Alcoholic Parents: What Does It Do To A Child’s Brain?
When we grow up under stress, it changes the way we think. All adults begin as children with developing brains, and many find that they may be diagnosed with a condition as an adult that began in childhood.
Dr. Daniel Amen entered this field of study as a child psychiatrist, and has practiced psychiatry by focusing on brain scans to take a look into how different factors, such as stress, physically shape the brain.
Dr. Amen and his wife, Tana Amen, have created the Brain Warrior’s Way podcast to help educate those with mental illness or those helping loved ones with mental illness. There is always hope to improve and overcome symptoms to live a normal, healthy adult life.
The Impact of a Parent’s Drug Abuse on a Child’s Mind
Each April is Alcoholism Awareness Month, and on this episode, Dr. Amen discusses the lifelong impact alcoholism of a parent can have on the children.
When it comes to which parent, Dr. Amen explains a family dynamic where alcoholism affects the mother as the primary caretaker. His wife and co-host, Tana Amen, joins him in the discussion.
TANA AMEN: So what I wanted to point out is that family dynamics are so complicated. My parents were divorced, and my half sisters grew up in a house where there was substance abuse, and I think that I ended up with more stability, as bad as it was. There was more stability because my mother didn’t abuse substances.
DR. AMEN: Interestingly in our research and other people’s research on children of alcoholics, if the Dad’s an alcoholic, that’s a big problem. If the Mom’s an alcoholic, it’s a freaking disaster because women are still primary caretakers for children. Not a disaster you can’t fix, and I remember when we first met and I could see the trauma in your brain, remember, when we scanned you, and getting a couple of sessions of EMDR, a specific psychological treatment for trauma, was super helpful for you.
TANA AMEN: Yeah, no, EMDR is amazing. I actually really, really liked it and it sort of helped me unwind some things. I remember meeting you and you saying, “Don’t you think that some of these things are connected?” And I’m like, “Nope!” Not at all, like I was a warrior, I was ready to fight.
DR. AMEN: You’re not gonna talk.
TANA AMEN: Right, I’m ready to fight about it .
DR. AMEN: And you’re not gonna trust, and we’re not gonna feel, and we’re not gonna go there.
TANA AMEN: Not gonna get hurt, not willing to do the hurt thing again.
DR. AMEN: And so it took us a while to work through all of that. You had to break my heart once or twice, but it’s all for the better because we’re closer than we’ve ever been. It’s part of the reason we bring this up, that if you grew up in a hurtful environment, there is healing for you. You are not stuck with the brain you have.
Alcoholic Mother vs Father
In households that follow a traditional nuclear dynamic, a mother with alcoholism can be very detrimental. Mothers who are the primary caretakers and would be responsible for most daily care can induce chronic stress with unexpected outbursts and challenges that children must cope to handle.
Once this child grows into adulthood, their mind has already developed to survive through those traumatic events and their behavior will continue as a pattern throughout life until treated.
EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, is a type of therapy used to treat PTSD among other conditions, similar to inducing REM sleep. The purpose is to reduce the strength of traumatic memories.
Tana goes on to explain how the trauma still affects her, and how treatment has helped lessen the severity of her symptoms.
Growing Up With Alcoholic Parents & Effects On Child
DR. AMEN: What happens in the brain for the children of alcoholics and other children who’ve been traumatized… those children who grow up with trauma have the same brain as a soldier of war. So, growing up with the trauma, it changed your brain to be more vigilant, to be more watchful.
TANA AMEN: So, to give you an example, we stay a couple nights a week up in Los Angeles. I’ve got my own little nest very protected where we live. So I drive up to Los Angeles and there’s just something about it, it’s like this ground floor, it’s a very nice neighborhood, but I cannot sleep. I’ve got the windows secured, I just can’t explain it, but I can hear every single noise and any noise I hear, even near my daughter’s bedroom, I am up out of bed and I’m over there. And I know that’s because of that past and that’s probably never going to go away. So it does things that change you.
DR. AMEN: But it’s not as bad as it’s been, and over time by working on it, you can feel better and it can last.
TANA AMEN: Oh yeah, I feel more empowered now, that’s the difference. I feel empowered, I don’t feel out of control, but that’s just something that happens when you grow up like that, you’re always aware.
While these traumatic memories still remain, their impact is lessened with treatment. Tana feels empowered and in control of her anxious habits now that she has experienced PTSD therapy to understand her mind and take charge of her life.
There are other types of therapy for treating PTSD as this condition has been studied and treated since its classification in 1980. Dr. Amen also discusses how other past experts have approached symptoms.
DR. AMEN: So, as I began to learn about this, I had no idea there was a whole body of literature already about what’s the psychological impact of people who grow up with chronic trauma. There were three things.
Claudia Black had written a book right about that time and I actually later became friends with her. The book is called “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” and she discusses how children of addicts learn “not to talk,” because we don’t talk about this stuff, “not to trust,” I mean I just married her why are you not trusting me, and then “not to feel.” So they block trusting, talking, and feelings so it comes out in oh so many other ways from panic attacks to depression to suicide to substance abuse for many.
It just completely blew my mind, so I went on to study children and grandchildren of alcoholics and I found they actually had a very high incidence of ADD (attention deficit disorder), but not the kind that responds to stimulants. They had a kind we call “Overfocused ADD”, so they have a lot of ADD symptoms, but in addition, they’re worrying, they’re rigid, they’re inflexible when things don’t go their way, they get upset. In 1994 I actually wrote a book about this called “Healing the Chaos Within” because what I found is a combination of substances to increase Dopamine for the ADD and increased Serotonin from the worrying, it was remarkable.
The way psychiatrists observe their patients’ behavior for treatment has evolved over time, and that is why Dr. Amen has turned to brain SPECT imaging, to take a look at the organ that is experiencing symptoms.
When it comes to children of alcoholics and addicts, it’s all too common for the children to abuse substances early in life as well. It’s very important to put a stop to this cycle, as Tana and Dr. Amen explain how drugs can create steep challenges for adolescents.
TANA AMEN: We’ve got to do a better job of educating them on why not to do drugs and alcohol. It’s not just about like, “Oh, we don’t want you to not, we don’t want you to, you know, not do drugs because of the morality issue”. Yes, there’s all of that involved. That isn’t just the only issue. We’ve got to be educating them about what it’s doing to their development.
DR. AMEN: Right, and most kids don’t really get that their brain is not actually fully developed until they’re 25, and if they go with the early drug use option, it’s actually damaging.
TANA AMEN: It’s affecting their ability to get into the college they want, to get the job they want, their employability.
DR. AMEN: It’s damaging and delaying their development. So, in the addiction world, we often say if you started using drugs when you were fifteen and didn’t stop until you’re 30, well, emotionally you’re still fifteen. Your brain has not fully developed and the brain has windows where it will develop during a certain period and then it won’t develop after that. So, early drug use can actually have lifelong negative implications.
Alcoholic Symptoms in Children
Dr. Amen highlights a very important developmental issue where early substance abuse can affect the emotional maturity of a child, teen or young adult for the rest of their lives. When drug abuse begins in these early years, the individual’s brain doesn’t emotionally mature normally as they age into adulthood.
When the age the brain stops developing is 25 years old, all young adults must understand the impact as it influences the rest of their lives.
Parents of Alcoholic Children
DR. AMEN: When you talk to kids, if you actually teach them to fall in love with their brains, they’re so much better at it. So, if you take concussions and she, this person we’re talking about, had nineteen car accidents. If you take concussions, mix it with drug addictions, you actually have a recipe for suicide. I often tell my patients suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary feeling or process.
TANA AMEN: It’s really important to leave a message of hope here. So this person had really hit, I mean if there is a lower bottom than rock bottom, had hit a lower bottom than rock bottom and we worked with her. So, it was really bad, and so, in working with her I’m like really putting a lot of energy in and working with this person over about a year’s time. What was really fun for me, just recently I spoke with her and she not only is working now, has two jobs, is thriving, and then there were times where I actually questioned, “Is this gonna happen? Are we gonna be able to turn this thing around?” and so all of a sudden it was so much fun for me. Just recently she said to me, “I was going through some of your materials, and the same stuff that I couldn’t comprehend a year ago, I see where I was a year ago and I see where I am now.” And she was stunned. It was just so cool. There’s a hope there.
DR. AMEN: And I talked to her 13-year-old daughter, or 8-year-old-daughter, all the time about protecting their brain and loving their brain.
TANA AMEN: It had to be all of it. We did everything.
DR. AMEN: So if you want to be part of the solution you have to first love your brain and then teach other people how to love theirs.
How to Help Child of Alcoholic Parent Syndrome
In the end, we can always strengthen ourselves to overcome obstacles our brains developed throughout childhood. There is hope to improve your symptoms and take charge of your life again, even after years of emotional trauma, physical trauma and substance abuse.
Call us today at 888-288-9834 or tell us more online for availability at a clinic near you, and watch the video below on the full discussion on how alcoholism can cause childhood trauma in a household.