It has been my experience that by the time a child being raised in an addictive family reaches the age of nine, he has a well-developed denial system about his feelings and his perceptions of what is happening in the home. Children do whatever they possibly can to bring stability and consistency into their lives. They will behave in any manner if it makes it easier for them to cope and survive. Learning to focus on the environment, or on other people, or learning to detach oneself from the family, assists children in not feeling.
Children learn not to share and, inevitably, deny their feelings. Family members frequently discount and invalidate their feelings. “You have nothing to be afraid of.” … when in fact they may very well have something to be afraid of. “You have nothing to be angry about.”… when there are often many reasons to be angry, leading to emotional isolation. Being alone with feelings of fear, worry, embarrassment, guilt, anger, loneliness, etc., leads to a state of desperation or being overwhelmed. Such a state of being does not lend itself to survival, so children learn other ways to cope. Some learn how to discount and repress feelings, while others learn simply not to feel. These children do have access to their feelings, but only with the help of a trusted person. For the majority of children growing up with addiction, however, trust and trusted persons are not a consistent part of their lives.
These children are building up walls of self-protection. They are learning unhealthy coping mechanisms to protect themselves from the fear of their reality. The reality is that their parents are failing them. As the addiction progresses, the substance becomes the parents’ obsession. When family members experience the results of this obsession, they ask the questions, “Why?” “Why does my mom disappoint me at important times?” “Why does my dad embarrass me like that?” “Doesn’t he love me?” “Why is my dad drinking so much?” “Are my parents ever going to get better?” “Is she crazy?” “Is it my fault?” “Am I crazy?” It is frightening for family members to ask such questions of themselves. It can be even more frightening to allow themselves to answer honestly.
As a result, these children often learn to discount and inevitably deny those feelings entirely. The reason for denying is to convince themselves, as well as others, that their unhappy family life can be made happy by pretending, or denying reality. The greatest problem here is that when someone minimizes and discounts feelings for not just weeks, but months and years of their life, it becomes a skill they take with them into adulthood that will permeate every significant area of their life.