As ACoAs (and adults from dysfunctional homes), our task is to work through our patterns and turn into the capable parent (and person) we would like to become. There are 3 key areas of ourselves as parents, that if we care for them, our parenting skills and confidence will grow leaps and bounds. In the following article, I highlight how we need to update our role models by "Acting As If", start with loving attention towards ourselves, and then to focus on working through problem areas while still remembering our positive qualities.
I've been reading the book Unwanted Inheritance by Lisa Sue Woititz, the daughter of the “mother of ACoA issues”: Dr. Jan Woititz. Dr. Jan first identified that Adult Children of Alcoholics have a unique set of concerns, having been raised in an alcoholic family system herself. Albeit, this material can be applied to anyone raised in a dysfunctional family system with parents with mental illness, narcissism or other addictions besides alcoholism. Here's a quote that sums up the experience of an ACoA (or person from a dysfunctional family unit) as a parent:
“Adult Children of Alcoholics are forced to guess at how ‘normal’ families function, so they have a sense of self that can be so tentative. Making decisions and solving problems is usually very hard for them because there may not have been anyone around to teach them what they need to know about life, or about anything. So it is natural for parenting to be a struggle for ACoA’s because we can’t teach what we don’t know. ACoA’s may have the right answers but may not have the data to effect the kind of change they want. One of the critical parts in terms of developing and maintaining healthy relationships with our children is to know how to do it. Trust me, people would have healthy relationships if they knew how.” - Dr. Jan
ACoA’s have to “guess at what normal” behavior is. I often compare this experience to feeling like a 6 year-old running around with a scalpel asked to do surgery. Tasks that feel “usual” to “normal” people feel overwhelming, foreign and...too adult. So when ACoA’s become parents, it can feel like a confusing and anxiety-provoking task because the adult skills to take care of another human-being have not been passed along. There were little to no proper examples of appropriate parenting with protection, structure, reflection of basic goodness, education, and attention to our value.
Mindful Parenting: The top Three parenting Tips if you're an ACoA or come from a co-dependent or enmeshed family.These tips come from my years of treating ACoA clients in my NYC private practice and from Woititz's suggestions.
1. Act As If: We Need to Find New Role Models
Adult Children of Alcoholics didn’t have normal models of parenting; so often times we might have to perform a keen acting job to become the parent we would like to be. Woititz explains how it feels impossible to know how to parent when we know what we don’t want but have a tougher time finding and enacting how we do want to be as parents. A typical ACoA grows up in a household where there was no such thing as a boundary, feeling guilt for having personal secrets, thoughts and feelings about school, relationships and experiences. In some alcoholic homes all information is expected to be open access at all times (others are more secretive.) This boundary-less family system can offer feelings of being “connected and close”, but can also foster difficulties in forming a separate confident sense of self. Moreover, there usually aren't set rules and guidelines such as with curfew, chores or even how to respect the adults of the house; this may appear as having great freedom as a child, but it only leads to confusion of a child's place in the family and anxiety about...well...everything. If there are any rules, they often change the next day or even the next hour and then kids buck against them! Kids feel most safe when they expect what will come next and follow a close routine -- that each day is like the next. ACoAs grow up feeling unsafe in this chaotic system.
When we become parents ourselves, it comes as a striking realization that we were raised by adult children. We weren’t allowed to be children when we were children, and as adults we were never passed on the adult skills to be full-blown adult parents. Our own parents never learned the skills from their own parents and so on and so forth. Woititz bring up the well-known AA slogan: “Act As If.” She states if we haven’t had positive examples of parenting- being nurturing, educating and protective- then we need to find parents we currently admire and emulate their approach. It would be a good idea to sit down and talk to them about their experience with their children. How have they dealt with setting boundaries for example and creating a safe atmosphere for their kids? What do we admire about them in a concrete way and how does that translate into action with our own children? It’s also an interesting and rewarding exercise to consider the parenting your own parents received; ultimately leading to compassion and understanding for the traumas that they endured as children themselves.
2. Change Starts With You: We need to Become our Own Best Friend
Every situation is workable; but it only really starts with a desire to be kinder to ourselves and to make friends with our situation (as choatic and messy as it might be.) With the right amount of help, we can become aware of our patterns and then use our personal courage to change and do differently. It is fully possible to become the parents that we’ve always wanted to become. I had heard the serenity prayer before but didn't know what it actually meant until much later: “...To accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference…” If we are actively addicted as a parent or are married to an active addict, then there is definite work to be done and it really starts there. Children have the need to feel safe and protected in the home and this is much more difficult if there is active addiction, and also active codependency really! A prominent Buddhist therapist, Dr. Miles Neale, once said in a talk: “Clean up your own backyard!” Considering that ACoAs can be pretty hard on themselves, they need to clean up their own backyard with a gentle hoe and a graceful leaf blower, but nevertheless some brave cleaning is needed to give our children a consistent, safe and nurturing home to grow up in.
The good news is that there is AA, Alanon and plenty of therapists familiar with alcoholic patterning for us to be able to do the work to change. However, the most difficult and tricky pattern of all, common to the alcoholic family, is denial. ACoAs are often used to living in chaos and crisis as well; so sometimes the situation has to get pretty tough in order for it to start getting better and it starts with you. By taking charge or our own lives, by working with our own emotions and patterns in an honest way, we are teaching our children that they can do the same and that they don’t have to accept chaos and crisis as a way of life. We are also modeling that we are responsible for ourselves so they can be responsible for themselves too. Woititz described how it might be painful for us to watch as parents, but our children’s successes and failures are not our own by extension. They can slip and fall and then use their own courage to learn and get back up. This teaches them self-reliance, resiliency and trust in their own capabilities as people who can problem solve through their own difficulties. The well-regarded Buddhist teacher, Khandro Rinpoche said to a group of parents: “(Children) are not YOURS, they are their own people.”
3. Look For the Positive: We Need to Change Using Personal Strengths and Courage
Looking at the ACoA laundry list of characteristics can be incredibly helpful and validating, but it can also be used as a way for ACoAs to beat themselves up and focus on every possible flaw. In order to change, we need our positive qualities and strengths to lead the way; they are the buildling blocks towards a new way of being and provide the courage to do differently. ACoAs are usually oriented towards perfectionism and being the harshest critics of themselves. Given the giant rule-less task of parenting, it would be easy to conclude that we are not “good enough parents.” This is why the flipside to the laundry list is also just as important--to offer hope and a realistic path towards thriving as parents. Also, ACoAs have terrific characteristics that aren’t necessarily afforded to others naturally: they are masters of crisis situations, they usually accept people wholly, they are loving and committed, and can be creative in their own unique way. How can we take a gentle approach to ourselves as parents, taking an honest and realistic view of our lives and circumstances? Can we see ourselves as a whole person with both flaws and helpful qualities as parents?
Since it is difficult for ACoAs to accept their positive aspects and feel as though they are doing a good job as parents, Woititz notes they may inadvertently put pressure on their children to validate them. As we grow as parents, we may be more willing to set boundaries and uphold rules in the house in a consistent way. Our kids might not like it, they may even call us a bad mom or dad and say, “I hate you,” but counterintuitively kids can relax into the structure and actually be happier in the long-run for it. Woititz states that ACoAs have a tendency to think “fun” equals happiness--whereas happiness for children actually comes from having structure and then being able to relax into who they are. Creating fun times for our children is of course important, but long-term happiness comes from our children seeing that we are happy with ourselves, consistent with them and that we can grow into separate healthy individuals.
More blog posts by Heather
- Hard to be Close: ACoA NYC Therapist View on Dysfunctional Families and 4 Ways to Increase Intimacy
- ACoA and Mindful Parenting Tips: Growing Up in Dysfunctional Families
NYC Therapist Heather Coleman is a certified neurofeedback trainer specializing in ACOA counseling and addictions treatment. She also leads ACOA NYC Groups.