Some parents need to overcome their own childhood stresses

November 05, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

While counseling the parents of drug and alcohol addicts, Carol Koffinke was struck with how different they all were -- and also how much they were alike.

One couple, for instance, thought their strictness drove their child to rebel by using drugs.

Another pair believed their permissiveness was what allowed their child to drift into drug abuse.

"The parents all wanted to be good parents; they were all trying to figure out what they did wrong," she recalls. "But they had all tried different styles of behavior."

But when she looked at their family histories, she saw what they had in common: "I found that almost every one of [the parents] came from an alcoholic or abusive family," she says.

She also found the germ of an idea for a book -- "I'll Never Do that to My Kids," published last month by Deaconess Press of Minneapolis. Subtitled "The Parenting Traps of Adult Children," it's aimed at people who need to surmount their own chaotic upbringing so they can create for their children a healthier family structure than they experienced themselves.

"I'm hoping the book will provide insight and motivate people to look at themselves," says Ms. Koffinke, who is director of clinical services at New Beginnings at Hidden Brook, a rehabilitation center for substance abusers, in Bel Air.

Indeed, her book may fill a niche. Although the term "adult children" originally meant the adult children of alcoholics, the definition has been expanded, so that it applies to anyone who grew up in a "dysfunctional" family, where the situation was always stressed, always abnormal, never safe or reliable.

And there are, apparently, increasing numbers of people raised in families "where they are not able to get the love, concern, and care they need to be nurtured into healthy adults," says Mike Gimbel, director of the Baltimore county office of substance abuse.

"It used to be that parents taught their kids how to be parents," he continues. But over the past 30 years, alcohol and drug abuse has grown and extended families have become less common; children whose parents are tied up in their own self-destructiveness no longer have grandparents or other relatives nearby to show what normalcy is.

"So they have problems with relationships, because they had no role model of how to have a relationship, or how to have a strong family," Mr. Gimbel says.

"We tend to repeat what we know; our main models of families are what we grew up in," agrees Trish Gaffney, clinical director of outpatient recovery programs at the Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"So when you grow up in a family that operates out of avoidance, denial, projection and blame, and a kind of general inability to care for the family members appropriately, you tend to reproduce the same thing, because that's your idea of family."

Or you create a make-believe kind of perfection: You make your family conform to what you think a proper family should be; and that doesn't work either, Ms. Gaffney points out, because you don't know how a proper family operates.

In fact, according to Ms. Koffinke, what you do is develop strategies that help you cope with the abnormal. Studies have shown that children raised with constant stress deny that there's trouble; they hide their feelings; they adopt roles such as the "hero," who over-achieves and takes care of the rest of the family; the "scapegoat," who gets attention by getting into trouble; the "lost child," who avoids attention by retreating; and the "mascot," who is the baby of the family, protected by the others.

"It's important that the child develop a survival role," Mrs. Koffinke believes. "But once you move out of that family system, you don't need to go through your whole life in the defensive role.

In fact, you create a new dysfunctional system if you do: As she points out in the book, heroes over-protect their children or FTC demand perfection. Scapegoats lash out in anger. The lost child is a model of low self-esteem, and the mascot remains childish and dependent.

Whatever the role, adult children become walking examples of self-denial, low self-esteem, emotional distance. They may also overcompensate: Those who were raised with too many rules and restrictions become too lenient. Those whose parents were uninvolved become over-involved. If they missed out on something, they insist that their children have it -- whether the children want, or need it, or not.

"We need to change things to change the pattern," she says. For some people, that will be too difficult, or too painful, to do alone, and professional therapy might be needed. Others, reading the book, may learn enough about the children they were that they can transform themselves in the parents they want to be, she believes.

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