Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Individuation Journey
Adult children of alcoholics each have their own individual journey, yet they share some powerful factors in common.
These factors can very directly impact the course of the person’s individuation, the term that Jungian /a-midlife-transitions use to describe the path an individual follows to become fully her- or himself.
What are some of these key factors, or dimensions? And what do they mean for an individual travelling his or her own individual journey to meaning and purpose?
There are a Lot of Adult Children of Alcoholics
Estimates are that as many as 18.5% of U.S. children may be the children of alcoholics; we can expect that numbers would not deviate that radically in Canada. This is a huge number of people; and very many of them are carrying burdens of very nearly overwhelming pain, related to traumatic and other extremely painful experience in the past.
Dr. Claudia Black, Ph. D., a renowned expert on addictions and adult children of alcoholics notes that these individuals grow up with three rules particularly deeply ingrained in their lives: don’t trust; don’t feel; and, don’t talk. Each of these “rules” comes with a background history, often composed of incredible pain and sorrow.
Rule 1: Don’t Trust!
Alcoholic parents can often be so absorbed in concerns related to themselves and their drinking that they forget or are unconcerned with the needs of family members, to the point where they forget about key occasions like birthdays, or graduations, or they leave family members stranded. Children who are subject to a steady diet of such experiences absorb the message that there is no one in whom they can have any faith. In Jungian terms they encounter the devastating negative side of archetypal mother and father.
Rule 2: Don’t Feel!
Alcoholic parents often inflict intense pain and shame on their children. As a result, these kids instinctively learn to shut off and suppress their emotions, because otherwise they would be so overwhelmed that they would not be able to get through their daily lives. This habit of emotional cut-off doesn’t end when the child grows up, and so adult children of alcoholics can often stay in a place where they don’t access their emotions. It can be extremely difficult for them to know what they feel, and even for those who want to be close to them to connect with them. Which leads us to…
Rule 3: Don’t Talk!
Kids of alcoholics become experts at denying the reality around them, both in terms of emotional reality, but often, also, in terms of just plain facts. They can easily become experts at avoiding talking about difficult areas of life. This can actually mean that they resist talking about anything painful, or urgent. But it can also mean that they unconsciously resist talking about anything that is truly important or meaningful, which can mean that they face particular difficulty at times like major life transitions.
Pain from the Past; Moving Into the Present and the Future
Adult children of alcoholics often strongly over-react to situations in the present, moving into emotional denial or defensiveness — or completely disproportionate responses. It’s important for these folks to know that such over-reaction to a present event is really the re-experiencing of pain rooted in the past. Depth case studies speaks of it as being rooted in a feeling toned complex that began with traumatic experiences. Such a complex can be extremely touchy; when activated, it can easily bring the pain of the past into the present.
For adult children of alcoholics, being able to separate the present from the powerful emotional triggers that would send them back into past pain is essential, if they are to keep moving forward in their lives, and their individuation. The right kind of /a-midlife-transition can be extremely helpful in assisting with this result.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst