Addiction is a prominent contributing factor in the development of unhealthy family systems. If a family is crippled by an addiction, no matter what that addiction might be, the whole family is shaped by it.

Addictions hold families hostage and the stronghold they have is difficult, if not impossible, to break without help. Addictions such as alcoholism, infidelity, pornography, sexual abuse and domestic violence all have a huge impact on the home environment.

The effect on children

For example, if a child grows up watching Dad hit Mom during a drunken rage, that is what the child learns is normal. They learn that anger is dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.

They eventually believe that they are the cause of the rage and, if they are the cause, then they are also the solution. They become hyper-vigilant, monitoring the emotional environment in order to "prevent" a drunken parent from raging.

They lose their sense of self trying to control what they have no control over. They become afraid and stay afraid. In an effort to protect Mom from Dad’s blows, they may draw his attention to themselves and become the recipient of his verbal and physically abusive behaviour.

They may not like it, but they don’t know any different. For them, this is normal, and they believe all families are like theirs. They experience a deep sense of shame about who they are. This core feeling of shame leads to the belief that something is essentially wrong with them and it becomes the energy that fuels their own addictions. They in turn become parents and pass on to their children what they learned is "normal," perpetuating the unhealthy family system.

There is hope

I believe that all parents love their children. I believe all parents want the best for their children and do their best at parenting. But sometimes their best is not very good and their parenting leaves deep wounds of rejection, abandonment and shame in the hearts of their children.

We can’t go back to childhood to reclaim the love we missed out on, but that doesn’t mean the emptiness can’t be filled and the losses restored. Even though we can’t change the way we were raised, there is hope for healing.

But it isn’t our spouse, a career, financial success, power or fame that will bring healing. Healing comes from an intimate relationship with God and relationships with those who truly love us, warts and all. It is a process that takes time and a willingness to face the pain that has been buried since childhood.

Breaking the cycle

We can break the generational cycle of unhealthy family systems so that we can create our own healthy family system, a system of relationships that affirm and encourage life. We were wounded in relationships and we will be healed in relationships – relationships with God and with others. Many people find strength from support groups, books, workshops and counselling.

Thankfully we have a God who wants to heal the hurt and fill to overflowing the empty places in us.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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