Childhood Survival Skills and Self Sabotage

Sobriety Navigator: Childhood Survival Skills and Self Sabotage. 

Children who are trapped in an environment where the adults are abusing substances experience a genuine threat to their survival. Children instinctively know when they are not safe and there is no one they can turn to for protection. These children develop an overwhelming sense of responsibility. They do this not only for their own survival but for the survival of the parents that they know are out of control. They are convinced they must protect them or they themselves will die. This startling revelation sets up a pattern of survival that will haunt children long after they are grown.

In this broken family structure there is complete role reversal.  The child is forced to take on the role of the adult and the adults allow themselves to act childlike.  There is no modeling for what healthy family relationships really look like. It is not uncommon for children of alcoholics or substance abusers to have to guess at what normal is, because they do not know. This lack of knowing creates a pattern of role playing where children take their cues on how to act from those around them, not just in the home, but anywhere and everywhere they go. This survival skill of role playing fosters a sense of distorted reality that in turn sets the child up to isolate. Children who role play are not being phony or disingenuous. They have simply learned to cope the best way they can. When trapped in a no win situation with no way out until adulthood, children will develop survival techniques in many ways. These children are not bad, they are victims.

The fact that their parents do not display any consistent concern, if any concern at all for their well-being or safety, can be so anxiety provoking that they survive by tuning out and doing what children do best; make believe.  In their fantasy and grief, the children will begin to blame themselves and make excuses for the abusers. They will minimize adult offenses, claiming to themselves that it was not that bad or it was no big deal. They will rationalize the offenses by claiming that the abuser really didn’t mean it or the only reason they get so angry and treat me bad is because they love me and it’s for my own good. In many cases, though, they will disassociate and pretend that offenses and abuses never really happened at all.  These precious children are being set up for attracting abusive people in their lives, or of becoming abusers themselves. The names may change, and the geographic locations may change, but the trauma bonds developed by their early childhood years will re-appear, time and time again.

These children grow up to be adult-children. They are chronologically adult age but they suffer from severe emotional, mental and spiritual arrested development. Adult-children of alcoholics and addicts have a natural propensity to attract needy, insecure, clinging, narcissistic takers that demand more than their share of attention, love, and security.  They seek the familiar and attract others who always seem to minimize them and make demands that their own wants and needs come first. The adult-child will not disappoint and will allow themselves to be used and abused in the hope of being loved and accepted. They have become experts at anticipating and meeting the needs of others, with no healthy thought or care for their own well-being. Since they were never modeled or taught any healthy boundaries, they unwittingly allow others to trespass unabatedly on their boundaries, be they physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.

It is very difficult for adult-children of alcoholics to recognize the effects of having no boundaries. There is a big difference between walls to create barriers and healthy boundaries. The more aware a person becomes of the difference between barriers and boundaries, the more they will move toward boundaries. Boundaries are very self-empowering and enhance and promote the potential for healthy, authentic relationships. Healthy boundaries say, “I’m in control of my emotions, thoughts and spiritual beliefs.”  These messages are the cornerstone of a life rooted in intrinsic integrity. It has often been said that the highest form of morality is being true to oneself. When we are true to our self, we are false to no one.

There is a 12 step program called Adult Children of Alcoholics.   It is a wonderful place to experience the identification and validation of the Adult Child syndrome. Here, you can uncover, discover, and move through the underlying trauma bonds and hold-over survival skills that continue to contaminate the quality of life in the present.


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