My grandfather was an alcoholic for most of his adult life. Like many alcoholics, he was functional during the day and drunk most nights. My mother recently told me that she never had a single meaningful conversation with her father. As a young girl, she tried to get rid of her dad’s alcohol and even went to a pastor to ask help for him.
Mom’s life was obviously affected by living under an alcoholic father. The absence of a healthy father-daughter relationship is a significant loss. Some, (like my mother), overcome their loss and live healthy lives. Many others carry their struggles into life in a way that sends their pain to the next generation.
As a counselor, I am convinced that most personal and relational problems have strong connections with what I call the eighteen-year factor. This is the amount of time lived in one’s family of origin. These are defining years when we learn and experience many things that we carry with us for life.
If you grew up in a functionally healthy home, you received a gift that has become increasingly rare.
If your eighteen-year factor was disrupted by a significant negative experience, you can be sure that it affected your sense of security, identity and your relationships. Traumatic experiences (like the loss of a parent or sibling, the divorce of parents or sexual abuse as a child) are life altering. But you must be honest about your past and the way it affected you.
Families plagued with severe dysfunctions are also damaging to children. If you lived under an alcoholic parent or in an atmosphere of physical or emotional abuse, or with significant neglect of nurture and discipline, your life has been deeply affected–usually beyond what you realize.
Emotionally aloof fathers or parents who withhold affirmation and acceptance leave deficits in the lives of their children. It’s not uncommon for men of all ages to battle issues related to a bad father-son relationship. And women are especially vulnerable to future instability when their fathers withhold affection and affirmation. Many pursue unhealthy male relationships. Some battle deep feelings of inadequacy and a continual sense that something important is missing. Others struggle with anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.
Children in such homes tend to develop protective mechanisms to shield themselves from pain. When forced to deal with things that they lack the maturity to handle, they have to find a means to protect themselves. They’re often unaware of these protective instincts when they carry them into adulthood. Protective mechanisms no longer protect you in adult relationships.
A tendency to shut down emotionally may protect a child in an abusive home, but when the same response is harmful to adult relationships. Children of alcoholic parents often become enablers and co-dependents. Others find relief in anger or excessive efforts to control their lives. All of these protective responses are damaging to future relationships.
Those who carry protective mechanisms into adulthood often don’t understand why they feel and act as they do. They usually remain unaware of the significance of their upbringing until they enter intimate relationships with other adults — especially marriage. The walls used to shield them from hurtful experiences in childhood hinder them from enjoying meaningful and mature adult relationships.
The damages from an unhealthy eighteen-year factor must be identified for the path of healing and restoration to be effective. Although it seems easier to pretend that you have not been affected by your upbringing, denial always makes matters worse. It also assures that the next generation will experience the hurt and perpetuate the damage.
Overcoming a problem can only begin when we admit we have it and recognize how it’s affecting (and perhaps hurting) us and those around us.
Confront yourself with the truth. Do not allow yourself to drift into a state of loss by never dealing honestly with the damage done to you. Do not hide behind superficial clichés no matter how spiritual they might sound. Change is rarely an overnight accomplishment.
Overcoming a significantly dysfunctional past usually requires assistance from a wise counselor. But first we must allow those closest to us to help us to see our walls and our defense mechanisms. Usually the hardest part of this is the vulnerability it requires.
Those who have lived with neglect or abuse find it difficult to trust others and their fears sadly hold them in defensive postures. Their loss is multiplied as they never learn the joy of intimate relationships.
One of the dangers in identifying the failures and neglect of one’s parents is a temptation toward self-pity or resentment. When I asked my mom how she overcame her past, she said she refused to allow self-pity to control her life. She said, “I think too many people just wallow in their hurts and allow the past to ruin their lives.”
The only thing we can change about the past is how we let it affect us in the future.
It’s sometimes hard to recognize that when we choose anger and bitterness, we double our loss and extend the effects of the evil done against us. I’ve observed far too many people who hold tightly to cherished resentments as a means of dealing with their painful experiences.
I encourage people to recognize that resentment at least indicates a level of emotional connection with the reality of one’s past and could become a catalyst to freedom. But resentment also offers a false feeling of control through a kind of emotional retaliation. Feelings of resentment can only lead to freedom and true control if processed in God-honoring way. Again, this often requires the assistance of a wise counselor.
Mom’s father was not a violent alcoholic and she realizes it would have been harder to overcome worse circumstances. Mom attributes her victory to her faith in Jesus Christ. She trusted Christ as her Savior when I was eleven years old. In the early days of her faith, a turning point came for her when she thanked God for allowing her to have an alcoholic father and asked God to use her experience to help others.
Beyond her eleven children, mom has had many spiritual children. These people often look to her for guidance. Mom’s life verse is:
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (III John 4).
* My grandfather authentically trusted in Christ shortly before his death.