When the Sins of the Parents Visit the Children
Frederick A. Levy LCSW

Susan preferred to think of herself as adopted. Impostors had murdered her parents, she thought. After all, her father would never have soaked his brain with booze every night, and mother could never have consumed herself with self-pity, neglecting her trembling daughter, sobbing in the darkness.

Sometimes, when cuddling her dolls, she dreamed of her future family, and the mother she would be: the protector she had never known, providing safe haven from wild, drunken rages. For years, she dwelled by her doll house, waiting for the signal to unpack.

Years passed and Susan married, as kids took the place of her dolls. Raising three children drained her, but somehow she suffered their sicknesses, tolerated their tantrums, and braved the constant crescendo of noise until her face nearly cracked from containing herself when....

When she exploded, she felt like a demon had taken her throat, and squeezed a scream from a witch's throbbing lips. When her "fever" broke, her tears flowed harder than her babies'. She had met the enemy, speaking with daddy's voice.

Many adult children of alcoholics like Susan experience years of abuse at the hands of their parents. Suffering intensely, they survive, fervently vowing to make a paradise for their children to offset the Hell of their upbringing.

But when she raises her children, the adult child draws from the model she knows best - her own alcoholic parents. Striving for tolerance, she fears that she too will lose control of her feelings.

Even mild irritations can stimulate this fear, since her parents may never have modeled anger in healthy ways. When the alcoholic explodes, the non-alcoholic parent feels frozen with fear, "walks on eggshells," and tries to keep peace at any price.

So the adult child swings from tolerance to tantrum, confused about when to say "no." Exhausted, she passes her limit with the kids, as resentment punctures her patience. And when she blows she feels incompetent, like a callous fraud incapable of honestly caring.

She may also over-identify with her child's suffering; the slightest mishap may portend imminent disaster. A cold forebodes pneumonia; a scrape a raging infection, and a fall a trip to the emergency room.

And a wounded look in her child's eyes may panic her, but may only deepen his alarm. Absorbing her anxiety, he stuffs his own feelings, absorbing her fears as his own. As each loses touch with their own feelings and needs, the codependent torch passes to a new generation.

Lacking parental models, she frantically searches for solutions. Confusing the Bradys, Huxtables and Stones for reality, she drowns in idealized expectations for herself and her kids. And when they don't conform to the laws of tv land, she sinks, and shames them for acting like flesh and blood children.

Child-like spontaneity threatens her. When growing up, her non-alcoholic parent demanded quiet, to keep from "setting off" the next rampage. No one in the family dared move, for the same reason that villagers never tease a rampaging lion.

So having learned to be perfect, she cages and punishes their play. But somehow, beneath her dreams, she longs to relive her childhood, and reclaim the joy that should have been her birthright.

But recovery exists for the child within that yearns to breathe free. Through support groups for adult children, she can find affirmation and love to guide her past her fear. And then, she can finally meet her children, in the playground of her heart.

Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved