Hidden Dimensions of the “Adult Child”

Is it possible that generations of external pressures and traumatic circumstances could be powerful enough to play a role in creating the Adult Child phenomenon?

I have met the Adult Child over and over again in my practice and I always expect to find influences of substance abuse in their family histories. When I don’t observe this dynamic, I wonder what might have occurred that would impose a shame so deep that it would cause someone to avoid the intimacy and comfort of secure attachments and emotional well-being.

This first post of 2016 introduces a series on the hidden dimensions of the Adult Child phenomenon. We will explore family secrets about addiction issues, disease, financial challenge, illness, injury, loss, poverty and unemployment to reflect influences beyond the 12 Step Adult Child of Alcoholics (ACA) model.  

My clients are competent individuals with histories of success. Yet, as they struggle to understand what makes their lives so challenging, these abilities aren’t always as they seem. Words don’t come easily. It is difficult for them to translate sensations and images into words to convey their confounding feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and insecurity. When vulnerable feelings erratically appear and then vanish, we pay attention to these emerging “snapshots” of experience. Together we take time to observe and reflect on what is said and isn’t said and on what is heard and unheard. As we look at their emerging memories of being deprived of their childhood needs for affirmation and affection, they begin to appreciate how invisible and lonely they were as children. When my clients accept themselves as fitting the Adult Child paradigm, they begin to see how their early self-protective idealizations evolved into defenses that are now second nature. This recognition has the power to release them from intergenerational family suffering and to come out of hiding and be seen by their significant others.

Clinical Considerations

Intergenerational shame is a legacy of unresolved fears and sorrows passed along imperceptibly within families. When this shame merges with one’s personal vulnerabilities, it becomes a harmful combination that blocks an ability to connect comfortably with self and others.

The Adult Child embodies an experience of intense shame, whether it is in response to alcoholism or some other personal or family vulnerability. Let’s consider how external forces and personal distress could transform commonplace anxieties into toxic “secrets.”

The 20th century witnessed the rise of mass-media marketing of images that endorsed the trappings of personal success. Those who were motivated to attain these ever-changing ideals competed in an endless pursuit of futile goals. When they predictably came up short, personal embarrassment and the fear of exposure surfaced. Experience of failure stimulated defensive posturing and rigid coping strategies to conceal family secrets. These approaches left one feeling isolated and disconnected from others. Without a language to express emotions, difficult feelings were stifled until they exploded. Reoccurring eruptions of shame provoked by multi-media messaging, national trauma, and turbulent times undermined multiple generations and likely played a role in the development of the Adult Child.

As this series unfolds, I will use clinical vignettes to develop and describe the hidden dimensions of this phenomenon.