Vallarta Tribune, Aug 13-19, 2006, issue # 488, pg 18

What happens to the children who grow up in chaotic homes? Many problems contribute to the chaos such as marital conflict, affairs, divorce, loss or absence of a parent, addiction, and domestic violence.  The problems can manifest themselves in many ways including behavioral problems, dramatic change in school performance, change in friends and social interests, not inviting friends over to the house, overeating/weight gain and obesity (to stuff and consume their feelings), sexual promiscuity (to act out their feelings),drug and alcohol use or abuse (to escape their feelings).Does any of this sound familiar? Was the household you grew up in chaotic? As an adult, is or has your household ever been afflicted with any of the problems listed above? Is history repeating itself for your children?

The children are affected

Don’t ever trick yourself into thinking that your children are not affected by whatever drama and chaos is happening in the household, no matter how much you’ve tried to hide it or act like everything is fine. There is tremendous shame and the need to keep secrets. Obviously, there are varying degrees of chaos and subsequent degrees of damage, but nevertheless they are affected. Sometimes the symptoms aren’t blatantly apparent or appear in the teenage years or in adulthood or intimate relationships. It may become more obvious in the choices they’ve made in relationships, repeating familiar scenarios from their childhood, continuing the cycle of domestic violence and abuse or the cycle of addiction and codependency and passing it on to another generation.

Rejection and abandonment

There are many different scenarios that fall into this category. A child from infancy onward can suffer feelings of rejection or abandonment that may be short lived or repeated throughout their youth. It is important to note that whether there really is rejection or abandonment, it is their perception that matters. Rejection may happen on a daily basis as they are repeatedly told how bad they are, or worthless, incapable, stupid, or how they will never amount to anything. They may be compared to other siblings and criticized for not measuring up. Abandonment can occur before the child is born, for example, when the father decides not to hang around any longer because the relationship or love affair has ended. It can also be abrupt or more expected in the case of a divorce. Other children suffer repeated abandonment from the same person or several different, but significant people in their lives.

Chronic abandonment is usually more damaging, which therefore includes rejection at some level as well. One teenager cried as he told how when he was little, he would wake up and his father would be gone “without even saying good-by or when he would be back, and he wouldn’t call us. Then he’d just show up again like everything was fine. He did this several times a year until one day he finally left and never came back.” Inevitably, they always wonder why. Many try to figure out if it was something they said or did to cause the parent to leave. The anger, sadness, and sometimes guilt, can last for years or a lifetime, drastically affecting their relationships; intimate or otherwise.

Emotional abandonment

This is almost inevitable in chaotic homes. Consider the following scenarios. With addiction, certainly the alcoholic/drug dependent parent is emotionally absent or unavailable since they are so wrapped up in their addiction and next use, that nothing else matters. However, the other parent is also wrapped up in trying to counterbalance the addict and the chaos they create, that there is little time or energy left for meeting the emotional needs of the children. In fact, they are lucky when their basic needs are met. The same is true whether a couple is in conflict, threatening divorce, involved in or surviving the drama of an affair, or entrenched in the tangled dynamics of domestic violence.

Parenting amidst chaos

Parenting amidst such chaos is extremely challenging. The parent who is causing the chaos is usually the one blamed, while the parent trying to keep everything from falling apart usually receives all of the sympathy and praise. Really, neither one is to blame because it isn’t about blame, it’s about cause and effect. The domestic violence perpetrator is obviously the abusive one, but he didn’t intend to be that way, in fact he was most likely abused himself as a child and therefore is also a victim. The raging alcoholic father who can’t keep a job or spends all of the money may seem like a “worthless piece of shit” as one adult child of an alcoholic put it, but he in fact is in a great deal of pain and has suffered throughout his life and most likely came from an alcoholic family.

The “other” parent, the one juggling all of the responsibilities of the house and children in the midst of all the chaos, is not to blame either. They too were more or less emotionally absent and suffering beneath the weight of the chaos and drama, unable to find a way out. Most of these parents when confronted by their adult children, defend themselves saying they “tried their best,” they “didn’t know any better,” or they “couldn’t leave” because of financial dependence or actual threats to their life and that of their children.

Broken promises, broken dreams

The expectation is for that parent to protect the children, rescue them from the abuse and daily chaos, to find a way out and have a better life. They should be available to their children as a nurturing loving parent who provides safety, discipline, guidance, and unconditional love. However, the chaos breeds inconsistency, irregular routines, and a lot of unknown. Everyone lives “in reaction to” instead of with predictability and structure.

These children learn not to count on anything or anyone. They don’t know what a regular mealtime is nor are they sure there will be a meal. There probably isn’t an enforced bedtime or a ritual of baths and storytime. They don’t know if today is the day that their abusive parent will explode or if their alcoholic parent will be drunk and embarrass them in front of their friends. Will mom and dad be fighting again? What will happen this time?

As a result, the children decide not to depend on anyone, to be self-sufficient, and not love too deeply, so they won’t hurt as deeply. They struggle with trust issues and guard against emotionally intimate relationships. These are real life issues. If you or your children can identify with this, reach out past the shame and ask for help.

Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW, CADC