When I go on vacations, I love to get a hotel room on an upper-level floor with a balcony. Sitting outside taking in the bird’s eye view of the beautiful scenery can be breathtaking. There is always a very secure rail surrounding the balcony that I may or may not ever touch. However, I would not dare step foot on that balcony without seeing the railing there. In the same way, we need a railing to feel secure on an upper level balcony, children and adolescents need structure and boundaries in their upbringing to feel secure to explore the big world around them. In a home where there is an alcoholic parent, structure and boundaries are compromised.
In an effort to gain a sense of order and predictability in a chaotic and unpredictable environment, children of alcoholics unconsciously take on different roles in the family. While the other parent often takes the role of the co-dependent, children accept roles including the perfect child, the rebel, the clown, the loner, or the caretaker. The roles provide an unhealthy coping and identity for a child, and assists in day-to day “functioning” of the house with an alcoholic. Regardless of the roles that are taken on, children in the house are taught from a very early age that they cannot predict what is coming in their world day to day or hour by hour. Heightened anxiety becomes a survival emotion as children constantly prepare for the worse.
Although the roles and heightened anxiety are not healthy for children, they are a means of survival in a time of their life when they have limited to no control. Ongoing challenges arise when the roles and anxiety are carried over into their adult world unknowingly. It can affect every aspect of a person’s life personally and professionally. If you are an adult who grew up with an alcoholic parent and experienced repeated chaos and a lack of control in your life, we encourage you to seek help and support. A trained professional can assist you in gaining insight into how this dynamic developed as a result of your upbringing and guide you in gaining the confidence that you are now safe to learn healthier coping skills and more balanced roles in your adult relationships. As Maya Angelou said, “I may be forever changed by the things that happened to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”