“When I used to get so angry it was like I was drunk and didn’t know what was going on. Later I’d think, “What just happened?” I didn’t know how I had gotten to the point of being out of control half of the time,” said my grandson 22-year-old Chad Dingle, co-author of Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users.¹
It was crazy scary, frustrating, and always a long, slow process of talking Chad down after he got so angry that he’d punch a hole in the wall or scream mean hateful things at me growing up. We’d talk sometimes for hours, and sometimes a few minutes, depending on his age and rage. Things would then settle into a truce only to soon start up all over again. With the help of counselors, I was able to keep him and the rest of our family safe but it took a huge toll on everyone.
Both of Chad’s parents had problems with drugs and alcohol, and after age four I tried to shelter him from them most of the time; however, his past and their continuing choices, caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) triggers that took years to overcome. Only recently did I learn that to these children, “stern warnings can become louder and brusquer and discipline can seem harsher.”²
I always told Chad that regardless what his parents did, he was responsible for his own choices and actions. Giving him consequences was tricky because I knew why Chad was the way he was…neglected as an infant and physically abused as a toddler but he had to develop self-control and a sense of right and wrong.
Alcoholics & addicts hurt their kids.
Why? Not because they don’t love their children but because their addictions override their desire/ability to get, and stay, sober. They do things to feed their habit that traumatizes their children. For example, the Adapt Report©, a diagnostic multi-discipline tool currently being field tested by Dr. James Kagan, M.D., scored Chad’s personal trauma history as “very high”. In part the commentary read, “…experienced 6 out of a possible 10 traumatic childhood events known to be associated with poor mental health and developmental outcomes.” It noted that his parent(s) were 1) incarcerated, 2) separated, divorced or deceased, 3) verbally, emotionally or psychologically abusive, 4) physically abusive, 5) struggling with substance use and 6) emotionally neglectful, unloving, or threatening abandonment or removal of child from household.
Why trauma-informed parenting helps.
Even young infants learn survival skills, such as not crying when hungry or hiding under the bed when dad’s mad, instead of relational or developmental. Research shows trauma changes brain response to real or perceived danger. The victims never totally relax even when when just awakening from sleep and they accelerate through the arousal stages of alert, alarm, fear and terror faster than a race driver shifts gears.
How you parent greatly increases, or decreases, a child or teens’ anxiety and tendency to overcome inappropriate responses such as dissociating (withdrawing into themselves and even physically hiding to avoid a drunk dad or a strung out mom) or by hyper-arousal and aggression. They need to learn from you skills to substitute for the missing checks and balances in their brains. They have to learn social awareness, empathy, and how to self-sooth.
Basic parenting tips.
Always say what you are going to do, and then do what you say. Be consistent, calm, and predictable. Schedules are as important as rules and consequences; posting them helps.
Pre-empt challenges with choices. “You can choose to do your homework now and go to the basketball game tonight, or you can choose to stay home and do it after dinner.”
Be nurturing and offer physical comfort to the degree they seek. For example ask for, don’t demand, a hug and if they reject your attempt don’t make it a big deal, “I guess you’re out of hugs–well maybe tomorrow you’ll have one to give away,” or go for a fist bump or high five as your first step to establishing physical connection.
Incorporate frequent breaks. “Want to shoot hoops for ten minutes?” or, “You’ve earned a break, what would you like to do for an hour?”, even, “Let’s get a snack, okay?”
I’m not a counselor. I have no formal training in medical or mental health. I wrote this as a mom who adopted a traumatized grandchild and spent/spend time with professionals who generously share their time and expertise. I always urge professional counseling. What I’ve written is just a conversation starter.
Contrary to what you might think, the younger the infant or child is when subjected to trauma, the wider the impact and resulting problems. Infants cannot change their own dirty diapers or make themselves dinner…a five-year old can open a box of cereal or tell a neighbor they are hungry. A one-year-old may learn not to cry, but they can’t go out the back door when dad staggers in the front door swearing.
Let your grandchildren talk about past experiences and emotions. Emotions are facts and there is no right or wrong way to feel. How emotions are processed and expressed is the issue. Help them feel safe in talking with you and a few select others in their lives.
Teach them how/who they can contact (911, neighbors, teachers, etc.) to get help if a situation turns ugly. Never tolerate actions that endanger you, other family members, or themselves.
¹Dingle, Chad. Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users. ©2015.