Theresa Eschmann, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and addiction family specialist in private practice in St. Louis, experienced firsthand the power of denial in adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders. All her life, Eschmann had witnessed her mother struggle with this disorder, yet upon finding her mother dead with a bottle of alcohol in her hand, Eschmann’s first response was denial. She couldn’t believe that her mother’s alcohol use disorder had caused her death, initially insisting that someone must have poisoned her.
“I … took a chemical dependency proficiency certification to try to get some understanding of what killed her because it couldn’t have just been alcohol,” Eschmann says, explaining her thinking at the time. “Alcohol made you sick. It made you have delirium tremens. It made you see things. But it couldn’t have killed you.”
Denial is often a strong coping mechanism for adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders, says Lisa Kruger, an LPC and psychotherapist and the owner of Stepping Stone Psychotherapy in the Washington, D.C., metro area. “They have to deny any feelings of sadness or anger that they might have in order to survive,” she says.
This denial extends to adult children’s own potential struggles with substance use disorders. Keith Klostermann, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology and the director of clinical training for the marriage and family therapy program at Medaille College, had a female client whose father chronically abused alcohol, and her own drinking often led to fights with her boyfriend. One of these drunken fights resulted in her breaking her foot. Even so, she maintained a permissive attitude toward drinking and brushed it off as a recreational activity.
The client was firmly in denial and not yet ready to address either her experience of growing up around substance abuse issues or her own drinking habits, says Klostermann, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed mental health counselor who maintains an active practice in New York. Counselors may be eager to push clients to explore these issues, but Klostermann warns that discussing the implications of this childhood experience before clients are ready is a recipe for disaster. Taking that approach may lead to problems establishing a therapeutic alliance or cause clients to end counseling prematurely, he explains. Instead, he advises, counselors can help clients connect the dots and arrive at an understanding that their behavior makes sense based on their experiences growing up.
Asking the right questions
Being an adult child of a parent with a substance use disorder is not uncommon. According to the National Association for Children of Addiction, 1 in 4 children in the United States (or approximately 18.25 million children) live in a family with a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Yet, Eschmann, a certified master addiction counselor and a member of the American Counseling Association, says it’s her sense that asking whether clients grew up in homes where addiction was present is often skipped over in clinical assessments.
In addition, because these individuals have frequently learned to minimize, discount or deny the implications of growing up in a home with substance abuse, they aren’t particularly likely to seek counseling for those issues.
Being a child of a parent who abused substances “may be the elephant in the room, but that may not be what brings them in. They may not recognize it,” says Klostermann, an ACA member. “The stuff that happens to us when we were younger, a lot of times we carry with us, [but] we don’t even realize why we do the stuff we do. We just sort of do it out of inertia.”
Klostermann and Kruger say that many of their clients present with relationship problems, anxiety, stress, depression and substance use. Often, the counselors note, these issues result from growing up with a parent who had a substance use disorder.
The environment of walking on eggshells around a parent who is under the influence of a substance creates and breeds anxiety for the child, Klostermann explains. When the child becomes an adult and engages in stressful situations in college (e.g., exams) or at work (e.g., deadlines), the person’s anxiety can snowball, he adds. Likewise, they may struggle with adversity and withdraw socially because they find it difficult to navigate relationships. This isolation can lead to depression, which is a real challenge, Klostermann says.
Counselors can look for possible warning signs that their adult clients were exposed to substance abuse issues in the home as children, Klostermann says. For instance, clients might engage in avoidant strategies (e.g., using alcohol as a way to cope with stress) or have a permissive attitude about substance use (e.g., “I don’t drink much. I only have a 12-pack a day.”).
Kruger, an ACA member who specializes in the areas of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, trauma and addiction, had a male client who came to see her for help with relationship issues and high anxiety. In his intake paperwork, the client wrote that he drank nightly, so she asked him how many drinks he had in a week. “It was 50 to 60 a week,” he replied, “but now it’s only 20 or 30.” This response was a big red flag, yet he didn’t realize that his drinking was a problem, she says.
To help clients recognize unhealthy behaviors, Kruger often uses motivational interviewing techniques. For example, with this client, a counselor might ask, “How is drinking 20 or 30 drinks a week working out for you?”
If counselors see potential warning signs, Klostermann advises asking questions about current substance use patterns, previous substance use, parental substance use and family attitudes around drinking. For example, counselors might ask the following questions: What was it like growing up in your home? What does drinking a lot or having a good time mean to you? What does that look like? What are the holidays and celebrations like in your family? What is a typical family dinner or birthday party like?
“Substance use is built around so many family functions and gatherings and celebrations,” Klostermann says. So, if a client comments, “My parents liked to party,” counselors could follow up by asking the client to explain what that means and what the implications are for the client’s life (e.g., increased violence after a parent drank, embarrassment when a parent became intoxicated at a social event). Klostermann explains that these types of questions help clinicians gain a better understanding of not just the acute nature of growing up in an environment with substance abuse but also the context of it — for instance, whether parental drug use led to a more permissive attitude at home or whether the child adopted unhealthy coping strategies.
In addition, adult children often find it easier to talk about others rather than themselves, Klostermann says. By asking these types of nonjudgmental questions (e.g., “Did drinking like that seem to work out for your mom?”), counselors can help clients create insight and awareness by changing the frame of reference, he explains. This technique helps clients gain an understanding about not only the severity of their parents’ alcohol or substance use but also the emotional implications of that behavior, he adds.
After counselors establish that awareness, Klostermann says, they can connect it to the client’s present situation (e.g., “Does drinking affect your relationships or grades?”). He suggests that counselors could also try to educate clients by saying something along the following lines: “Given what you described about your [parent’s] history, it’s not uncommon for people that grow up in these homes to sometimes exhibit certain behaviors. Sounds like that might be happening for you.”
Counselors are “planting the seed [and] leaving the door open but also helping [clients] to connect the dots and understand this is what’s going on and here’s why,” he explains.
In addition to asking about clients’ personal and family substance use histories, Kruger often focuses her questions on clients’ relationships with their parents. These questions can help bring out emotions such as shame, guilt or anxiety that stem from being a child of a parent with a substance use disorder, she says.
Emotional and attachment wounds
“Adult children of alcoholics … have difficulty identifying and expressing emotions,” Kruger explains, “because when they were kids, they had to set aside their own emotions — maybe they had to care for their parents. … They didn’t understand what their emotions were because what they saw in their parents’ relationship was inconsistent presentation or organization of emotions between them and maybe even between the parent and child too.”
To help clients who are having difficulty expressing their emotions, Kruger provides a sheet that shows 50 visual representations of emotions and asks clients to name the emotions that describe how they are feeling. She says this activity, which she refers to as an “emotional cheat sheet,” is “a good springboard … for clients who really don’t have the language [for their emotions].”
Kruger and Eschmann find that codependency is another common issue for adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders. Because these adult children grow up being sensitive to the needs of their parents — even to the point of ignoring their own needs — they often engage in approval seeking, which leads to codependency, Kruger explains. This need for approval and to avoid conflict can result in these individuals seeking acceptance from others who do not treat them well, which causes lower self-esteem, she says.
Often, clients who are codependent will assume they are OK because they are not the ones causing problems, Eschmann observes. She questions clients on codependent behavior by asking about their controlling behaviors, approval-seeking behaviors, anxiety, and distortion around intimacy and separation.
For Kruger, it all comes back to attachment — how bonds are created and broken. Parents who struggle with alcohol use disorders are typically inconsistent in their parenting and in their show of emotion toward their children. As she points out, this can create attachment wounds and be stressful for children growing up under these circumstances. Children may be doubly affected because they still depend on parents for care and for getting many of their emotional needs met. At the same time, these children often aren’t in a position to fight or to flee elsewhere, she adds.
Counselors can help adult clients gain awareness of how their current relationship patterns are affected by their childhood experiences, Kruger says. One technique she finds helpful involves taking the client’s experiences and imagining how those experiences would be perceived on The Brady Bunch. As a member of The Brady Bunch family, Kruger explains, the client would notice instantly if a partner or spouse were abusive because of the contrast with the sitcom family. However, growing up in a stressful environment with one or both parents suffering from an alcohol use disorder tends to distort a person’s perceptions of what is “normal” or acceptable.
For example, having a parent who drank and was inconsistently present when the client was a child would affect the client’s ability to evaluate his or her current relationships. If the client has a partner who sometimes withholds affection or emotion, is manipulative and comes around only when he or she wants something, the client won’t necessarily notice any red flags because those are the circumstances and relationship patterns the client knows from growing up, Kruger explains.
Kruger also gives short attachment assessments and finds that these clients often present with anxious attachments. “In relationships, [they cater] to the other person because that attachment anxiety comes up and that need for approval keeps them in relationships” — including bad ones, she says.
To help clients see the connection between their view of themselves and their relationships with others, Kruger will have clients write out how they view themselves, how they view other people and how they view the world. Then, they will discuss how these views are created, how clients are perpetuating these views and how they would like to see themselves in relationships.
The exercise is particularly helpful for clients who find themselves in toxic relationships, Kruger adds. “It’s really rare [for] somebody in a toxic relationship [who is] being manipulated to say, ‘I see myself in high regard, and I think I’m great.’ It’s usually the opposite,” she says.
Making meaning of conflicted feelings
Another crucial part of adult children’s recovery is sorting through their conflicted feelings of love, disappointment, anger and shame. In fact, both Eschmann and Kruger find that shame and guilt are common presenting issues.
Children often feel that a parent’s situation is their fault, and they find it difficult to process these multilayered emotions, Kruger notes. They simultaneously feel disappointment in and love for their parent. For adult children, processing and making sense of these feelings is a substantial part of recovery, she explains. Counselors should acknowledge that shame piece and how clients have “put that burden on themselves and carried that burden with them throughout adulthood,” Kruger advises.
“Shames translates to I am bad,” Kruger points out. “Even if [clients] don’t present it on the outside, they’re usually coming in with some pretty damaged self-esteem and are already judging themselves.” In part for that reason, she emphasizes the importance of creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere in counseling.
When self-esteem, thoughts and feelings are involved, Kruger uses cognitive behavior therapy techniques. She says she has experienced a good deal of success with an exercise that blends cognitive restructuring and emotion identification. In the exercise, clients look at a triggering event and then identify their negative self-talk and automatic thought, the feeling that this thought creates, evidence to strengthen this thought, evidence against this thought and a new thought that they can believe.
The exercise allows clients to recognize their negative self-talk and its consequences and enables them to reconfigure these self-demeaning thoughts in a way that is believable to them, Kruger explains. For example, clients might think that they are “bad” and list all of the evidence they have for that thought. Next, they could counter that thought with the fact that they recently got a raise at work. Finally, they could create a new thought that sometimes they do good things, Kruger says.
“These clients need validation,” Eschmann emphasizes. “They didn’t get it growing up.” Instead, she explains, the parent who was abusing alcohol or other substances has often discounted the adult child’s feelings and experiences.
Klostermann also stresses the importance of normalizing these clients’ emotions and experiences. These clients may not realize — or, in some cases, perhaps don’t want to realize — the impact on them of their parents’ drug or alcohol use, he says. He notes how difficult it can be for clients to verbalize that their parents had or have a drinking problem, especially if they maintain a glorified version of their parents. For this reason, counselors need to help clients understand that it is possible for them to love their parents while still recognizing that their parents made mistakes.
Kathleen Brown-Rice, department chair and associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Sam Houston State University, agrees. Counselors must keep in mind that the family member is someone whom the client still loves and cares about, she says. Counselors can give clients the “space to say that you can love somebody and also be disappointed by their behaviors. You can love someone, and they can love you, and they can still hurt you,” she says. “[It’s] helpful for clients to understand that it’s more complicated than just [their parents are] bad or they don’t love [them].”
Eschmann helps clients focus on unresolved grief, which is common for adult children who grew up with parental substance abuse. Adult children are often hesitant to admit that their mom left them alone all night with a stranger or that their father came home drunk and had violent arguments with their mother, Eschmann says. They might not want to admit that these past events are why they get triggered today during certain situations.
“[Clients] have to accuse before [they] can excuse,” Eschmann asserts. “They have to go back and [ask], ‘What happened to me?’ This isn’t about [the parents] anymore. It’s about [the client].” If clients become more aware of what happened to them and what kind of environment they lived in that made them fearful and anxious today, then they can start healing, she adds.
Adult children who grew up in the same environment with substance abuse can respond very differently. One person may be angry, whereas another may be empathetic, and still another may end up also struggling with a substance use disorder. This raises the question of why some adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders are more resilient than others.
Resilience is “critical in terms of shaping kids’ development as they transcend into adulthood in terms of the choices that they make and the way that they deal with stress and conflict,” Klostermann points out. Based on his clinical experience, Klostermann suggests that having other healthy outlets (e.g., extracurricular activities such as sports, positive role models such as grandparents) and an ability to contextualize what is happening help to foster resilience.
Brown-Rice, an LPC and a member of ACA, acknowledges that there is more than simple genetics at play with resiliency. “Resiliency is not a moral characteristic. It’s a function of our brain,” she says. It’s “how our brain controls for those genetics … how that resiliency comes in and how we support that.”
Recently, she, along with Gina Forster (a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago) and several other colleagues, conducted a study funded partly by a grant from the Center for Brain and Behavior Research at the University of South Dakota on college students who had similar experiences of being adult children of parents with substance use disorders. The participants identified as either engaging in risky substance use (the vulnerable group) or not engaging in risky substance use (the resilient group).
“Overall, their experience being raised by a parent who met the criteria for having a substance use disorder appeared similar,” says Brown-Rice, who presented the findings at the ACA 2017 Conference in San Francisco. However, “vulnerable individuals had lower scholastic performance … [and] reported poor overall psychological, physical and social health and more polysubstance use.”
The study also revealed another difference: The vulnerable group had a short allele of the serotonin transporter gene, which meant they were more likely to react to stressful events. “[This group] had a reduced uptake of their serotonin, which can increase depression and stressful life events,” explains Brown-Rice, associate editor of the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling.
Brown-Rice and the other researchers also measured brain activity while the participants viewed positive images (e.g., a cuddly bear), negative images (e.g., a crying baby) and neutral images (e.g., a chair). They found that the vulnerable group had altered brain activity when processing negative images. This group recognized the negative image but refused to store it, Brown-Rice explains.
Brown-Rice hypothesizes that this refusal to store negative images is an important factor in resiliency levels. To illustrate, imagine that you are walking outside and see a stick. Initially, your brain may think that the stick is a snake, so you jump back. As Brown-Rice explains, when you first see the stick, the amygdala activates and warns you because it looks like something that the brain remembers could hurt you. But after taking a closer look (i.e., storing the image), you realize it is just a stick, so you relax.
Resiliency depends on our ability to realize that the stick is not a snake. Some people, however, may be more likely because of brain functioning or genetic variations to see the stick and just react by running, Brown-Rice says. Thus, counselors can help certain clients by nurturing the parts of the brain that activate during stressful situations, she explains.
Brown-Rice incorporates this research into her clinical practice. She tells her clients that they have a resilient part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex — and that in session, they can work on controlling their brain and building their optimism and resiliency. She suggests that counselors use mindfulness techniques, such as guiding clients in breathing exercises and finding a safe place to go when triggered, because mindfulness is effective in calming the amygdala, which activates during stressful events.
Consistency also helps promote clients’ resiliency, Brown-Rice notes. If counselors are inconsistent, she says, that will put clients on edge.
Klostermann agrees. He finds that having a clear agenda helps to create a sense of safety and build rapport with clients. He informs them about his clinical approach and what to expect during the session and tells them there is no assumption on his part that they will schedule another appointment.
Kruger recommends using clients’ resiliency to help strengthen their internal sense of self. After all, she points out, adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders have already developed survival strategies, such as caring for siblings in areas in which the parent was lacking.
Instead of simply telling clients that they have strengths, Kruger uses motivational interviewing, which allows clients to identify and recognize their strengths themselves. For example, rather than telling a client, “You seem to be good at your job,” she might ask, “In what ways are you praised at your job?” This question helps clients reach the conclusion themselves, which builds their internal positive regard.
One more piece of advice for working with adult children of parents with substance use disorders: Counselors shouldn’t be afraid to change their approach if it’s not working. For example, Brown-Rice says, research has shown that people who have a short allele for serotonin may be resistant to cognitive behavior treatment. “If clients are not responding, we have to think maybe we need to change,” she says. “Maybe we need to move. Maybe we need to [incorporate] some of these mindfulness techniques. Maybe we need to do something else.”
Sometimes, it may be the counselor, not the client, who is being resistant, she stresses.
Halting the domino effect
The desire to get treatment for someone with a substance use disorder often overshadows the way that addiction affects the person’s family and others who care about the person. It shouldn’t.
In her educational video on addiction in the family, Claudia Black, an expert in addiction, highlights a child’s drawing of his experience living in a home where substance abuse is present. The child draws images of dominoes and writes, “Alcohol and drugs are like dominoes. They knock down the person, who knocks down everyone, including themselves.” The child’s words illustrate the way that addiction permeates and affects the entire family, not just the person with the substance use disorder.
For the first two years after her mother died from alcohol-related causes, Eschmann found herself crying repeatedly. Her grief and denial led her to learn more about chemical dependency, addiction and adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders. Counselors need to understand that the family has an emotional illness as well, Eschmann emphasizes. This illness is just as progressive as what the person with the substance use disorder is facing, she adds.
Brown-Rice reminds clients that they are not responsible for their substance use issues, but they are responsible for how they respond to these issues. For adult children of parents with substance use disorders, this means learning how their childhood experiences affect their current behaviors and choices.
Adult children of parents with substance use issues often feel isolated. Support groups such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics are helpful because they provide opportunities for people with similar experiences to share their stories and come to the realization that they’re not alone, Kruger says.
Counselors should also help clients understand that their parents’ substance use is not their shame to carry and substance abuse is not a legacy that they have to repeat, Brown-Rice says. Then, clients will realize that choosing a different path doesn’t mean that they are being disrespectful or dishonoring their parents, she explains.
The hope is that this different path will stop the domino effect of addiction, shame, depression and pain.
Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
I wonder if the standards developed/set forth by Adult Childhood Experiences (ACE) can/should be applied as an effective treatment modality for adult children of alcoholics/substances.
For more information on ACEs, see Counseling Today‘s article “Coming to grips with childhood adversity“
This was a wonderful article that really resonated with me, both as a child of an addict, and as a professional who works with those same children today. I was particularly struck with the focus on the role of neurological changes in resiliency levels, and would love to learn more about.