How Addiction Affects the Parent-Child Relationship

A child does not understand the complex motivations of addiction.

Posted Dec 17, 2019

Child upset with her mother.
Source: fizkes/BigStock

Loneliness, fear, and anger are all collateral damage I have witnessed from addiction. I have also seen the collateral damage of worthlessness, especially when the addiction affects the parent-child relationship. This sense of worthlessness, of being damaged or unlovable, can happen when a child’s relationship with a parent is undermined by that parent’s addiction.

The child does not understand the subtle pressures and complex motivations of the addiction. All they know is they fail to receive that parent’s attention or affection. If the child is bold enough to demand that attention or affection, they can run headlong into the strength of the competing addiction. In these cases, it is not uncommon for the child to lose.

The voice of the addiction may even speak out against the child, transferring blame and guilt onto them. Children can assume the reason they are not being loved or cared for is that there is something inherently wrong with them. They take on the responsibility for the estrangement within the relationship, and the addiction is not motivated to alter that perception.

Another area of collateral damage from addiction is chaos, which is the opposite of peace. The resulting anxiety is a by-product of addiction. The addict anxiously plots out the next encounter with the addiction, fearful and unsure of its ultimate effectiveness. The addict lives a life of uncertainty, which becomes subtly and overtly communicated to others.

Those associated with the addict also live with uncertainty, unsure what the next crisis will be and what it will require. Responding to crises can become so fixed in their experiences, especially as children, that life without them can become a foreign experience and seem stressful. When a crisis is the expected and anticipated norm of childhood, life is robbed of peace.

Those in relationship with someone struggling with addiction end up struggling themselves, as their lives become entangled with the consequences of that addiction. An addiction is a devastating cyclone of traumatic events and behaviors that can uproot and unhinge family relationships, causing damage well into the future.

One of the difficult truths of recovery is that it may end the addiction, but it is not guaranteed to undo the damage. The reality of the damage must be accepted and internalized by the recovering addict, which is a challenging process. The recovering addict, ready to move on, may need to have patience with loved ones whose paths to healing are slower.

I remember a family support session between a mother and her two daughters. The daughters, for the first time, were able to tell their mother what it was like growing up within her orbit. Their mother's addiction was not to a substance, but rather a behavior, which was anger.

They were terrified to share their feelings but determined to speak their truth finally. The daughters shared memories of huddling in their rooms, fearful of becoming their mother's target. They were afraid to have friends over and felt there was always a barrier preventing them from seeking out the love, comfort, and companionship they desired. The girls admitted they had clung instead to each other for that support, further driving a wedge of alienation in their relationship with their mother.

When it was the mother's turn to talk, her first comment was, “I had no idea.” I was so grateful she didn’t follow that up with, “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” I’ve heard other people respond that way, which only puts the responsibility back onto the other person.

Children, especially, do not have the responsibility to explain they are being mistreated. The adult is the one who should know and initiate change. Unfortunately, addicted adults often are not capable of acting responsibly, but that does not transfer the burden of responsibility back onto the child.

Those girls understood that in any battle with their mother growing up, they were going to emerge the losers. They lived their childhoods surrendered to her rage and persistent negativity. This led to anger and fear, both major components of their collateral damage.