Feelings, thoughts, experiences and assumptions from childhood affect all of us, throughout life. Children carry these experiences into their adult life. If the experiences come from an environment with an addictive parent, this dark secret can be transferred into adult life.
"Never a child - always a child" are words from Anna Westberg's book "Maria Mother". Those words explain much of the situation of the children of addicts. Their survival strategies in childhood - silence, to isolate feelings, to be nice in every situation - become their symptoms as adults. What they did not get as children, they lack as adults. Relationship problems and difficulties in the workplace are common effects of inadequate trust and poor self-confidence.
The American psychologist Janet G. Woititz was one of the first who paid real attention to the situation for adult children of addicts, with her book "Adult Children of Alcoholics". In this book, she elucidated various characteristics that she found in many of these adult children. A few of these can be that they:
- have to guess what normal behaviour is in many situations,
- have difficulties completing projects,
- lie when it is equally simple to tell the truth,
- are self-judgmental,
- have difficulties having fun,
- take themselves very seriously,
- have problems in intimate relationships,
- overreact to changes which they can't control,
- are always looking for approval and confirmation,
- think they're different,
- are either extremely responsible or extremely irresponsible,
- are extremely loyal, also to people who do not deserve it,
- are impulsive.
It is, however, important to bear in mind that this is not a law without exceptions. Not all these adult children develop all the characteristics above. Also, some people may have one or a few of these characteristics, without being the child of an addict.
Children of addicts are more likely to develop their own substance abuse and social behaviour problems than other children. According to certain researchers, the risk is twice as high, while others estimate the risk to be 4-9 times higher. In the 1950s, Ingvar Nylander worked with a study of just over 200 boys who all lived in families where the father was treated for a serious addiction to alcohol. When Nylander started the study all the children were 4-12 years old. The children of the alcoholics were compared with a control group, in which the social variables were the same with the exception that the latter children did not have a father with a drinking problem. Nylander's study showed that the children with alcoholic fathers were neglected physically and mentally, and that they often suffered from behaviour disturbances. Later, P.A. Rydelius did a 20 year follow-up of these children. The result showed that 25 percent of the boys, as early as in their teens, were socially maladjusted. The problems continued into adult age with work disability, crime and drug addiction. Those who were nervous and aggressive as children were the ones who had the worst problems. Because of their aggressive behaviour, they were at an early age left out of community and support in school and among friends. The boys who came from a family with an addictive father were more often sick in their adult life than the other boys. They had many and long absences from work because of illness and often applied for healthcare because of somatic diseases, physical abuse and drug addiction. They also have had more contact with psychiatric care compared with the control group.