Among the most tragic consequences of addiction is the devastating – and sometimes lifelong – impact on the children of an addict. More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics. Prescription drug addiction has been rising over the past decade, with more stories about moms keeping their addiction secret. While many of these children go on to lead healthy, productive lives, they also struggle in a way that is characteristic of their upbringing. For example, we know that children of alcoholics:
• Are up to four times more likely to struggle with alcoholism and other drug abuse than other kids.
• Exhibit more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional and behavioral disorders than children from non-addicted families.
• Score lower on academic achievement tests and have other difficulties in school.
• Take on too much or too little responsibility to compensate for the lack of parenting they receive from an addict.
• Struggle in interpersonal relationships as a result of mistrust and deficits in communication skills (50 percent of children of alcoholics marry an alcoholic).
• Are more likely to witness domestic violence and become victims of abuse, incest, neglect and other childhood traumas, sometimes resulting in removal from the home.
In the midst of active addiction, the addict can do little to help themselves, not to mention their children. So what can spouses, relatives, friends, neighbors and others do to help when they see a child suffering in an addicted home?
Not so long ago, addiction was seen as a “man’s problem.” In recent years, addiction research has broadened its focus to include the differential impact addiction has in the lives of both men and women. We know more than ever about the biological and psychosocial factors that affect how men and women experience addiction.
So in the battle of the sexes, who “wins” in addiction recovery? At first glance, men may appear to have the upper hand as women tend to progress more quickly into chemical dependency and face serious consequences faster than men. However, women are less likely to struggle with addiction than men and fare just as well in treatment. In the end, it’s a draw. Neither sex is better or worse off; they simply experience addiction and recovery in different ways.
Who Wins: Women
Drug and alcohol addiction are more prevalent among men than women. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men are twice as likely as women to meet the criteria for drug addiction in their lifetime (though rates of prescription drug abuse are about equal). The disparity appears to be even greater for alcohol abuse, with men struggling at three times the rate of women.
Setting boundaries is an essential skill in life, especially for people in recovery. Addicts often grow up in dysfunctional homes, where boundaries were either too rigid (leading to suppressed emotions or distant relationships) or too enmeshed (depriving them of a sense of personal identity). Later in life, their interpersonal relationships may continue to be defined by old roles and patterns, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety and addictive or compulsive behaviors.
As part of recovery, addicts learn how to set boundaries and to respect other people’s boundaries in return. In the addiction field, treatment providers often refer to this process as embracing the authentic self. While it may sound like psychobabble, it is really a process of discovering who you want to be, how you want to interact with other people, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your choices.