Child of a parent with addiction: How to cope

How can you accept the past as a child of a parent with addiction issues? Weigh in here for ideas on self-healing and share your story at the end.

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Filling Your Bucket: Accepting the Past and Embracing the Future

When you are raised by a parent who is an addict or a parent who is an alcoholic, the simple truth is that you just don’t get the emotional, psychological or spiritual care you need and deserve. What you can do is give yourself an opportunity to have a life starting today full of love, happiness, joy and opportunity. Stop trying to recreate the past and instead learn how to open yourself to opportunities for wonder in the now! We explore here, and invite your story, comments, or feedback about families addicted to drugs or alcohol at the end.

Parents with addiction

Having a parent with addiction means that your life is full of chaos, pain, confusion and fear and not necessarily full of care, concern, nurturing and love. The children of addicts get a lot of things they don’t need and that don’t serve as they grow into adulthood; many are left with a big hole that should have been filled with caring. The hard truth is that those things that were missed we can’t get back, what we can change is what we get today and what we get tomorrow.

The trauma of living with an addict is just that, it is trauma. If it does not leave a physical injury it certainly leaves emotional, psychological and spiritual injuries. I like to use the image of a young child sitting on the beach shoveling sand into the bucket. No matter how much they shovel the bucket just doesn’t fill up, and what they can’t see is that there is a small hole on the far side and that the bucket is never going to get filled.

Fill up your bucket

As the children grow, many on the beach have filled their buckets so they stand and walk off the beach with a great deal of what they need to take into their future. But the children of addicts get up and walk off the beach with a bucket only partially full and not having the emotional tools or resources they need to move healthfully into the next stage of their life.

What happens with your experience of today if you spend the whole day doing nothing but thinking about what you did yesterday? The answer is simple: you miss the opportunity to have an experience today because you were reliving the experience you had before. Rather than filling yourself up with something new, you spend your time dwelling on what has already passed, something you can’t control, and something that is not serving your emotional growth today!

Letting go of what doesn’t work

If you grew up with an addict, if you are growing up with an addict right now you can’t change the reality of what was or what is: the bucket has a hole, the person you need to give you nurturing doesn’t have the ability to give you what you need. It is horribly sad! But you have a choice about what you do with that bucket, how you take what you can and use it and where you need to let go of what doesn’t work so you can make room for something that will.

We start by bringing ourselves to understand what is, then we have to hold onto that reality and accept out feelings, the facts and the truth, finally we get to make a choice about what we do with those feelings, that information and our future. Most of us will do this exercise over and over again with different parts of our experience, the important part is to care enough about ourselves to do the work and to give ourselves that love, attention and care that we always deserved.

How to cope in an environment of addiction

Try this exercise to explore healing for the past and create opportunity for the future:

1. Be Aware.

What was (or is) in your bucket? Make a list of only the positive things you received from your parents. The list does not have to be long, in fact if you can only list ‘my life’ that’s a fine place to start, but focus on only the positive pieces that the fill the bucket so far!

2. Accept.

How do you feel about your list? Does it have all of the things that you would want to give a child? Are you angry that there is not more on the list? Are you sad about what’s missing? There is no right or wrong answer this part is only about feeling. Who filled or fills your bucket? Are they different today than yesterday, do they have anything else to offer right now?

3. Act.

If you were sitting across the table from the person who just made that list and shared their feelings what would you do, what would you say? Comfort that part of yourself that needs it, love yourself as you should always have been loved, open yourself to the opportunity to get the things that you need today instead of focusing on what you missed yesterday! You can’t make love come into your life, you can’t make someone care about you, but you can start with yourself, accept the tools you do have (that part of the bucket that is full) and choose what you are going to use to fill the bucket for the rest of your life!

About the author
Maggie Harmon is a writer, speaker, leadership coach and business consultant who approaches every engagement through a holistic understanding of the situation. Her consulting practice focuses on deeply understanding who or what you are and what you want to achieve, and from there helping to create a plan, develop tools, and access resources that let you get where it is you want to go, and do what you do, better! You can connect with her here or via Maggie's Blog.


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  1. Iv been married for 14 years and my husband is an addict and we have 4 small children and it is expensive I’m supporting everything and I’m a waitress in our town the law won’t help me they say he has to physically touch us I just want to protect them and his threats r under the table it will cost 1200 dollars for a lawyer and a few months ago he beat his car with a bat I’m afraid but the addicts run this town plez help

  2. Hello Erin. I’d suggest that you first start by seeking help with a mental health counselor or psychologist. You can find a directory through the APA psychologist locator tool. You may need support and a guide in learning/figuring out what steps to take next. You can also benefit from attending a support group like Al-anon or SMART Recovery. I hope that this helps!

  3. My mother who is 59 is addicted to pain pills and benzos she works in a hospital an I fear she will lose her job she has crashed my car lied to me stole pills from me (I have anxiety and a bad back) she has asked my bf and my landlord for pills and on one occasion I think she has stole them from her job. It makes me sick to see her sitting on the floor playing with my daughter and she’s passed out. She will sit up till 2 am popping klonapin or zanax she doesn’t shower some days she won’t go out she wears the same robe for days. The robe is covered in coffee and food stains she smells like cigarettes. I tell her things and she doesn’t remember or she will ask me the same questions. I can’t even look at her she makes me sick I have struggled with my own addiction and I guess I feel like she’s my mom she’s not supposed to do this. I need help and don’t know what to do, my dad doesn’t know the extent of how bad it is. What do I do??

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