Dr. Tian Dayton has been one of my writing and speaking heroes for many years. She has written over fifteen books! Her work emanates with passion, authenticity, and real solutions. With the post below, she has allowed me to share some thoughts from her book, The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships. Tian Dayton has a masters in educational psychology and a PhD in clinical psychology and is a board certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy. She is the Director of Program Development for Breathe Life Healing Center. Thanks, Dr. Dayton, for dedicating your life to helping others and for sharing your words here.
In a home where what is abnormal becomes the norm and what is normal can seem increasingly elusive, one learns not to be surprised by anything. Living in an alcoholic family system is like driving at night without your headlights on—you are always squinting to see a little better, wondering what lies ahead in the road or what might jump out at you from behind the bushes.
Visit the living room of the average family that is “living with”—or should I say “living in”—addiction, and you are likely to find a family that is clinging to its own, emotional edges; one that’s functioning in emotional, psychological, and behavioral extremes. A family in which small things that might otherwise be solved smoothly become bigger than necessary or blow up and turned into minor catastrophes, while outrageous, self-destructive, or even abusive behavior may go entirely ignored and unaddressed. Where feelings can get very big, very fast, or literally disappear into nowhere with equal velocity. There can be a low hum of apprehension surrounding even the smallest decisions, while major life decisions are barely focused on. A family where what doesn’t matter can get a lot of emphasis while what does matter can get swept under the rug, shelved, circumvented, or downright denied. A family, in short, that doesn’t know what “normal” is.
“All or Nothing” characterizes the trauma response, those who are affected by trauma tend to go from 0–10 and 10–0 with no speed bumps in between. They have trouble living in 4, 5, and 6. Because they don’t have healthy ways of finding an emotional middle ground, they achieve balance by shooting from one emotional extreme to the other, zooming right past middle ground as if it weren’t even there, overresponding or underresponding. They have trouble with self-regulation. They have trouble “staying present” or “in their bodies” in emotional middle ground where their thoughts and feelings might have to be held, felt, and understood, so they shoot right past them. This see-sawing dynamic is part of why those within the family don’t learn what “normal” is and reflect the loss of neuromodulation that can accompany trauma.
The “All or Nothing” Character of Trauma Response
Not knowing what “normal” is, is a hallmark characteristic of CoAs and ACoAs who have been traumatized by the effects of growing up with parental addiction. Children learn the skills of self-regulation and balance in the arms of those who raise them. When the family atmosphere is full of mood swings that are rarely explained and put into an understandable framework, children are left to make sense of their surrounding circumstances with the immature reasoning of a child, and to regulate their own mood in their own, childlike ways. Their thinking, feeling, and behavior all too often come to mirror what they see around them; and this is what they internalize as the norm.
Living with adults who cannot easily express and process emotion in healthy ways also leaves children to wonder about what is going on in the family and to wonder about themselves. They sense that great wells of feeling exist, but nothing is said out loud. Negative feelings leak out sideways through criticism or withholding of affection. Children observe the sudden bursts of anger or tears that might indicate problems, but then all of that feeling disappears into nowhere and no one talks about it or explains what they are feeling or thinking. In this environment, family members often develop the habit of hiding what they are feeling and not sharing what is going on inside of them, because sharing it gets them nowhere. Children in this atmosphere may come to feel anxious about their parents, their siblings, and themselves.
As parents drop the ball, there are regular skirmishes among siblings for a sense of power and place. Siblings may turn to each other for support but also learn that they have to compete for the limited love and attention that their parents have to give. They may learn dysfunctional relationship habits such as manipulating parents to get what they need, jockeying for an edge over another sibling, or sidling up to one parent and taking sides against the other. Parents may co-opt one child as a surrogate partner and distance the other. Family factions, both overt and covert, can develop creating an “in crowd” and an “out crowd.” Thus, not only the emotional atmosphere of the family becomes thrown off but the relationships within the family become distorted as well. In this environment, it can be a challenge for the growing child to find their own emotional and relational regulation and balance. The child is caught in a double whammy bind, not only are they being hurt, but the person they would normally go to for comfort, namely their parent, is lost to them as a source of solace and support who lead them back into a state of emotional balance, rather it is the parent who is, in fact, causing the pain.
Most partner and family relationships have stormy moments, it’s a natural and even healthy part of being alive, attached, adaptive and growing. But alcoholic families get lost in the storm, they lose some of their ability to “right” themselves in the water or to find solid ground.
To learn more about this topic as well as Dr. Dayton’s work, check out her book, The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships. You can also read informative articles for free on her website. To stay up-to-date with Dr. Dayton’s work, follow her on Twitter and Facebook.