Angry Birds—Part 4: The conflict between a young adult and her mother in recovery


Melissa Killeen

In my previous post, I looked into what was transpiring for an emerging young adult, and I reported on what forms an attachment between a mother and child. If you haven’t been following along with my Angry Birds series, the mother is my client and the child (an emerging adult) is her 21-year-old daughter. In this post, I explore the collision and conflict of this emerging adult woman with the codependent behaviors of her youth, growing up in an alcoholic household. The young woman wants to believe that everything she has fantasized about her childhood still holds true and, at the same time, she is angry her mother, isn’t working her recovery, perfectly. To understand what is happening with this emerging young adult, I looked into John Bowlby’s attachment theory and Kim Bartholomew’s research into the attachment styles of young adults.

As these children of addicted parents mature, Bowlby’s attachment theory and Bartholomew’s categories theory become clearly apparent. Children of alcoholics or addicts often feel that they are to blame for their parent(s) problems. This continues into adulthood, with the young adults feeling a sense of blame and guilt due to their inability to prevent or fix their parent’s condition.

Children of addicts feel ashamed of their parent(s) and their addiction, and as a result they choose to be isolated and alone. By avoiding close involvement with others, these now adult children of addicts protect themselves against anticipated hurt or danger from others by withholding intimacy and/or isolating.

Addicts and alcoholics are unreliable and make promises they can’t keep. It’s not uncommon for them to fail to meet obligations or responsibilities. Living with an addict/alcoholic is often an untrustworthy situation. An young adult of an addicted parent wants emotionally close relationships, but finds it difficult to trust or depend on others completely, reproducing the fear of untrustworthiness they experienced in their younger years with their addicted parent(s). As young adults emerge with the purpose of finding a mate, they often experience comfort in a familiar behavior  in a date or potential partner. A false sense of comfort is an unconscious effect of familiarity with a parental behavior, perhaps a edgy sense of humor or enjoying a risky sport, but most likely it is an indicator of an addictive or demeaning behavior. If love blossoms, it is sometimes with devastating results, the partner is reproducing an addictive behavior of the parent. Once a potential partner’s behavior becomes evident, the emerging adult repeats their childhood behavior of enabling, feeling shame or isolating. Going forward after the first potential mating failure, the emerging adult can find it more difficult to trust others or become emotionally intimate in other relationships.

Behavior, such as lying on a regular basis, can create trust issues for those living with the alcoholic, increases tension and the possibility for verbal or physical disputes. This type of environment is very unsafe for emerging adults as well as children. As a result of growing up in such a setting, young adults may find they compulsively lie, at first to cover up a parent’s misdeeds, but later this lying behavior becomes habitual as a way to avoid conflict or criticism.

The family, like the alcoholic, may also be in denial of the severity of their loved one’s drinking or drugging, or may otherwise deflect its severity through excessive worry for the alcoholic. Through denial and/or excessive worry, the family exhibits codependency with the alcoholic or addict (e.g., constantly picking up the pieces left behind as a result of the wreckage left in the wake of the addict’s destructive behavior). Family members develop anger and resentment towards the addict because of their selfishness and unreliability. The young adult, after years of codependent caretaking, is asking When do I get to be free of the addict? Resentment is compounded as the young adult tries to successfully launch into their own life, perhaps with the addict parent still clinging to them. The growth of anger towards the parent develops and avoidant behavior begins to appear as the adult child angrily separates from the addicted parent. Often the separation is termed as “permanent” by the young adult.

Conversely, the addict is likely to be codependent on those stable people in his or her life. Through excessive and destructive drug or alcohol use they have failed to develop the skills to deal with life without “getting loaded.” After years of codependency and enabling, there is always one stand-out enabler, either one of the children, a grandparent or a spouse. Thus enabling and codependency run rampant through every member of an addict’s household. Family members easily form resentments against each other; they may become angry at someone’s continued efforts to enable the alcoholic. This combination of characteristics can lead the young adult to strive for self-acceptance by gaining the acceptance of both the addict and fellow family members, each viewed by the young adult as “valued others”. The emerging adult is uncomfortable being without close relationships, becomes a “people pleaser” and also worries that others don’t value her as much as she values them.

In provocation, the victimized young adult may have trouble keeping their bitterness, resentment, fear, and hurt to themselves and let it interfere with their relationships with other family members and friends. Manifestations of emotional dysfunction appear (throwing things, yelling, etc.) and the alcoholic parent may use this as an excuse to continue using, mistaking their young adult’s despair and confusion for callousness. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Misinterpreting a young person’s despair or simply acting out over the guilt of causing it, the alcoholic parent is likely to suffer more substantial problems (physical, emotional, legal, etc.) and a crisis may result from his or her excessive use and destructive behavior. At this point, the behavior of the alcoholic, and the entire family, must be addressed if it is to be resolved. Professional therapeutic help is needed.

Luckily, this emerging young adult (my client’s daughter) contacted me and requested suggestions for therapists in her area. As for my coaching client, the recovering mother, I requested increased therapy appointments, stepped up my visits with her and increased her toxicology screens to ensure the vicious cycle of addiction does not begin.

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