If you were raised in a home where one or more of the adult caregivers were addicts, chances are you are familiar with the title of this article.
Children who live with addiction understand that there are three main rules that govern these families: you don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.
These rules are never discussed, but they are an open secret – everyone in the family knows what the rules are and strictly abide by them. But there is no denying the damage to the children of addicts that these stifling coping mechanisms cause.
Each of these rules serves a specific function
The first rule for children with addicted parents is the “don’t talk” rule.
It serves to help keep the family in denial about the damage the addiction is causing. No one discusses the heartache and disappointment that each is experiencing on a daily basis.
No one is talking about the fact that dad is passed out in the front yard with the car half in the street and half on the lawn. No one is talking about the embarrassment of having to hide from the landlord who is trying to collect the rent, and knowing that the rent money has gone to feed the addicts addiction.
One author describes this as the same as having an elephant in the living room. Everyone knows there is an elephant there, but no one is willing to state the obvious.
The second rule, “don’t trust” is borne out of necessity. Children learn very early that they can’t trust what caregivers tell them. A parent will say, “I am going to take you fishing this weekend,” but when Saturday arrives they are too hung over to get out of bed. The child quickly learns that promises are simply empty words and can’t be trusted.
The third rule, “don’t feel” is a protective mechanism. In order to keep themselves from feeling the crushing weight of hurt and despair that comes with constant disappointment, children learn at an early age to cut-off feelings. It is better (and easier) to not feel anything than to feel disappointment.
These rules start out as coping mechanisms to help children navigate the multiple pitfalls of growing up in a family where the attention centers around the parent who is addicted to a drug.
However, what begins as a coping mechanism designed to survive, eventually becomes ingrained as part of the individual’s personality – a default reaction for interacting with others. And, eventually, when children leave their family of origin and move to their family of destination, they take these coping mechanisms with them.
Now, as an adult, they are wanting to have a healthy relationship with another adult, but they find themselves hampered by these messages: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. The very things that are needed to function successfully with another person are the things that are keeping them from communicating, trusting, and sharing emotions.
The sad part is, many never realize what is causing them to have such a difficult time connecting with another human – often drifting from relationship to relationship looking for that “right one.” There is good news, however, the first step is awareness.
Guide for children of addicted parents
Children who were reared in dysfunctional homes where addiction was the main focus can (and do) recover. To begin this process, the healing begins with realizing that these learned behaviors are not character defects, they are simply survival skills that are no longer useful.
There are online groups and websites to help children who were reared in homes where addiction predominated. These children are often referred to as “Adult Children of Alcoholics (or addicts)” and resources abound to help them.
Many seek the help of therapists to break these chains of maladaptive behavior. Part of the healing requires learning to “reparent” oneself (learning to nurture yourself). One of my favorite sayings: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”