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COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEThe Effects of addiction/alcoholism, acculturation, physical, emotional and sexual violence on the education of aboriginal children
AUTHOR 1Tjanara Goreng-Goreng
TITLE_PARENTThe Family: Our Hopes and Challenges
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies Australia
ABSTRACTThe social problems facing many Australian aboriginal children; the need to involve indigenous peoples themselves in responding to these problems.
NOTES This document is no longer available at its original host; mirrored from

Author affiliation: Director, Aboriginal Education Unit Charles Sturt University

TAGSAboriginal people; Abuse; Alcohol; Australia; Drugs; Family; Health and healing; Indigenous people; Psychology; Sexual violence; Trauma


Aboriginal children are affected from birth by the process of addiction, acculturation (adapting to a majority culture in your own land in order to survive) physical, emotional and sexual violence. Children who grow up in alcoholic/addicted or dysfunctional families are subjected to either physical, emotional or sexual violence, shame, abandonment and abuse. This affects their behaviour, their physical and mental abilities and their emotional growth and as a result their educational ability and intellectual development. Chemical dependency, addiction and abuse are not isolated to the immediate family. The partner of the user or drinker will be involved in the addiction process to enable the drinking to continue. They will be emotionally bound up with what the alcoholic is doing. The children will become involved in the rules of the alcoholic family and adapt to roles in order to survive. Also, children who grow up in a culture adapting to survive and who have been removed from their families, their culture and their language confront many of the same issues found in children who grow up in alcoholic or dysfunctional families even when drinking is not present.

1. The Addiction Process & Family Dependency

Alcoholics/addicts are those people who are unable with any predicability to control their drinking and/or whose drinking/using causes problems in major areas of their lives.

Alcoholism/addiction and co-dependency are diagnosable and treatable diseases. They have a set of characteristics, behaviours and pathologies which are recognisable. The disease of addiction is four fold - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ie. the disease affects the person in all these areas. Chemical dependency/addiction is a generational and progressive disease. It will affect generations of families without intervention. It is progressive because once the alcoholic/addict has abstained from their drug of choice for any length of time and then returned to using or drinking, the downward spiral will be worse than when they stopped before.

Co-dependency is a newly recognised, treatable and diagnostic entity. Initially it is a normal response to an abnormal situation. However it often leads the individual to become dysfunctional. It is chronic, progressive and characterised by denial, ill health or maladaptive behaviour and by the lack of knowledge about addiction. Eleanor Williams defines co-dependency as an ‘unconscious addiction to another person's dysfunctional behaviour'. More simply put it is ‘accepting the unacceptable'. For example - a woman's violent alcoholic partner beats her and sexually abuses her. She offers excuses for his behaviour and never questions his drinking or its connection to abuse. This is co-dependent behaviour. Other examples are when the partners of the person who is chemically dependent or a gambling addict enable the addiction to continue by not questioning the addictive behaviour or the fact that his/her gambling causes major problems in all their lives. Janet Wotitz describes co-dependency as ‘a tendency to put other people's needs before my own'.

For children the combination of addiction and co-dependency results in neither parent being responsive and available on a consistent and predictable basis. Children are not only affected by the addict but also by the co-dependent parent and the abnormal family dynamics created as a consequence. In families where addiction is present emotional and psychological patterns develop in the children which cause problems for them in all areas of their lives and into adulthood without intervention.

2. The Family System

Parenting forms the child's core belief about themselves. Nothing is more important to the child than his family. When a child is born it is triangled into the system. The child becomes the focus of the relationship. The child is locked in and cannot leave the system. Our lives are shaped from the beginning by our parents. Our self image comes from our primary caregiver's eyes. How I see and feel about myself is what I see in my caregiver's eyes. If my parents are dysfunctional or dependent and as a result shame based they will feel inadequate and needy. In this state they cannot be there for me - they will need me to be there for them.

2.1. Rules and Roles of Dysfunctional Families

In addicted families there are rules. The rules are a response to having an actively dependent person in the family. The rules and the roles are an attempt to bring order to the chaos and instability.

Wayne Kritsberg in The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome goes on to describe four rules:

i. Rule of Rigidity

  • as alcoholism progresses the behaviour of the alcoholic becomes more unpredictable, the family continually adjusts to this behaviour
  • in order to bring stability to the family, more and more rigid rules are imposed on the non-alcoholic members of the family
  • as the family adapts to the alcoholic's unpredictable behaviour it becomes more and more rigid

This is most evident on the children in the family. In order to grow children need space to experiment with life. They need a safe place where they can change and grow. The alcoholic family does not provide the space to experiment with life.

ii. Rule of Silence

  • family members cannot talk about what is happening in the family, they cannot talk to anyone outside the family and they cannot talk to anyone inside the family
  • this no talk rule is so strong that children who grow up in this family system have difficulty expressing themselves for the rest of their lives.
  • They will then teach it to their children.

The only way children can get free of the rule of silence is to talk about what happened to them and express their repressed feelings.

iii. Rule of Denial

  • the family denies there is a problem with alcohol
  • denial is the cornerstone, if they can continue to deny what is happening, then they will not have to change
  • the children in this system are surrounded by denial, what they see, what they hear and what they feel in their hearts they are told is not true.

In the alcoholic family the denial of feelings is so prevalent that children never learn to honestly express emotions.

iv. Rule of Isolation

  • the alcoholic family is a closed system - it tries to be self sufficient
  • the members cling emotionally to each other but never become intimate or functional in their communication
  • they cannot afford to have people outside the family know what is happening
  • the alcoholic family myth of "we will be there for you when you need us" is just not true - it is incapable of supporting its members emotionally or spiritually when the children grow up, they continue to isolate from other people, their feelings of loneliness run very deep.

Children are bound by the rules of the alcoholic family. They use these rules as a way to live their lives. They really have little choice in the matter. This is how they learned to live and survive as children. To become healthy and to live full and happy lives adult children need to learn to live full and happy lives. They must begin to break the rules of the alcoholic family. This is not an easy or a quick process but it can be done.

Family Roles

In the alcoholic family the individual members adapt by taking on various roles. The roles reduce spontaneous behaviour. The alcoholic family is a chaotic system and the roles provide some stability. Each role serves a purpose to maintain the status quo.

The common Roles:

  • the Hero: tries to make the family look good by achieving success in school or work
  • the Scapegoat: diverts attention from the family by getting into trouble
  • the Lost Child: hides out, tries not to make waves, draws attention by non-pressure
  • the Clown: lessens tension in the family by being funny and cute
  • the Placater: tries to reduce conflict in the family by smoothing things over
  • the Enabler: prevents the alcoholic from experiencing the consequences of his or her alcoholic behaviour.

3. The Wounded Child

3.1. The Effects of Shame and Abandonment

The alcoholic family produces a sense of shame in its members. Shame is a kind of soul murder. When shame is internalised it is characterised by a kind of psychic numbness. Forged in the matrix of our source relationships with our mother, father and family, shame conditions every other relationship in our lives.

Shame is a total non-self acceptance. It is a pervasive sense of inadequacy and hopelessness about yourself. It is not that you have done something bad but that you are bad.

The family lays down with its rules, the inability to talk about feelings and abuse. Shame is the foundation of the dysfunctional family. Unless it is treated it will pass from one generation to the next.

Abandonment & the Spiritual Wound

Every person raised in an alcoholic family experiences abandonment. The family cannot nurture the child. Neither parent will be able to supply the child with consistent love and support. The two main types are physical and emotional abandonment. Every child needs to know two things:

  • that his parents are healthy and able to take care of him and
  • that he matters to his parents, is needed and wanted

No parent in a dysfunctional family can give their child what he needs because they are too needy themselves.

Physical Abandonment

Physical abandonment is when a child is left alone by its parents and its basic physical needs are not met. Repeated physical abandonment leaves the child with a core of fear and loneliness that extends into adulthood. The message that is reinforced with each abandonment is that "you are in the way and not wanted."

Emotional Abandonment

This occurs when the parent is there physically but not there emotionally. The parent's focus is on the drinking or the person who is drinking therefore it is not on the child. Although the physical needs are met there is no nurturing, hugging or emotional intimacy developed. As a result children have a deep sense of worthlessness.

With its accompanying loneliness and psychic numbness it fuels our compulsive/addictive lifestyle. Shame and abandonment is like a hole in the cup of our soul. Children become adults who go out and seek to fill that hole up, usually with some chemical or other addictive/compulsive behaviour (J. Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You).

3.2. The Effects of Physical, Emotional & Sexual Violence on Children

John Bradshaw describes sexual violation as "inflicting a spiritual wound more intense than any other kind of violation." Emotional and physical abuse also inflicts a spiritual wound. Screaming and yelling at children violates their sense of value. Emotional abuse also comes in the form of rigidity, perfectionism and control.

If abuse, violence or addiction is in operation in a child's family or extended family he will come to school with the effects of that. Children learn to adapt very early to the rules and survival techniques required to grow up in an alcoholic or abusive family. By the age of five children who grow up with alcoholism or abuse have developed their survival techniques. By the age of eight without intervention or treatment they will have developed their defences to such a degree that recovery or intervention treatment without the understanding of dysfunctional behaviour is virtually impossible. They will carry the wounded child with them into adulthood without treatment.

4. Acculturation

As Aboriginal people we suffer from a unique set of circumstances. In our communities we have two issues to face: the first is the chemical dependency and the effect on the family, the second is the process of acculturation.

Acculturation is: adapting to the majority culture in order to survive. The effects of the stigma and depression caused by forced acculturation are the same as the effects of stigma caused by growing up in a chemically dependent family. Let me explain what all this means.

Often children from the majority culture who have felt powerless in their alcoholic environment find some sense of power, achievement and success in the broader world of school and community. But what does the Aboriginal child do when he or she attempts to achieve in a white school and finds instead an unfriendly climate of racial discrimination? What does the child experience inside themselves when they find that all the teachers are white, and so are all the powerful people in the broader community. Aboriginal children tend to sit at the back of the classroom and often receive little attention from the teacher. When I was a child this was certainly so. We were considered ‘lazy' and ‘stupid'.

To survive this system you have to compete, gain the teacher's attention and learn to be more assertive and extroverted or you get left. My cultural values are based on co-operation rather than competition and we were taught the power of silence rather than words. We came into a culture and a classroom culture with conflicting values. We adapted to survive. In most of the children and families I have worked with or seen there is a pervasive sense of low self esteem and powerlessness, depression, cultural disorientation, alienation from the power and strength of cultural values and confusion about and distaste for the values of the new culture. The major resource of Aboriginal families is the community. To our children the family is more than a mother and father, it is a network of kinship and relationships that extend far beyond the nuclear family unit.

The major effect of policy of various governments since invasion has been to break down that extended family system, the clan structures and the community system of support. When the children were taken away through the policy of massive separation from families and culture a number of things happened. Those children grew up to be adults who felt alienated from the majority culture in which they lived as well as alienated from the culture from which they came.

In the many cases of children who were not taken away but who were put in mission dormitories or sent to boarding schools these same things occurred. The children had to give up the values they learned at home and replace them with values of the majority culture. Adults with whom I have worked suffered cultural confusion and abandonment, not only through separation from their parents but through separation from their culture and their kinship systems and their extended family networks were destroyed. Many felt they wanted to go back to find their cultural roots and their families and to stay back in their culture, yet they felt alienated from their own value system. They felt confused and depressed. This confusion was increased when these young adults, not parented by their own parents and often subjected to abuse and violence, parented their own children.

Things that I was taught as an Aboriginal woman were devalued by the school system. We did not talk the right way, we did not eat the right food, we did not dress the right way. It was not right to be. I learned that I was stupid and lazy. This shamed me, and other Aboriginal children who were subjected to it also became shamed. Thus a shame based system is created within the culture and within the wider system in which we have to live. So we adapt to survive, we develop defence mechanisms and survival tactics.

Another element which serves to break down our families and community structures is the loss of power in self determination and the feeling of powerlessness that it produces in individuals and in the culture. The majority culture took control of our lives when they invaded. Aboriginal people fought back but they were often powerless under the onslaught of the industrialised western culture. Aboriginal culture teaches us respect for our elders, to look downwards in respect, to only speak if we had something to say to our elders. So when white people came in to communities they usually didn't listen. They ask questions and before we could formulate our feelings and thoughts, they would answer for us and then say we were not motivated. We became intimidated. The dominant culture being white, dominates everything, the school system, business and politics. We get elected as tokens, we try to communicate and we get talked down - our opinions and our culture were not and still are not on a large scale respected. In many meetings I attend as part of my work I am often still spoken to in this way and sometimes, to my disappointment, by my own people.

A culture that has learned to feel powerless experiences depression and anxiety. Prolonged feelings of helplessness lead to a feeling of a helpless stance in life. Communities stop looking for solutions and feel that they are unable to work through past problems.

Jane Middleton-Moz describes another element which contributes to family and community disintegration. "When a culture is stigmatised, it is categorised and separated, making the people in it more stereotypical than individual." This is true for Aboriginal people. We often hear about our statistics - they state that our culture has a greater incidence of prisoners, alcoholism, drug use, health problems and death at an early age than other cultures in Australia.

Although these statistics are useful in obtaining higher levels of funding, and serve to remind others of the need to develop programs which will address these issues they have also resulted in us devaluing ourselves.

As a direct result, the trauma of acculturation and stressors such as racial discrimination, economic powerlessness, dominant culture control of education, religion and health play a large role in the drinking patterns of Aboriginal people.

It is impossible for a young person who is the member of a group which is powerless in the community to grow up without some trauma to himself because of the compromises that group has to make in the dominant culture. Aboriginal children learn, by this constant confrontation with white models, to devalue themselves and their own culture.

One of our primary beliefs is the importance of community survival. For children and young people, peer pressure plays an important role in their beginning and continuing to drink. Chemical dependency has eased some of our pain and has provided some measure of community cohesion. In our families and individuals there is unresolved grief - grief from loss of culture, grief from loss of connection with the kinship system, grief from the children being removed to both parents and children and loss of self esteem because of the lack of the family and the effects of alcoholism.

In the same way that family members in an alcoholic or dysfunctional family stay isolated from each other until a crisis caused by the addiction brings them together, many families feel a sense of kinship and community when they are drinking together. This maintains the co-dependency of supporting each other's alcoholic or addictive/dysfunctional behaviour. The issues that Aboriginal people face as both Children of alcoholic/addicted or abusive families and children of acculturation is doubly traumatising. The behaviour characteristics of Adult Children and Children of Acculturation are the same. The shame they feel is the same and the shame based behaviour permeates throughout their childhood, adulthood and later parenting their own children.

5. The Good News!

Firstly, recovery is possible. Addiction is a disease which can never be cured but it can be arrested ‘one day at a time' if the person abstains totally from the mood altering substance. There is no such thing as controlled or safe drinking. If you are an alcoholic or addict you cannot control the drinking - it will eventually make your life unmanageable. If you are a social drinker it will not be a problem for you or your family.

Recovery is also a spiritual process and involves reclaiming the spiritual in our culture and putting it into our daily lives. It also involves working through issues on a regular basis through either a treatment program, a self responsible spiritually based recovery program and/or therapy/counselling on an individual and group basis.

For children by the time they are five and certainly by their eighth birthday the defence mechanisms and survival techniques are clearly evident in their behaviour. Children adapt to survive early. By the age of eight it is very difficult to get a child out of the pattern of behaviours they have established for their survival. However they can be treated with intervention and a willingness of their part enables this process to be successful. Therapy involving active listening and non-shaming techniques such as those developed by John Bradshaw are powerful in enabling people to work through these issues quickly. For children we have to develop programs which allow them to work through the healing process outside the home environment.


It is important that indigenous peoples influence their own fate and their own destiny and that any programs are developed and implemented by indigenous people. As in the majority culture chemical dependency, process addiction and co-dependency is increasing at an alarming rate. Physical, emotional and sexual violence is widespread in families affected by addiction on both missions, communities and urban/rural towns. Recent studies show that of the reported cases of domestic violence, community violence, suicide, imprisonment and sexual abuse almost 90% within Aboriginal populations are alcohol related.

Chemical dependency (alcohol & other drugs) is a family illness not an individual disease. In our communities it is a community disease as well. It is a progressive illness which affects the individual and the family on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level. It affects generations and 80% of children who grow up with addiction or acculturation issues in their family will become chemical dependent themselves or have relationships with people who are.

Programs designed by professionals in the majority culture have little impact in the long term in our culture because they are designed to treat the individual rather than focusing on the interrelationship between the person, the family and the kinship network. Outside interventions based on the majority culture values are not understood by Aboriginal people.

It is important to re-involve the elders in the education of children, to help them understand their value and contribution to their family and their community. It is important to recognise the need for family treatment and family counselling with network strengthening in communities. Families in urban/ rural towns need to have family counselling and peer group counselling/treatment. What this does is strengthen the support/peer/kinship group to understand the process of the disease of addiction and as a group they support each other in not accepting unacceptable behaviour from the addicted person. It also needs to be recognised that when working with families with these things are an issue, it is not enough to just treat the chemical dependency and its effects but the underlying shame and grief also must be treated.

The major skill of a family therapist is to aid the family in reconnecting with each other, re-establishing that network of self support and re-establishing connections to the major resource of the family and the community. This can be accomplished only after the grieving process. The therapist also needs to assist the families to build a bridge to the majority culture based on their own Aboriginal values rather than the values of the majority culture. Families and communities need to be assisted to see that positive solutions exist within their own communities. Programs need to take into account the power and the strength of Aboriginal culture and the uniqueness of cultural values in evaluation and treatment.

The most powerful source of healing is the community/kinship network and the strength of the spiritual wisdom. When programs are designed which utilise this plus the understanding and knowledge of community and family co-dependency our people will survive the effects of alcoholism, addiction and abuse.

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