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Children of alcoholics and adolescence: individuation, development, and family systems.

One of the most fascinating achievements of adolescence involves an individual's balance between separation-individuation and connectedness within the family. This praxis, individuation, is a developmental process involving the melding of such qualities in the family of origin (Bartle, Anderson, & Sabatelli, 1989; Grotevant & Cooper, 1986).

While the developmental emergence of an autonomous identity and sense of intimacy is relatively well understood for children from functional family systems, the contemporary literature has neglected to apply this concept to youth from alcoholic family systems. Since individuation affords an important interface between adolescent and adult development and family pathology, a solid understanding of the individuation process within families affected by alcoholism promises insight and understanding into the long-term developmental consequences for identity formation in alcoholic, dysfunctional, family systems.

The link between individual development and the concomitant ability to develop mature relationships, and the disruptive influence of familial alcoholism, is noteworthy. As Mahler, Pine, & Bergman (1975) note, the development of the ability to form healthy relationships begins with the early resolution of the separation-individuation process. Crespi and Sabatelli (1993) suggest that the ability to evolve a mature and differentiated sense of self is tied to the individuation process and note the important ways healthy family relationships can foster individuation in adolescents. Tragically, children of alcoholics suffer from the psychological maltreatment and dysfunction which alcohol brings about in family relationships (Crespi, 1990).

The purpose of this article, globally, is to provide an overview of the current findings regarding individuation as a key to adolescent and young adult development and to link this framework with pivotal developmental issues faced by young people living in alcoholic family systems. The article is divided into sections. In the first, the literature on children of alcoholism is summarized with special consideration to those developmental themes which especially effect individuals throughout their lives. The second section addresses those elements of individuation which have particular relevance to children from alcoholic family systems. The concepts of physical independence and psychological dependence are introduced because of their relevance to families of alcoholism. In the final section suggestions for future consideration are considered.

Children of Alcoholism: The Family as Dysfunctional Catalyst

The incidence of alcohol use is widespread. It has been noted (Crespi, 1990), that at least one in six families are affected. Black (1981) states that there are between 28 and 34 million children and adults in the United States who grew up in or are being raised in alcoholic families. Seixas & Youcha (1985) note that nearly all children from alcoholic families live with emotional and/or physical scars resulting from parental alcoholism.

Of consequence, parental alcoholism can have a legacy which impacts the development of both individual family members and the patterns carried from one generation to the next. Black (1981) notes that children raised in homes where open communication is practiced and consistency is the norm usually have the ability to adopt a variety of roles. Children growing up in alcoholic families, on the other hand, seldom learn the combination of roles which mold healthy personalities. Instead, they become locked into roles based on their perception of what they need to survive and bring stability to their lives (Black, 1981).

In other words, the children of alcoholics, conceptualized as tools lacking in key elements of humanity (Crespi, 1990), often play out roles within the family of origin that serve the needs of the family but have the potential to disrupt their own functioning as adults. Specifically, attachments, professional and personal relationships, psychological well-being, problem-solving strategies, and functional affective styles can all be distorted from parental alcoholism (Crespi, 1990; Woititz, 1983; Black, 1981). Apparently, many children of alcoholics bring from their family of origin ways of coping that may interfere with their ability to form a mature identity and capacity for intimacy, and make commitments to adult roles and responsibilities.

The destructive influence of parental alcoholism on children and family, then, is not in contention. The evidence of the negative consequences, as well as the long-term outcomes are compelling. The various considerations discussed suggest that youth in alcoholic families are confronted by a daunting challenge. In this climate, one consideration for clinicians and researchers is the important contributions which can be made through an appreciation of the process of individuation. Possibly, knowledge surrounding individuation (self-differentiation) can help lead to a greater understanding of ways in which the negative effects of alcoholism can be more effectively addressed. Moreover, such knowledge may help sharpen our ability to select appropriate interventions for youth living in families stained by alcohol.

Individuation: Perspectives and Applications

As part of the process of maturity, adolescents and young adults must establish an independent identity. Pascale and Streit (1972) note that one aspect of development involves the diminishing influence of the family. Of note, however, teenagers must form independent identities while still retaining familial ties of dependency. That is, the individuation process has been conceptually tied to the process whereby youth rework their ties to the family of origin and establish a "separate yet connected self" (Allison & Sabatelli, 1988; Josselson, 1973). Individuation has been defined as a developmental process through which one comes to see oneself as separate and distinct within one's relational (familial, social, cultural) context (Karpel, 1976). The degree to which individuation has occurred is the degree to which the person no longer experiences him or herself as fusing with others in personal relationships. Defining characteristics of fusion include the dissolving of ego boundaries between self and other, the inability to establish an "I" within a "we," a high degree of identification with others, and dependence on others (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990; Karpel, 1976; Mendelsohn, 1978; Sabatelli & Mazor, 1985).

Individuation, in this regard, is a process through which the ability to act autonomously is developed while one remains emotionally connected to significant others (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990; Josselson, 1973; Karpel, 1976; Shapiro, 1988). When conceived of in this way, the individuation concept has much in common with Bowen's (1978) notion of self-differentiation. Bowen identifies two aspects of self-differentiation. The first is the differentiation of emotional from intellectual functioning with the self and the degree of choice one has over which type of functioning will govern one's behavior. The higher the differentiation of the self, the greater the capacity to be in close emotional contact with significant others without having one's thinking, emotions, and behavior governed by seemingly involuntary reactions to those relationships or by the accompanying emotional environment (Friedman, 1991; Kerr, 1984). The second aspect is described as "the process by which individuality and togetherness are managed by a person and within a relationship system" (Kerr & Bowen 1988; p. 95). The well-individuated or self-differentiated person has the ability to develop and maintain a coherent sense of self while being emotionally involved with others - that is, the ability to interact with intimate others without becoming fused, dependent or over-identified with them.

Family System Differentiation and the Individuation Process

The individuation process throughout early adulthood requires a reworking of the parent/child relationship (Allison & Sabatelli, 1988; Youniss, 1983). In this regard adolescents must alter their financial and functional dependencies on the family if they are to succeed at managing the demands of adult roles and responsibilities. Importantly, as well, adolescents must rework their psychological connections to their families. This enables youth to negotiate a balance between their own self-interests and the interests of significant others. A fundamental goal of understanding adolescent development and adjustment, therefore, is to conceptualize those family system dynamics which facilitate the individuation process and, thereby, impact on the ability of individuals to act in an age-appropriate self-differentiated manner.

To this end, Bowen uses the term differentiation to refer to family patterns of interaction that critically influence the trajectory of the individuation process. Within Bowen's scheme, all families are characterized by a level of differentiation falling along a continuum from well-differentiated at one extreme to poorly differentiated at the other. This level of family system differentiation is reflected in how the family regulates its internal boundaries, manages its emotional climate, and assigns and regulates the identities of family members.

All families evolve boundary strategies that balance separateness and togetherness. The patterns and dynamics of interaction within well-differentiated families allow family members to act in appropriately independent and autonomous ways. The rights of others are respected and the desire for privacy is honored. Individuals are viewed as having the right to think, feel, and act independently of other family members.

Poorly differentiated systems are characterized by a low tolerance for individuality. Within these systems, the forces of fusion may be so strong as to negate family members' individuality, viewing it as disloyalty and a threat to the family's stability. Such families operate with a sense of emotional oneness. The fears, anxieties, stresses, or even joys of one family member are felt intensely and personally by all family members.

The differentiation found within the family system is reflected, as well, in how the family manages its emotional climate. Within the well-differentiated family system, family members respect one another. They act with sensitivity and empathy to the problems and concerns of others. In well-differentiated families, the strategies employed for managing the emotional climate contribute to the experience of intimacy, integration, and cohesion. The absence of such empathy, sensitively, and concern is one feature that distinguishes the poorly differentiated from the well-differentiated family.

These two types of families also differ in how conflict and tension are managed. Within poorly differentiated systems, conflict and tension tend to be managed through triangulation (Bowen, 1978). Triangulation involves a three-person interaction in which the tension and conflict experienced between two persons is detoured to a third party. Triangulation interferes with family members ability to act in responsive, respectful, and nurturing ways toward one another. In addition, a great deal of conflict goes unresolved. In other words, the strategies used to manage the family's emotional climate not only fail to resolve conflicts but result in a residue of unresolved conflict and anxiety.

The family's strategies for delineating its boundaries and managing its emotional climate, ultimately, are tied to the development and maintenance of identity. In a most basic way, the differentiation levels found within the family system are reflected in the degree to which the family attempts to control the identities of family members. Within well-differentiated family systems, an optimal tolerance for individuality allows family members to be recognized as having unique characteristics and to act in appropriately autonomous and self-differentiated ways. This helps create a family environment where individuals feel supported and encouraged to be themselves.

Within poorly differentiated families, boundaries and the emotional climate are managed in a way that discourages the expression of individuality. These individuation-inhibiting systems discourage the expression of individuality often by assigning or delegating identities to children that serve the needs of the family system. When confronted with the bind of having to individuate from an individuation-inhibiting family system, youth are likely to become highly anxious. They may attempt to solve this dilemma in one of two ways: rather than individuating from such systems, they may fuse with the family thereby allowing it to control their sense of self. Such youth are easily made to feel guilty if they displease others, and are driven to feelings of loyalty and obligation to parents and other family members.

Conversely, when the individuation and identity process is blocked, individuals may exercise control over their autonomy by sacrificing their connections to others - by cutting off emotionally and/or physically from the family. Detachment, in this instance, represents a strategy for gaining control over and protecting one's sense of self. Unfortunately, this is gained at the expense of closeness with others. Further, the anger and residual resentment that these youth carry with them from the family of origin results, paradoxically, in the family exercising considerable control over their identities. That is, emotional reactivity and the need to rebel from the family are the forces that control the identity choices made by these cut-off youth.

In sum, within the intergenerational framework outlined by Bowen (1978), boundary processes interact with the emotional climate of the family which creates an environment that impacts on how the individuation process proceeds and thus, on how identity tasks are addressed and handled. Persons on the high end of the differentiation continuum perceive their lives to be under their own control rather than feeling they are at the mercy of uncontrolled emotional forces. Within poorly differentiated families, however, boundary issues and the family's emotional climate are managed in ways that discourage individuality and autonomy. Sense of self is diffused - lost. Feelings dominate over clear reasoning. They are unable to successfully disengage from the emotional oneness with another person once established, or unwilling to lose whatever sense of self they possess in order to successfully merge with another person.

The Individuation Process for Children of Alcoholics

There are a number of ways in which the emotional forces generated by life within an alcoholic family system may impact on the individuation process and subsequent adjustment of youth. This is to suggest that the manner in which children of alcoholic families fuse and separate, and struggle with the qualities of individuality and connectedness which comprise the individuation process, has consequences for the trajectory of their adult development.

For example, the presence of unregulated parent-child boundaries in alcoholic families (Crespi, 1990), and the difficulty children of alcoholic families have in finding proper emotional distance in families affected by alcoholism makes individuation all the more problematic. This is to suggest that in the context of a dysfunctional alcoholic family, individuation may be viewed negatively by parents who may rely and use children as crutches and tools to support their addictive, alcohol-dependent behaviors. Therefore individuation is actually discouraged in alcoholic families. The result is an impetus for unhealthy role-taking (Crespi, 1990; Black, 1981; Scott, 1970).

Put another way, one outcome of the individuation process in alcoholic family systems is for children to fuse with the alcoholic parent thereby delaying their own developmental agenda. Such children are delegated as caretakers for the family system and serve the ongoing needs of their parents. Their "overfunctioning" stabilizes the family system, but at a cost to their own development.

This parentified role limits the choices and options the children of alcoholics can assume as they become adults. From an intergenerational perspective, unresolved issues within the family of origin interfere with the ability of children to function effectively in adult roles and in adult relationships. Individuals with unresolved issues stemming from the family of origin, carry anxiety about themselves into relationships, and this lack of individuation has a disfunctional impact on the patterns of relationships with friends, lovers, and children.

For example, Scott (1970) identifies an assortment of roles assumed by both alcoholic parents and family members. Each of Scott's identified roles reflects unresolved themes which can hamper adult-well-being. Those he categorizes as "Babes in the Woods," for instance, retain many childlike and immature emotional reactions throughout adulthood. Likewise, Scott's "Bedroom Adult" who finds adulthood through sexuality, actually is hampered from psychological fulfillment because of unresolved familial issues. While the categories differ, Crespi (1990) has also described a devastating categorization of roles, using the conceptualization of children as tools for parental needs. "Tool Children" also reflect hampered developmental difficulties resulting from alcoholic family pressures.

It is interesting in this regard to consider how the legacy of an alcoholic family can exert a subtle but pervasive influence over lifestyle and marital decisions. For example, certain parentified children from an alcoholic family may feel comfortable only when taking care of others. As they approach adulthood, they unconsciously may seek out relationships with others that enable them to assume an "overfunctioning" position. The fact that children of alcoholics marry alcohol- or other drug-dependent individuals may be understood as a legacy of the individuation-inhibiting patterns found in the family-of-origin.

Alternatively, the strategies employed for managing such unresolved issues derived from the family of origin can take the form of finding a parental figure (spouse) who provides the care, nurturance, and support that had been missing. These individuals, marked by a low level of self-differentiation, assume a childlike position in relationships. Naturally this requires a partner who is willing to function as a parent, and in this situation the relationship assumes an overfunctioning/underfunctioning complementarity as both participants do not possess adequate autonomy and development to construct a more balanced relationship.

Rather than fusing with the family and compromising individuality for the sake of connections to others, it is important to note that some children from alcoholic family systems cut off from the family in an attempt to purge themselves of the residual influences. Such children carry a legacy of anger and resentment into their adult years that makes reconciliation with the alcoholic parent, even if the parent attains sobriety, untenable.

Further, by holding alcohol responsible for problems within the family, some children of alcoholics reactively reject everything and anyone that has anything to do with alcohol. What is ironic here is the degree to which, in spite of the efforts to separate and reject the family, the legacy of the family is again asserting influence and control over the identity of these children and does so in ways that impact on social relationships with others. That is, while it is certainly adaptive on some level for children of alcoholic parents to "distance" themselves from alcohol, it is interesting to note the degree of control that alcohol can still exert. The choice of friends as well as lovers, career decisions, and the comfort with neighbors and communities can all be "controlled" in some ways by children's reactive distancing from the presence and influence of alcohol.

In short, dysfunctional alcoholic families have the potential to restrict the individuation process which effectively distorts adult development. It goes without saying, however, that not all children are adversely impacted by the alcoholic family system. Here, research into the characteristics of resilient youth may provide insight into how to help children better cope with adverse conditions. For example, Beardslee and Poderesfsky (1988), in a study of resilient adolescents with parents who have affective illnesses, noted that these adolescents were able to distinguish clearly between themselves and their parents' illness. In all cases, the authors noted, these youngsters knew something was wrong with their parents and had concluded that they were not the cause of it. They were able to separate from their parents and develop warm, close relationships with others.

Such results underscore the importance of learning strategies for enhancing separateness from alcoholic dysfunctional parental influences. This is to suggest, following Beardslee and Poderesfsky (1988), that it may be important for mental health professionals to help children of alcoholics to find a constructive way of accepting their parents' illness and to understand that they are not responsible either for the illness or for helping them resolve their personal problems. Only in this way will children be able to constructively individuate from the family, explore their own identity options, and maintain a more constructive relationship with the parents at the same time.


The investigations described here illustrate the interconnection between the developmental-familial implications of parental alcoholism and the individuation process. The implications of parental alcoholism are profound, and the detrimental impact on development and personality adjustment for adolescents is widespread.

Although the connection between individuation and alcoholic family functioning is largely unexplored, Crespi (1990), Scott (1970), Black (1981), Woititz (1983), and Seixas and Youcha (1985), have clearly demonstrated the enormous difficulties children, youth, and adults from alcoholic families experience in terms of their own individuality, connectedness in relationships, and struggle with self-other differentiation. In general, adolescents (and young adults) from alcoholic families demonstrate a variety of adjustment problems, many of which persist throughout life. Many youth from alcoholic families demonstrate difficulties with relationships, mirroring the unresolved fusion and separation experienced during earlier years.

In our view, the literature on children from alcoholic families strongly suggests that psychologists, family therapists, and researchers should take the individuation process into account when considering the developmental impact of alcoholism.

In sum, this review yields important implications for research, practice, and training in professional psychology, family therapy, counseling, and adolescent development. Although adolescents from alcoholic families appear not to successfully master individuation, remaining emotionally fused with their parents, researchers and mental health practitioners should be careful not to overgeneralize. This review suggests that it may be useful to emphasize further study of the linkage between individuation and well-being.


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Tony D. Crespi, Ed.D., Associate Professor and Director, School Psychology Program, The University of Hartford, West Hartford, Connecticut.

Ronald M. Sabatelli, Ph.D., Professor, Human Development and Family Relations, The University of Connecticut, Storrs.
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Author:Crespi, Tony D.; Sabatelli, Ronald M.
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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