry withdrew and talking stopped. Sharon
automatically ushered the kids to bed, and made Larry comfortable in front
of the TV. Sharon said, "Larry worked so hard, he deserved some downtime. It was in the
best interest of our marriage for me to give him what he needed." The
more time went by, the more of a malcontent Larry became, and the more Sharon
strived to be the ideal wife to make him happy.
She trained herself to work
around his addiction, and connecting with Larry became her primary motivation
for her every behavior. Sharon said, "Every once in a while he did
something so sweet, it made it all worthwhile. Those moments were rare, but
they outweighed all the bad times."
♦ Survival Skill # 3 - Inventing New Ways of Connecting
As you know, addiction disrupts normal coming-together
activities within a family, so families invent new ways of connecting.
4 Roles Children of Addicts Use to Connect with their Family
are four basic roles children of addicts adopt to connect with their families:
-- Role # 1 - The first is the hero, who brings accolades to the family
through top grades or sports achievements.
-- Role # 2 - The second is the scapegoat,
who attracts negative attention away from the others by always getting into
-- Role # 3 - The lost child withdraws and stays out of the way,
and is rewarded for never being a nuisance.
-- Role # 4 - In addition to the hero, the scapegoat,
and the lost child, there is the mascot, who takes on the
role of the clown to make everyone laugh.
As you can see, these survival strategies
each come with their own pain and symptoms, and children may become so used
to these roles that they cannot break out of them later in life.
♦ Survival Skill # 4 - Unspoken Rules
Often, it is the unspoken rules that affect the family of an addict the most. As you know, addiction is threatened by honesty, so
the entire system shuts down - no information in, no information out. Truthful
expressions of negative feelings and discussion of what’s happening
in the family are unacceptable. Sharon was a good example of this - no matter
what Larry did, she acted according to the unspoken rules, without taking
time to consider her own feelings.
♦ Feelings Excavation Exercise
I asked Sharon to work through the "Feelings Excavation" exercise
-- Step # 1 -
First, I asked "What is the predominant feeling you have right
now?" Sharon thought for a moment, and answered "Well, I guess
I’m a little upset."
-- Step # 2 -
I then asked Sharon to make a list of words
that more accurately described how she was feeling. Sharon listed: frustrated,
embarrassed, disappointed, and hurt.
-- Step # 3 - "Ok," I said, "Now, what happened that made you feel this
way?" Sharon answered, "Last week Larry and I were supposed to
go have dinner with our closest friends, but Larry came home drunk, and we
couldn’t make it. I had to call our friends and tell them Larry had to
work late." I encouraged Sharon to think about how she expressed
her feelings when she had to make excuses for Larry. She told me she would
usually just make Larry comfortable in front of the TV, make him dinner if
he could eat, and then work on cleaning the house.
-- Step # 4 - Finally, I asked Sharon
to come up with some other ways to express herself. Sharon said, "Well, I suppose I could have gone to
dinner by myself. I do always have a good time with our friends, and I really
shouldn’t have to miss it because Larry is too drunk to go."
In this section, we have discussed the survival skills used by the families
of addicts. These are being a contortionist, and trying to keep the addict
happy, families invent new ways of connecting, and unspoken rules. Would it
be beneficial to play this section during your next session?
In the next section, we will discuss establishing communication
within the family of an addict through identifying who is most open to change,
asking for help, finding allies outside the immediate family, and dealing with
family members who refuse to cooperate.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Church, S., Bhatia, U., Velleman, R., Velleman, G., Orford, J., Rane, A., & Nadkarni, A. (2018). Coping strategies and support structures of addiction affected families: A qualitative study from Goa, India. Families, Systems, & Health, 36(2), 216–224.
Jarmas, A. L., & Kazak, A. E. (1992). Young adult children of alcoholic fathers: Depressive experiences, coping styles, and family systems. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(2), 244–251.
What are the four basic roles children of addicts adopt to connect with their
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