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They become successful, they happen to be good workers, however, their emotional life is usually overshadowed. Adult children of alcoholics, in short ACA, constitute almost 40 % of adults in Poland.

Szymon Babuchowski

The word “family” is usually associated with warmth, safety, love. But it happens that the associations it evokes are quite opposite. It all depends on memories we took away from our family home. If we grow up in a dysfunctional family, we will have a distorted image of how this home should look like.

Emptiness inside

A dysfunctional family is the one that does not perform the basic tasks and functions regarding children’s care. It does not give enough love, support or sense of stability. The reasons for that are different. The most common one is alcohol. The statistics are terrifying. It is estimated that approximately 40 % of adults in Poland are ACA. But there are more reasons for these dysfunctions: divorces, a family member’s mental disease, his death, physical or mental violence, permanent absence of parents or- on the contrary- overprotection. All this leaves a mark on an adolescent child’s psyche, who as an adult later on, has a problem with normal functioning.

Children in dysfunctional families learn the attitude of distrust towards the world. The rule is: do not trust, do not tell, do not feel- it becomes their motto. As they cannot rely on their parents, they take the adults’ burden on themselves. In many cases, they have to take care of
a house, a lot of their actions are focused on their hiding this embarrassing problem. I worked out a whole system of attitudes just in case someone came by when my dad was drunk- Edyta, an ACA, says. Before a guest got from a ground floor to our floor, I had to, for example, take care of my father sleeping behind the door.

As a result, childhood like this is devoid of joy and unconcern that it is a part of this age, and maturity reached too early appears to be incomplete as well. A big, emotional hole is created inside and it is hard to be filled.

Constantly playing a role

In families they come from, ACA usually played the role that helped them to survive. Psychologists distinguish 4 types of roles: a hero of the family, a scapegoat, a toy and invisible child. This distinction refers mostly to ACA but it is the same in some other dysfunctions.

“A hero of the family” perform various duties on his own such as cleaning, cooking or raising his younger brothers and sisters. From the outside perspective, he is seen as extremely resourceful, however, inside they remain unhappy with themselves. In turn, “scapegoat” diverts attention from real problems by means of their own negative action. They happen to be cheeky and arrogant, they usually find it difficult to learn. And additionally, they feel underestimated.

“A toy-child”, usually the youngest in the family, behaves in a different manner. They learn well, they seem to be also optimistic. They stand between his parents, relieving the tension, however, they are terrified and remain emotionally immature for a long time. Finally, “invisible child” – withdrawn, living in their own world, try not to focus adults’ attention on him. As a result, they are deeply isolated.

Finally, all these roles become, a part of an adolescent person and influence their future life. That is the reason why it is hard for ACA to start new relationships. However, this situation can be changed. A good therapy helps to get to the sources of the problem that we are sometimes not aware of and to heal the wound gradually, and then – to spread the wings. The audiobook with the book by Father Grzegorz Polok attached to today’s “Gość Niedzielny” may be helpful. The readers can find also help on the website:

Coming out of the shadow

Szymon Babuchowski talks with the Father Grzegorz Polok about how adult children from dysfunctional families learn to spread the wings.

Szymon Babuchowski: In the book “Spread Your Wings” you quote some surprising statistics concerning ACA. They constitute even 40 % of adults in Poland. Must they be good at concealing it ?

Grzegorz Polok: In each dysfunctional family, not only with alcoholic problems, you are given a message: do not talk about problems. And they start their adult life with this message. They do not talk about problems at home so they cannot be expressed outside. But I think that if anyone analyzed their environment and their nuclear or extended family cautiously, they would notice that cases of overusing alcohol or addiction to it are not individual ones. The situation is similar with other dysfunctions. Divorces are a great problem. Nowadays, one in three married couples split up. In a legal sense, as there are also emotional divorces…

What is it?

It is a situation when two people, in a legal sense, are still married, however, in an emotional sense, they are strangers to each other. It is often the case that they become self-contained filled with anger, hatred and take advantage of their children in order to stand against the other parent.

How did it happen that you started to talk about the problem of adult children from dysfunctional families?

I am an academic chaplain and students who trusted me completely, came to me from time to time to talk about their problems. I noticed that more or less one third of them come from dysfunctional families. They told me about divorces, the emotional or legal ones, about mental diseases of one of the parents, about overuse of alcohol and sometimes about overprotection and inadequate requirements.


Didn’t all these problems overwhelm you?

I rather started to think how to help them. First, I took a book and started to educate myself. I found out what the abbreviation ACA stands for and on which measures therapy is based. In October 2001 the first therapeutic group started to exist in the academic ministry in Katowice-Zawodzie. Since then, up to 15 people annually finish a one-year long therapy. Some of its participants attached their testimonies to my book. They are often terrifying. Since 2009 there have been eight editions published. It shows how important this topic is.

Difficult experiences from childhood are very often accompanied by the feeling of
a shame. How did these young people manage to overcome this feeling and open themselves to therapy?

There are various motives. Sometimes a man can’t stand himself and this pain that accompanies the wound. Sometimes he notices that somebody else lives in a different manner. It happened that I really encouraged somebody to start therapy but they claimed they didn’t need it. And then, they called me in the middle of the night that they couldn’t help themselves on their own. It happens that the motive is a strong lesson of God’s love who calls to do something about it.

Are these people’s stories in any way similar to each other?

There are some common points for sure. It is pain, suffering, low self-esteem, rejection, lack of self-acceptance, craving for love that was absent at home. But, on the other hand, everybody is inimitable, individual, experiencing in their own way, in their own environment, with their treasure they comes with and try to share.

What do the children from dysfunctional families lack most?

They lack a family in which parents love each other. It is not about perfect love but full and as much as it is possible, it is about acceptance. In this acceptance there are born children who are accepted as they are. They have clearly set boundaries, clear messages, a right to make mistakes. And from this symbiotic, i.e. full of dependence relationship, they get more and more space and freedom. If they get a positive image of God, relationship between a man and a woman, they can leave home and spread the wings. But if they still witness the arguments or hear that they are hopeless- they shut themselves away in their pain.

How do they cope with it?

One of the methods is denial: that it was not that strong, that it does not concern me, that it does not hurt. A man very often hides in hyperactivity or perfectionism. They can also build their self-esteem resorting to relationships that are often unsteady.

Is a man coming from a dysfunctional family stigmatized with it until the end of life?

Undoubtedly, it is not neutral. Of course, the scale of this phenomenon, the power of “stamp” or wounds that stem from it is conditioned by many factors: which child in family it is, in which moment the dysfunction appeared, in what way the second parent behaved. A lot depends on the type of temperament, level of sensitivity, support of extended family, neighbours, sometimes friends from the yard, school who helped- there is not one universal measure. But I think that everyone who experienced his dysfunction in a stronger manner, no matter what it was, should straighten the past. Because, unfortunately, in the next generation, these dysfunctions will be even more visible.

In what way an experience like this can affect our relation building in an adult life?

50 % of present-day alcoholics are adult children from alcoholic families. What does it mean? It means that it is four times more possible to become an alcoholic when your parents overused alcohol or were addicted. This chance is three times higher when this problem concerned your grandparents. A great problem is also instability of relationships, more frequent divorces of people who come from dysfunctional families. Additionally, people from dysfunctional families attract each other. This relation is difficult and when children appear there, they have not the proper environment to grow up in.

I guess divorces also leave a permanent mark in someone’s psyche.

An adult child from a family where the divorce took place, starts a relationship much earlier to get out of his difficult home. Unfortunately, this new relationship is unsteady again because this man was not given the right tools. It is even more difficult when we talk about DDX, it means that a child has home in which various dysfunctions appear. There is alcohol, divorce, a family member’s death or mental disease. Then, in order to help, we do not need only to diagnose the alcoholic problem. All these things cannot be separated by using a scalpel.

Is there any way to get out of this vicious circle: fears, repeating parents’ mistakes?

Certainly! If someone realizes the cause of these fears, concerns, low self-esteem, they notice that it is about their past, then their life can change. But they have to open themselves to this past and let the negative emotions get out of them, work them out with a friend or psychologist, in a group or during an individual therapy. And they have to pray to God on the knees. Coming from a dysfunctional family is not a stigma or a curse. It is rather a possibility- a difficult gift that helps to understand the other people later on. It is an appeal to compose our life differently; so that my family, me and my children have a different space of love. It is absolutely possible for them to spread the wings.

What is the therapy of people from dysfunctional families based on?

It is based on conversations with a therapist, or as it is in our case, on a group work. Throughout the entire year, once a week, the students have meetings. First, they learn the basics of communication, only then they try to face their past. It is about describing the story of someone’s life, getting out the most difficult matters and crying them over. If somebody wants to, they have the chance to make things right with the help of God. Later, a lot of participants say: finally I can feel my emotions, I can communicate and I feel better with myself. Of course, this therapy is only the beginning of the road and not a magical solution that solves everything.

Well, is it possible to get out of the shadow of a dysfunctional parent?

Yes, it is. Of course, it is not the efficacy of washing powder that washes in 100%. A lot depends on a person that comes to the therapy: what his motivation is, how much they want to touch the depths of their past, how much they were hurt. But I can see people who once bent with their eyes cast down, now, stand upright and look at the sky. They begin to create good relations, they develop in the field of studies, they choose to study abroad. The results are visible- but as I said- efficacy is not full. Because if someone lived in a difficult space for 20 years or more, they need more time to make things right.

Translated by Justyna Gałuch