Seven-year-old Zeke talked back to his teacher, and she sent a note home with him to give to his parents.
Zeke walked in the door of his beautiful, spacious home and handed the note to his father, who had stopped by to change clothes before going to an evening meeting. His mother was traveling for business. Zeke’s father peered over his reading glasses at Zeke with a disappointed look.
“This is not good, Zeke. I’m sorry I have to rush to my meeting right now, but I’m going to give this note to Trish (the nanny) and she’ll talk with you about it tonight.”
You may be wondering what’s so bad about this scenario. After all, Zeke has a beautiful home, an obviously caring but busy father, and a nanny who attends to him.
True, Zeke is fortunate in many ways. And he probably feels relieved in the moment. But 20 years later, he will pay the price for this interaction with his dad. Especially if it is typical of his parents’ style of raising him.
Workaholism, the addiction to work, is often treated as a positive in today’s world. In our capitalistic economy, we value hard work and high salaries. Among the other addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, or gambling, work stands out as the only addiction that actually brings money into the household. Workaholics are often driven, successful people who are admired and respected by co-workers, family and community.
But unfortunately, as you probably know, there is a dark side to workaholism. It takes a toll not only on the workaholics themselves, but also on their children.
The Workaholic Parent
A new study by Andreassen et al., (2016), finds that workaholics are two to three times more likely to have OCD (Obsessive-compulsive Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder), depression or anxiety.
These researches surveyed 16,426 people in Norway and found that workaholics scored higher on all of these psychiatric symptoms than non-workaholics.
The result: the workaholic parent is not only taken up by her (or his) job; she is also very likely struggling with a challenging secondary psychological disorder. What kind of toll might this take on the children she is supposed to be raising?
The Child of the Workaholic
Since workaholic parents work long hours, are obsessed by their jobs, and have a high likelihood of a psychological disorder, a natural result is that they’re not able to pay enough personal or emotional attention to their children. Even if all of a child’s physical needs are met, she is likely to suffer a lack of emotional nurturance which will leave her with a void.
To make matters worse, these children garner little sympathy from others, especially if they have successful parents, plenty of money, and nice things.
The child of the workaholic is growing up with these three painful messages which are not obvious to her, or visible to those around her:
- When your parent leaves many important parenting moments to someone else she may inadvertently convey to you, her child, “You are not important enough.”
- When your parent isn’t available enough to truly “know” you on a deeply personal level, she inadvertently conveys the message that you are not worth knowing.
- Your parent’s hard work and (perhaps) financial success is visible to everyone around you. Your parent is perceived as devoted and driven to provide you with a good life. Few can see that you are actually growing up in emotional poverty.
Essentially the workaholic’s child is caught in a contradiction. Others see you as lucky. Yet your “luck” applies only to the material aspect of life. On the emotional level, which is what really matters, you are anything but lucky.
When young Zeke, from our example above, enters his teen years, he will be at higher risk for several psychological diagnoses himself.
Zeke 10 Years Later
Now 17, Zeke is a puzzle to those around him. He is handsome and bright; yet he flounders in school. Zeke’s teachers try to tell him that if he doesn’t start applying himself in his classes he may not be able to get into college. He listens politely when they talk, but it seems to have no effect.
Zeke can often be spotted on the outskirts of his high school campus, leaning against a light pole and smoking weed with a friend when he should be in class. He is mostly only interested in finding out when is the next party.
Others look at Zeke and find him immature and selfish. He’s been handed so many advantages in life, and there he is throwing them all away.
Sometimes, when he’s all alone, Zeke feels very, very sad. He thinks about how kind his parents are, and how hard they’ve worked. He thinks about all they’ve given him, and wonders why he can’t be happier.
“Why can’t I be hardworking and successful like they are? Why am I such a screw-up? What the heck is my problem?”
Zeke is caught in the Paradox of the Workaholic’s Child. If he does not sort this out, he may be sentenced to a lifetime of low self-worth, self-blame, and perhaps depression.
3 Steps Out of the Paradox
- Learn everything you can about workaholism. Understanding your parent, and what most likely drives him or her, will help you understand yourself and the effects of how you grew up.
- Accept that despite all that your parents gave you, they failed you in one major way. Growing up with a dearth of emotional attention takes an invisible toll which explains many of the struggles you’ve experienced in your lifetime so far.
- Recognize that you are worth the effort to heal, and start filling the void by discovering your true self. What do you like, love, and feel? What do you want?
If these steps seem daunting, find a good therapist to help you. Therapists understand workaholism and will see the emotional poverty that you grew up in.