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Effect of Addiction on Children
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In the last section, we discussed the three ways the addictive process affects a couple. These three effects are, the initial agreement of the relationship breaks down, anxiety is created due to the breakdown, and the co-addict becomes the sole keeper of the initial agreement.
In this section we will discuss the effect addiction has on children. I have found there are four main points to consider in discussing the effects of addiction on children. These four points are: consequences of addiction affect children differently, the innocence of children, the attachment of the child to the addict, and the age and development status of the child.
The Effect Addiction Has on Children - 4 Points
♦ # 1 - Addiction Affects Children Differently
As you may already know, general concepts concerning the effects of addiction on children can be misleading. In cases involving these types of children, I have found few truths are carved in stone. The first important aspect of addiction affecting children is addiction affects children differently. Although the addictive process affects all family members, not everyone will suffer permanent damage. Though it is possible for some children to develop as complete individuals, most children are severely damaged by the addictive process.
Would you agree that children begin to blame themselves when they are unable to understand that addiction is the cause of their pain? Children of addicts usually do not feel they are good enough. Charlene, 17, felt small and inadequate because of the verbal abuse from her father, Steve. Charlene stated "As a kid, I always dreamed of being big. Those dreams were great. I would be taller than our house. It wasn’t until I grew up more that I realized it was my drunken father that I wanted to be bigger and more powerful than. But I never really wanted to conquer my dad. I just wanted to be held and told I was good enough."
As you can see, Charlene was powerless over her father’s addiction. When she was 8 years old Charlene could only dream of changing her horrible situation. These types of situations often result in lost aspects of childhood. Charlene continued, "I still long for a good relationship with my dad, but his alcoholism killed him and probably my spirit years ago. I just feel empty." As you have probably observed these children’s lives can become unmanageable.
♦ # 2 - Innocence of Children
The second aspect of the effect addiction has on children is the innocence of children. As you already know, the exchange of knowledge for innocence takes place as a child matures. One of the roles of parents is to protect children from aspects of the world that would rob a child of innocence. Would you agree that addicts, as parents, promote the exchange of innocence for negative experience rather than act as protectors? Innocence belongs to the child who has the right to make the choice of when to trade it and for what. I have found addicts generally take the easy way whenever possible.
Addicts take the easy way for three reasons:
1. Fear of choice,
2. Denial of the necessity of choice,
3. Illusion that a choice has already been made.
This method of taking the easy way is instilled in the child, resulting in a premature loss of innocence. Stan, 32, recounts a childhood memory of his father unintentionally teaching him to take the easy way. "I was about 10 or 11. Mom had left dad a few months ago, and it became my duty to get him a drink when he got home from work. One day, the only thing in the house to drink was whiskey. After fixing him a glass, I asked what I was supposed to drink. He told me if I didn’t like whiskey I could have water. So, I had my first drink of liquor." This early experience with alcohol led to Stan’s own addiction.
Children whose innocence is taken to early usually react in four ways:
1. They develop strong defense mechanisms,
2. They seek pleasure to replace their loss,
3. They pretend meaningful relationships are not important
4. They develop a fear of attachment.
♦ # 3 - Attachment of the Child to the Addict
The third important aspect of the effect addiction has on children is the attachment of the child to the addict. As you know, the child bonds not only to individual family members, but also to the set of values, morals, and ethics a family follows. Concerning parents, the relationship can be a forced attachment. Obviously, children cannot choose their parents. Children with addicts for parents experience the addictive process instead of healthy parenting.
Walter, 36, describes his father James’ progression into addiction. "My dad was a good man. His friends and colleagues would have described him as a man to respect, a man with dignity. But as his addiction got worse, his behavior did, also. Dignity turned to disgrace. He lost everything. He was a lawyer. Before alcohol, law was his life. A couple months before he died he was arrested for shoplifting a bottle of booze." As you can see, James traded justice for addiction.
♦ # 4 - Age & Development Status
The fourth important aspect of the effect addiction has on children is the age and development status of the child. As you already know, a specific stage in childhood development can usually be correlated to a particular age. With your client what developmental stage were they when the addictive family member effected them. For example, if the addiction reaches its peak late in the child’s time at home, it can simply push the child out of the house. However, if addiction manifests during a child’s junior high years, then it may cause identity issues or rebellion.
♦ Technique: Development Map, 2 Steps
In order to discover Walter’s stage of development during his father’s addictive process, I used what I call a Development Map.
Step 1: I had Walter write six to ten specific instances of the effects of his father’s addiction on him along with his approximate age.
Step 2: Then I requested that he write down any type of associative memories from the same times in his life.
By following the basic stages of childhood development and comparing his answers, I had a timeline of his development in relation to the addictive process.
Would the Development Map be beneficial regarding a client you are currently treating?
In this section, we have discussed the effect addiction has on children. The four aspects of the addictive process affecting children are: consequences of addiction affect children differently, the innocence of children, the attachment of the child to the addict, and the age and development status of the child.
In the next section, we will discuss the characteristics of a family entering recovery. We also discussed the three key steps family members of addicts make as they become ready to enter recovery. These are, accepting they cannot control the course or consequences of the addiction, realizing that family interactions have been controlled by the addictive process, and finding out that addiction is an illness.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Gifford, E. J., Sloan, F. A., Eldred, L. M., & Evans, K. E. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parental substance-related convictions and adult drug treatment court participation on children’s school performance. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(5), 452–468.
Richter, L., & Richter, D. M. (2001). Exposure to parental tobacco and alcohol use: Effects on children's health and development. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71(2), 182–203.
Spoth, R., Trudeau, L., Guyll, M., Shin, C., & Redmond, C. (2009). Universal intervention effects on substance use among young adults mediated by delayed adolescent substance initiation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77(4), 620–632.
What are the things to consider when looking at the effect addiction has on children?
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