I usually describe my childhood as confusing. My parents were good people—they loved God and my brothers and me and were leaders in our church. For years after my father left our family, a choice that was a direct result of his alcohol addiction, people from church would pause with some kind of weird reverence when his name came up. It was infuriating at the time—I was well into adulthood before I realized that they were experiencing their own grief. He had helped a lot of people, and that hadn’t changed just because he’d changed.
Just before things started collapsing in my home, my next door neighbor invited me to join the Lutheran church choir she directed. She had no way of knowing that being in that choir for the 8 years that I was would be one of the most stable experiences of my childhood and one that would have a lasting impact even decades later.
In John 1 we read about the incarnation of Christ. The Message Bible’s interpretation of the incarnation is “moved into the neighborhood.” The one that was first and forever becomes flesh, is born (not only by the very unglamorous process of childbirth, but also in the midst of animals and their smells), and moves in next door. How messy and inconvenient. And how beautiful and holy. We as the church are Christ “in the neighborhood,” with all the beautiful messiness and inconvenient holiness that comes with living in community.
Incarnational love (which is the answer to a lot of other things, too)
I have never forgotten something my mother said to my brother and me shortly after my dad left—“God is not like your dad.” She went on to talk about how God does not change or leave like people sometimes do. Caregivers and other significant adults are our first models of God. I was fortunate that my mother and other adults in my life also modeled God’s unchanging and grace-filled love. Children with dysfunction at home need to know that God’s love isn’t fickle or fragile, that they are included in it, and cannot be separated from it. Telling them is not enough. They need incarnational love— they need to see God with skin on.
While there is no checklist to help a child with an addicted parent, incarnational, sometimes also sacrificial, love held in tension with healthy boundaries, is a good framework from which to start. It’s biblical—Jesus loved us so much he died for us, but he also took naps. It is extremely unlikely that you dying will be of any benefit—self-care and boundaries are crucial. And. It’s very probable that the help that is needed will sometimes be terribly inconvenient and maybe tedious and annoying. Such is real love.
Patience and acceptance
As is common for kids (and some adults) coming from families with a lot of dysfunction, I had some very difficult behaviors. I drank and smoked and told lies so elaborate I wish I’d written them down so I could sell them as movie ideas. I was blessed to have adults around me that listened, made me feel welcome, and even some that still let me hang out with their kids.
Acceptance doesn’t mean not setting clear boundaries and expectations. On the contrary, these boundaries can be a form of kindness, providing a sense of safety and stability. People from homes with significant dysfunction tend to have heightened sensitivity to rejection though, including perceiving it where it is not. The teacher that made me feel the safest was the one that would go to great lengths to catch me in my lies and confront me, but he would always do so from a place of concern not shame. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t thank him, but I did know he cared.
I’ll say it again: boundaries
It’s not just important for you to have boundaries for the sake of yourself and your family. In most cases, homes with addiction or other significant dysfunction are not homes where healthy boundaries are taught. They may even be discouraged or considered selfish. Children need to know where they end and others begin in order to thrive. That includes knowing that they are a kid and giving them space to be one. Talking to them about healthy boundaries, and modeling boundaries, self-care, and open communication may save them from a great deal of pain down the road.
Remember it’s not all on you
God placed us in community for a reason. Ask others to help. Ask your pastor, talk to the school guidance counselor, and reach out to your local Addiction and Mental Health board. They can often point you to resources to support the child you are concerned about and help you know at what point you need to report something to authorities.
I don’t know how or why prayer works and am skeptical of people who claim to. Some think its main purpose is to change our own hearts—while I agree with that, it’s also true that the Creator of the Universe is far more powerful than we are and cares for people far more than we do. Praying does not exempt us from action, but it is foolish to think that we can do God’s work without God’s help.
There is no magic formula to help a child with an addicted parent.
There also isn’t one to get an addict to choose recovery. These are some guiding principles:
Do love unconditionally and incarnationally
Do be available to listen and support
Do ask for help from others in your community
Do report dangerous situations when necessary
Don’t let people continuously violate your boundaries
Don’t be too quick to give advice
Don’t judge the addict or their loved ones for staying in the situation
Don’t think you alone can save anyone
I was 10 years old when I joined my neighbor’s church choir. I never joined her church and have a clear memory of how disappointed and concerned the pastor there was when I told him I’d joined a church that he knew was very unhealthy. I was 28 when I realized I was also an alcoholic and got help. It wasn’t until I was 39 that I sought out a Lutheran church and started seminary a few years later. My neighbor, that pastor, and others from that church will likely never understand how important the parts they played were, but I am certain I would not have survived without them.
Helping people, especially children, in crisis can be disheartening work. Really, heartbreaking is a better word. If you have any expectations of their response, you will be disappointed. Even if you do or say every single thing right, the person you are supporting may still drift away from you and the church. They may make decisions that are painful to watch and repeat patterns they learned in their family, including entering relationships with addicts and even becoming addicted themselves.
Incarnational love is sacrificial, and there are few thank yous. Being Christ in the neighborhood will always be unglamourous and messy, and also beautiful and holy.
A look in the mirror
Even if you weren’t raised in a family with alcoholism, addiction, or abuse, most of our families have some level of dysfunction. How are your boundaries and communication? Do you often fear rejection or see criticism as a personal attack? The ways we learn to cope as children don’t automatically fix themselves when we become adults and often hinder our growth and relationships. Consider talking to a counselor or licensed therapist even if you think you’re managing well. You may be surprised at how much more freedom and happiness is possible.
If your family of origin did have addiction, abuse, or other significant dysfunction, in addition to a licensed therapist, you may benefit from being with others that have had similar experiences. Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families is an anonymous, free 12-Step program open to anyone that believes they need it. ACA and fellowships like it are places where people with these experiences come together to support one another in recovery.
- Courage to be Me, Al-Anon Family Groups
- Adult Children, Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D.
- Breathing Underwater, Fr. Richard Rohr
- The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- Al-Anon Family Groups (for adults, teens, and children who have a loved one with addiction) – www.al-anon.org
- Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families – www.adultchildren.org
- Alcoholics Anonymous (for those who want to stop drinking) www.aa.org
- Narcotics Anonymous (for those who want to stop drug use) www.na.org
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective (therapy for those who can’t otherwise afford it) – www.openpathcollective.org
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – www.samhsa.gov
- SMART Recovery (addiction recovery) – www.smartrecovery.org
- The Addict’s Parents United – www.tapunited.org
Additional resources can be found at The Center of Addition and Faith – www.addictionandfaith.com