Who are these adult children of dysfunctional families of whom we speak? Those who call themselves survivors of abuse? Where do they live? How much money do they earn? What kinds of problems do they have? Who are these people anyway?
"They" are us.
At least 90 to 95% of us, some researchers believe. Many of us are adult children of alcoholic parents who fit the characteristics listed in Janet Woititz' bestselling book Adult Children of Alcoholics (Woititz, 1983). Or we are women or men who "love" too much, as described by Robin Norwood (Norwood, 1985).
As adult children of dysfunctional families, alcoholic parents, abusive childhoods… as survivors… we operate in a world of extremes - always seeking that healthy balance, the Golden Mean, but always seeming to fall short of the mark. The pendulum swings to one extreme and we feel lonely, isolated and afraid. We tire of this, and it swings to the other extreme, where we feel enmeshed, smothered and angry. Then it swings back again. This can be true in many areas of our lives.
On their way to conduct a workshop in Texas, some public speakers for the Adult Children movement years ago generated a list of their own, which might help to describe the troubles that plague adult children/ survivors:
Regardeless of our symptoms or circumstances, we are Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families because:
Something happened to us a long time ago. It happened more than once. It hurt us. We protected ourselves the way we knew how. We are still protecting ourselves. It isn′t working anymore.
The symptoms that we develop as a result of what happened to us run the gamut of psychiatric and stress-related disorders, from substance us disorders and other addictions to depression, phobias, anxiety, personality disorders, sexual dysfunction, intimacy disorders, overactivity, eating disorders, compulsive behavior and obsessions. Alcoholism, schizophrenia, certain kinds of depression, some forms of anxiety, some types of obesity all seem to have well documented biological roots. But it is curious to us (the authors of this - Chapter 3 of Unknown Book) that in all our years of doing therapy, we have encountered few, if any alcoholics, for example, who did not also come from dysfunctional families who were not also re-enacting that dysfunction of their own current family systems.
In fact, we can think of two people who came from healthy families but seemed to inherit the biological predisposition to become hooked on alcohol and they handled the problem in a very functional way. They both said to themselves, "I think I'm getting addicted to this stuff." They talked to their family and friends about it, and then they sought help to stop the addiction. The difference for most of us is that we're too dysfunctional to do that.
The symptoms we develop have certain characteristics that seem to hold true for most Adult Children.
Our symptoms are born out of emotional denial and they serve to maintain that denial. They are ways that we allow ourselves to live one kind of life while convincing ourselves that we have a very different kind of life from the one we are actually living. And while they serve us the illusion that we are in control, they are in fact clear indicators that what we have really done is to give up our healthy control to something outside ourselves.
By becoming trapped in an addiction or phobia, we actually trade true control over our lives for the illusion of control. It is this illusion of control that makes giving up our symptoms so frightening.
The sex addict truly and sincerely believes that if he or she gives up unhealthy sex, life will crumble into chaos. The relationship addict, most often addicted to a person who is himself an addict, sincerely believes that if he or she tries to change in healthy ways, life will fall apart. The exercise bulimic who keeps her weight under control by running, who finds his only sense of "pseudo-inner peace" by running, and who shows all the signs of withdrawal when he isn't able to run, truly and sincerely believes that his life will not be worth living without the ability to run.
Our symptoms all started out as a normal response to some perceived life stress. It is our opinion (the opinion of the authors of this -- Chapter 3 from Unknown Book) that the breeding ground for them was introduced in childhood, when we were learning how to live with other people. When those family systems in which we grew up had some kind of dysfunctional or abusive situation, whether it be obvious (overt) or subtle (covert), it is normal, logical, and reasonable for a child in that family or environment to protect himself or herself. Just as the physical body will isolate an infection and protect the rest of the body by creating a cyst around it if it is left untreated for too long, our childhood minds will isolate the source of psychological pain in a safe blanket of denial or dissociation to maintain some kind of balance.
These symptoms form as a way of protecting us from a pain that we as children had no power to remove. From the early beginnings of denial grows a pattern of splitting ourselves in two for some survivors. Perhaps the competent, high- achieving child on the outside splits from the frightened, hurt, lost little child on the inside. The longer a coping mechanism such as this continues, the more adept a child will become at denying their true feelings. And the more we deny our feelings, the worse we feel.
And so our symptoms are about the denial of feelings, too. We shut off the hurt and the fear. We bask in the praise of "outsiders" who can only see the public image that we present. We take pride in being "the strong one" or "the rebel" or the "cutie pie" and all the while we are dying inside because noone really knows who we are, and they probably don't. Thus our symptoms are also relationship and intimacy blockers.
By supporting our denial and helping us to maintain our "family secrets", they also keep us from ever getting close to anyone else in healthy ways. We always have to keep our guard up in the hopes that no one will find out what's really inside, which means that our symptoms are also about shame. They are about the shame of "being found out," or "discovered", of being emotionally naked in front of others and being laughed at, criticized, or rejected.
The list of symptoms that can develop in adult survivors is quite long. In many of us there are several of these present at the same time. We (author of Chapter 3 of the book, Title Unknown) have never met a compulsive overeater, for example, who does not have an unhealthy dependency on food. We have rarely seen the spouse of an alcoholic who is not literally addicted to the relationship with their spouse, who is not compulsive in several other areas of life, who does not have an unhealthy dependency on other people or things and how does not have problems with depression.
It is not the label one puts on people that determines what kind of family problems they will have or what kind of parents they will make. It doesn't matter to the child whimpering in her bedroom after being screamed at by her frustrated, lonely mother whether or not her mother is labeled as being a relationship addict, a co-dependent or a compulsive overeater. What matters to that child is the fact that Mom and Dad aren't happy, that Mom and Dad scream at her all the time, that Mom and Dad put her in the middle of their fights and that Mom and Dad won't let her feel her real feelings.
These children grow up and we are them.
They are still alive - inside us.
And now, they are our way out.
Resource: Friel, J. and Friel, L (2010). Adult children: The secrets of dysfunctional families. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0757393357