The roles taken on by children in a family struggling with a parent’s addiction are typically understood as survival strategies. The emotions that children feel when parents are unable to perform in their parenting roles, for any reason, are often very similar whether the situation involves addiction, disability, or the death of a parent. Anger, grief and loss, abandonment, fear/anxiety, and confusion are common. Equally common are feelings of shame and powerlessness.
Now wait a minute, you might be thinking—powerlessness? Don’t all children feel somewhat powerless? Isn’t that a normal part of childhood? The difference between the plain old “vanilla” powerlessness in a family that has not been affected by addiction and the powerlessness we’re talking about here is this: when something goes wrong in a family, and there are upset feelings (as in divorce, death, illness, or addiction, for examples) children typically believe that this is their fault. You’ve heard this before—advice that is commonly given to parents undergoing divorce is “stress to the kids that it isn’t their fault.” To us as adults, this is obvious: of course it isn’t their fault. But emotionally speaking, this is not so obvious to children.
Why Children Think “It’s All Their Fault”
Children take on the emotional responsibility for “bad” feelings in families in two ways: The first is a logical and conscious way; they hear a snippet of a phrase, an angry word, or an overheard phone conversation and “make a mountain out of a molehill.” They hear “oh my goodness, these kids are driving me to drink” and take it literally. They hear complaints, frustrations, or arguments and take offhand words in uttered anger more literally than they may be intended.
The second way is much more subtle and not conscious at all; children, depending on their age, have some ways of thinking or processing information that are not yet fully rational and logical. This is why kids say the “darnedest” things and seem to have a more free and creative way of associating concepts that we, as adults, might not connect. As children grow and develop, this natural way of associating concepts and making connections gradually becomes more logical and more similar to adult cognitive processes. However, the realm of emotions is generally the last to shift from childlike “magical” thinking into more rational thought. This means that even children as old as 9 or 10 honestly feel like things that happen around them are their fault despite that often being completely illogical or irrational. Shame and powerlessness result from living in a family with addicted parents—these children really do feel responsible even as they come to understand that they are not.
In prior articles, we’ve looked at the Chief Enabler, the Family Hero, and the Scapegoat. It has been theorized that birth order has an influence on which role a child takes, with oldest children typically becoming Family Heroes, and later children taking on Scapegoat roles to provide some balance and fill the critical needs scapegoats fill.
The Family Role Of The Lost Child
The Lost Child handles the stresses and emotions that dominate life in a family affected by addiction in a very different way from both the Family Hero and the Scapegoat. In some ways both of those roles are focused on each other and the addict or alcoholic. Their behavior is directly related to covering up or uncovering the problems in the family. The Lost Child handles the shame, sadness, anger and anxiety by “checking out.” These are kids who retreat and appear to be unaffected by the family drama.
Often a complete relief to their Chief Enabler parent, these children are typically independent, self sufficient, and quiet. They function adequately, neither taking on starring roles like the Family Hero, nor screwing up royally like the Scapegoat. They seek to avoid attention and fade into the background, retreating into their own world. Their strengths are just this: they are able to function in their own world with much emotional chaos happening around them, and can seem truly unaffected by intense emotions. They tend to amuse themselves alone, and often develop creative habits such as drawing, writing poetry, or playing music. While the popular literature on lost children stresses that they are “forgotten” by the family, they are more accurately misunderstood. Their ability to avoid and tolerate quietly is mistaken as not needing the attention or focus that other siblings may need.
“Forgotten” Children More Likely To Develop Substance Abuse And Self-esteem Issues
Children in this role can grow into adults that have trouble developing closeness and trusting others. They are also high risk for developing substance abuse problems themselves. Their feelings of being overlooked, misunderstood, and left out can lead to self-esteem issues and a list of bottled up hurts and resentments that can be difficult to overcome in adulthood. While the Scapegoat may hold more anger for the family and the Hero may hold more resentment, the Lost Child frequently holds sadness.
Again, as with the other roles, psychotherapy can help these adults to heal and move beyond their childhood roles. Feeling free to connect to others and feeling worthy of intimacy and emotional care are critical steps a Lost Child can take on his or her journey to wholeness.