Adult Children of Addicts: The Traumatic Mind-Body Connection

Many people who were raised by parents or other caregivers that struggled with addiction grow up as a “broken child” in an adult body.  Trauma from living with an addicted caregiver in childhood can seriously affect the development of a healthy self.  Infants come into the world hardwired by genetics, but the environment and our relationships with primary caregivers finalizes that “wiring.”  Every single interaction between caregiver and child sets the neural wiring that becomes part of our brain and body network, and these interchanges are how we learn to “make sense of the world.”  If learned expectations of how to function are chaotic or disrupted, then the broader world does not make sense.

Early childhood experiences in relationships become a powerful part of what is most “core” to us, and to our sense of self.  The relational environment shapes our beliefs about ourselves, and of the world around us.  These beliefs and interpretations get stored in our limbic system (the feeling part of the brain), and if not consciously challenged, they provide a road map for our day to day interaction.  If children do not have a rational, safe, and secure caregiver who is able to provide, model and teach the skills of emotional regulation and appropriate self-soothing, the child may not develop the capacity to assess and understand what is happening in traumatic situations.  This leads to inaccurate navigation of life-events and relationships – like using a compass that doesn’t point north.

Our nervous systems are not self-contained; they link with people with whom we are closest.  It is this connection that creates a silent “rhythm” that helps regulate our physiology.  Children require ongoing, balanced neural synchrony from caregivers to develop the capacity for self-directedness.   When the family environment is chaotic, irrational, rigid and scary, a child learns life is unbalanced and dis-regulated.  We internalize what surrounds us, mentally and emotionally, and it becomes fused into our neurological wiring (Schore, 2004).


Because of what has been learned from their parents or caregivers, children raised by Adult Children of Addicts (commonly referred to as ACOAs) often do not have the developmental capability of assessing frightening stimuli as to its appropriate level of threat, nor do they always have the cognitive capability to fully understand what may be happening in a particular interaction.  They need an external modulator, namely a parent, to help them to regulate themselves and calm down.  Even a sibling, caretaker or pet can help an anxious child to regulate their emotions.  Without this help, the content of the memory has a significant unconscious power – because reason has not elevated it to the thinking level.  It is stored within the body as a sensory memory without reason, insight, and understanding integrated into it.

Some of The Characteristics of Adult Children of Addicts

1.   Depression: Unexpressed and unfelt emotion can lead to a hypoactive internal world.
2.   Anxiety: Unregulated or unidentified pain can cause hyperactive, agitated or anxious defense against feeling internal pain.
3.   Emotional Constriction: Numbness and signs of shutting down as a defense against overwhelming pain; restricted range of “affect” or lack of authentic expression of emotion.
4.   Hypervigilance: Anxiety, waiting for the other shoe to drop – constantly scanning environment and relationships for signs of potential danger or repeated rupture.
5.   Easily Triggered and hyper-reactive: Associations of trauma, e.g., yelling, loud noises, criticism, or gunfire, trigger a person into shutting down, acting out or intense emotional states.  This may be accompanied by changes in eye expression, physical posture or feeling humiliated.
6.   Development of Rigid Psychological Defenses: Dissociation, denial, splitting, repression, minimization, intellectualization, projection, or developing a rather impenetrable “character armor”.
7.   Problems with Self Regulation: The deregulated limbic system can manifest in problems with regulating many areas of the “self-system,” such as thinking, feeling and behavior.  The tendency to emotionally go from 0 to 10 or 10 to 0 without intermediate stages, black and white thinking, feeling and behavior, or no recognition of shades of gray as a result of trauma’s “numbing” or “hi-affect” influences.
8.   Learned Helplessness: The feeling that they can’t affect or change what’s happening to them. They give up and become “helpless”.
9.   Distorted Reasoning: Convoluted attempts to make sense and meaning out of chaotic, confusing, frightening or painful experiences. Interpreting an event with a “magical” childhood meaning due to the developmental level a child is at when painful or confusing circumstances occur.
10.  Loss of Trust and Faith: Due to deep ruptures in primary, dependency relationships and breakdown of an orderly world.
11.  Loss of Ability to Take in Caring and Support: Due to trauma’s inherent numbness and shutdown along with fears of trusting and being let down all over again.
12.  High Risk Behaviors: Speeding, sexual acting out, spending, fighting or other behaviors done in a way that puts one at risk.  Misguided attempts to jump start a “numb” inner world or act out pain from an intense pain filled inner world.
13.       Desire to Self-Medicate: Attempts to quiet and control a turbulent, troubled inner world through the use of drugs and alcohol or behavioral addictions (Dayton, 2000; van der Kolk, 1987; Krystal 1968).
14.       Survival Guilt: From witnessing abuse and trauma and surviving, or from “getting out” of an unhealthy family system while others remain mired within it.
15.       Cycles of Reenactment: Unconscious repetition of pain-filled dynamics, the continual recreation of dysfunctional dynamics from the past.
16.       Relationship Issues: Difficulty in being present in a balanced manner; a tendency to over or under engage, explode or withdraw or be emotionally hot and cold.  Problems with trusting, staying engaged, or taking in love and caring from others.

Emotional and Relationship Repair In Therapy

Emotional and Relationship Repair is essential in the treatment of ACOA’s,  but repair in addictive systems does not generally happen without therapeutic intervention.  Many times such an intervention does not occur until there is great crisis or consequences profound enough to bring attention to the problems.

Emotional and Relationship Repair through effective therapy allows our shame and pain response to become part of our personal growth.  We finally see that something went wrong, and we learn ways to create new, healthier thinking and behavior patterns.  Through the therapeutic process that occurs within the context of a solid relationship, there is new learning – and it is this new “neural wiring” in the “broken child” that takes hold for healthier functioning.  Through this repair, our feelings of shame, pain, fear, and confusion are no longer underground and automatic, so functioning in our intimate relationships improves.  We learn that pain is inevitable but that we can tolerate discomfort.  There is no longer a need to feel like we must escape perceived or real dangers, because in our healthier adult body and mind we “can handle it.”