Religious Families and Addiction
Written by Thomas Gagliano, MSW
In order to understand why religious families inadvertently and at times unintentionally create an environment where their children run to addictions rather than God as their coping mechanism, we must first begin by understanding the mindset of a child. When we look back on our childhood, we look back through adult lenses. Since then, we have grown by our maturity and life experiences, which may have distorted the truth of our childhood. Many of us carry messages that tell us we are bad children if we get mad at our parents or disagree with them. This message can have a profound impact on the way the person feels about himself or herself in adulthood. It is important to respect our parents but we can also have different opinions. A child needs to feel their opinion is important to their parents or the child may feel he or she isn’t important. Validating and acknowledging a child’s feelings is essential if they are to have self-worth. If children are afraid to share their true feelings and doubts in fear of reprisal then who can they trust? All of these messages set up the destructive entitlement that leads to addiction. It’s no coincidence that most addictions begin before the age of 18.
It’s important to understand that all children are egocentric at an early age. When my son was five, I was carrying him down the stairs and I stumbled. I banged my arm against the wall, broke my glasses, and hurt my shoulder while making sure he wasn’t hurt. At the bottom of the stairs, he looked at me and said, “It’s not nice to push little boys down the stairs.” This is the way children think at this age. They believe they are the center of the universe. Even when a parent dies at an early age, the child feels anger toward the deceased parent because they felt abandoned. If a parent works long hours in order to save for life’s expenses, the child may not view it this way. They may believe if they were better children, then the parent would want to spend more time with them. Their brain hasn’t developed enough to view this differently. Regardless of religion, skin color, or socioeconomic status, all children believe the world revolves around them. If the child believes something is more important to the parent than he or she is, then the child will develop animosity and defiance towards whatever it is. This includes religion. Contrarily, if a child feels he or she comes first, then religion does not become the enemy. They will welcome and accept religion as they grow older.
Today, there is a need to increase structure in the family system when raising our children. Unfortunately, too much control will create a child that loses their sense of self. In many religious families, parents use control as a mechanism to mold their children into who they want them to be. They forget that children need to feel understood for their beliefs and fears, as well as loved unconditionally, in order to want to be religious rather than feel they need to be religious as the way to receive their parent’s love. Parents’ control covers fear and fear covers inner pain. If they are very insecure on the inside, they tend to feel a greater need to control others on the outside. I see this quite often in religious families. When parents are afraid the child will not be religious, they tend to set many rules hoping their control will get the child to see things their way. The parents link this control to survival. In other words, parents believe if the child does not act and think the way they do, then something bad will happen to their child. As the child grows older they become more defiant against all types of rules. For example, many of my religious clients don’t wear seat belts when they drive, have multiple speeding tickets, and arrive late to sessions. They are basically telling the world that which they couldn’t say as a child, “Stop telling me what to do all the time, I’m tired of rules and regulations.”
They feel angry because they felt controlled and weren’t appreciated for who they are at their core, thus making them feel unworthy as children. This message is carried into adulthood and acted out with addiction. They need something to fill that void and feel independent and free. This freedom is shown with defiance towards any higher authority. These struggles create a need to medicate their inner pain with addictions, particularly with pornography. When children grow up in a religion that separates the sexes and restricts what nature deems natural, then sex becomes even more taboo and intriguing. The separation of sexes in itself doesn’t create addictive behavior. Addiction is created when the child feels defective or unimportant and needs something to fill that void. Easy access to the Internet has created a vehicle in which people can view almost anything with the touch of a button. It then becomes an easy escape, a quick ‘feel good’ for many adults, particularly men. They begin to feel, in a distorted way, that they are in control of their pleasure without any strings attached. The delusion that the individual can control sexual intimacy is what pornography offers. This could be a gateway to more serious addictions like strip clubs and prostitution. If a person cannot regulate and talk about their discomfort, they will learn to act out their discomfort. The neurons that connect discomfort to addiction will begin to fuse together as their coping mechanism.
Another hindrance on healthy parenting includes the need for many religious families to have many children, as they themselves came from large families. Even the most diligent parents will find it impossible to supply their children with the time needed to properly nurture each child. Again, at a young age the child won’t have the capacity to understand this; rather they will again feel dismissed and not important.
Healthy families are CURIOUS and HONEST with each other. They ask questions like “what was the best part of your day, what did you struggle with?” Healthy families don’t try to control their children’s behaviors; rather they supply their children with the tools to control their own behavior. For example, eventually a child will be on their own, so we want our children to avoid destructive behaviors because they want to, not just to please their parents. If the motive is to solely please their parents, then over time the person may fall victim to these behaviors. Wanting to do something is more powerful than needing to do something. For example, there are many people that need to stop watching pornography, but only those that want to stop will find recovery. Furthermore, healthy families create a safe environment for healthy communication, where each individual feels like their feelings are acknowledged and validated. They don’t have to agree with each other, but they still need to acknowledge each other’s feelings. They also share the belief that conflicts can be resolved. No one shuts down, runs away, or rages when there is disagreement. If the parents model this type of environment, while giving the child the message that they come first, then the child is more likely to walk towards religion on their own, as opposed to believing that you have to be religious first in order to be loved and accepted.
Thomas Gagliano, MSW, is the best-selling author of The Problem Was Me: How to End Negative Self-talk and Take your Life to a New Level, with Dr. Abraham Twerski and Don’t Put Your Crap In Your Kid’s Diaper: The Clean Up Cost Can Last a Life Time.