Stories by tian dayton PhD on Medium

Stories by tian dayton PhD on Medium

It’s COA Awareness Week: So Let’s Look Into What Happens to Children of Addiction When They Grow Up…

Posted: February 23, 2017, 3:55 pm

It’s COA Awareness Week: So Let’s Look Into What Happens to Children of Addiction When They Grow Up?

Tian Dayton Psychologist, author, specialist in addictions and relational trauma, psychodramatist

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Much attention and most governmental funding streams have been and continue to be focused on the addict. The addict has the problem; the addict needs to get better. The country is still however, only beginning to catch on to the devastating and long-term impact that growing up with addiction has on children, and what that experience does to the most vulnerable and dependent among us.

Children of addiction (COAs), grow up carrying deep personal wounds and relational distortions that continue to impact their lives long after they leave home. They become grown-ups who look big on the outside but carry hurt little people inside of them. They become what is known in the vernacular as adult children of addiction or ACoAs. Remember the “inner child” work that was so popular in the eighties and even the nineties? It caught on like a grassfire because it called to these “inner children” and validated a sense of loss that they carried in silence and even secrecy.

One of the more mind-bending aspects of growing up with addiction, whether it is to alcohol, drugs or even some of the process addictions such as sex, work or eating is that reality becomes distorted. There is so much secrecy about the denied, shameful activities on the parent level, that kids start to question their own sense of reality. They don’t dare ask questions like, “is Dad drunk, is Mom’s constant eating normal, do all parents work so much that their children never see them, what is going on with Dad and these younger women” etc. Questions like this often lead to more denial that makes the child feel even more confused and crazy and they start to doubt their ability to comprehend “normal”. Kids see and sense one thing, but are told it is their imagination. Or they get into hot water for asking, they get told that they have “sharp tongues” or that they are “always looking for trouble”. Or worse, the damn breaks and there is, yet again, another fight. The focus goes off of the problem and onto the person who is trying to bring it up; namely, the questioning and perplexed child. The real issue gets denied and buried and in it’s place come a swarm of recriminations and obfuscations.

I interviewed Polly McCall, LCSW, an addiction specialist and individual and family therapist in New York City, who has been working with ACoA issues for over 30 years to get her clinical insights on the subject. Polly not only outlines the issues involved with ACoA recovery, she also gives some very useful advice on how to deal with them.

Tian: Why do COAs “guess at what normal is”?

Polly: “Kids sense that what is going on in their family is not good. But then they think that maybe it isn’t that bad or other adults would step in or their parents would do something about it. And they are very careful about getting angry as it is unclear what will happen — will things get worse? They can’t easily ask the kind of questions that would relieve their minds and give them information because they fear what might happen if they do. If you carry around a feeling of being abandoned by the parents you love and need and you’re rejection sensitive then you can’t ask those questions because you have to stay attached all costs. Even if it’s not a healthy attachment, it’s the only one you’ve got. So they stuff their feelings and the distortions continue because they don’t feel comfortable checking out what they are feeling and sensing with their parents.”

Tian: How does this anxiety manifest in their daily lives?

Polly: Kids begin to try to cure/change their parents by being super good kids — they become parentified. They take on family emotions and jobs they are too young to do, they try to fill in where their parents aren’t functioning well or they become little parents of siblings or even parents of their parents. So as adults they tend to try to over-please others. Both COA’s and ACOA’s may feel anger toward parents but often turn it toward themselves…they worry that they are inadequate or not good enough.

Tian: So what happens when these kids grow up and leave home?

Polly: Homes that feel unsafe make it difficult for kids to feel safe leaving. Often they stay over-attached and miss opportunities in the real world whether those opportunities are in the work world or the world of intimate relationships.

Also the distortions that are needed for alcoholic families to keep thinking things are ok, to maintain the “status quo”, make it very difficult when ACoAs move into the adult world and start to make decisions. ACOA’s struggle with whether or not they are seeing things right, they worry, “will I make the right decision”? They are not sure what normal really looks and feels like. And because of the “no talk” rule they worry that asking others even normal questions might be too aggressive, so they stay silent. They fear they’ll get in trouble the way they did as kids. If they ask for what they want or need, they question whether or not they are seeing things correctly or being too demanding.

Tian: How does this play out in their present?

Polly: Because ACOA’s kept trying to make their family well they need to be very careful when a situation in their current life brings up memories of the past so they don’t reenact them in their present. This is where “repetition compulsion” comes in. Are you playing out an emotional situation in your current adult life that mirrors how you were with your parents? This is an attempt to re-do — make right the original source of your pain, to try to correct it, “if only this person would do what I want, maybe this time”!

ACOA’s can have low tolerance in their adult lives for people who do not agree with them. They get angry, feel rejected and become more controlling. They believe control will help them, they’re angry they could not control their sad, chaotic, childhoods and their parents, which can be a real stumbling block.

Tian: A stumbling block when trying to have mature, comfortable relationships? Is this some of what gets triggered for ACoA’s in intimacy? And if so, how do you get over it since one of the characteristics of trauma is that the past is experienced as if it is happening right now!

Polly: Your parents disagreeing or not listening to you needs to be left in the past. ACoAs need to develop the capacity without getting anxious or fearful of listening to other’s ideas and agree to disagree when necessary. Learn to be flexible. Learn to accept that you might be wrong as we all are sometimes.

Tian: One of the characteristics of PTSD is that we remain glued psychologically and emotionally to problems from the past that feel unsolvable. Our mind keeps looking for a solution and feeling pain from the past as if it is still happening in the present. Consequently ACOA’s tend to be anxious and often have repetitive ruminations, we analyze, scrutinize and go over and over and over again, those relational dynamics that felt so confusing and painful. Our sense of hurt, helplessness and resentment gets intertwined and we get lost in our own circular thinking. We also project this unresolved and unconscious pain from the past into our relationships in the present, both intimate and non intimate, whether in work, politics or our own families. And we project it with an emotional stamp all over it that says “UNSOLVABLE” so we just keep engaging in and recreating emotional tangles that feel unsolvable. And some families carry their damage for a life time and have a hard time connecting with each other in comfortable ways as adult siblings and parents. Many ACoA’s manage to solve those problems within themselves and create happy lives, others do not, for those who stay stuck, why does this pain have such long lasting traction?

Polly: The brain stores memories particularly the painful or traumatic ones and they pass into the unconscious. But the brain does not know time or place, so as an adult a memory can be easily reactivated by experiences in life that are reminiscent of the original hurt.

The feelings I see most often in ACOA’s are:

· A sense of sadness and loss.

· Hunger for love and protection.

· They don’t trust what others say when they express affection. Because children love their mother or father, when the parents cannot return the love they need consistently because of addiction — the children have to somehow explain it to themselves. They often think they are at fault — they are unloveable.

· ACOA’s harbor a private shame around this sense being unlovable.

· As they move into the adult world they often feel helpless and alone. Alcoholic families did not talk, so ACoAs are reluctant to talk and ask questions and be pro-active. And they have a habit of managing pain on their own so they resist getting help from therapy and Alanon and suffer alone.

Tian: Can you summarize the advice you give to your clients as they move through these ACOA issues, Polly?


· ACOA’s have great trouble with basic trust. We hope kids will be raised in an atmosphere of trust but ACOA’s generally aren’t. You note that something is upsetting — your parent disagrees. You say Mommy is drunk — your parent disagrees (she is just sick, tired, stressed out). So kids develop the idea that sometimes you can trust and other times you can’t and also that your observations are confusing. Nobody can trust 100% but closing down in fear will mean a life of little intimacy.


· Learn to ask questions particularly in the workplace if you don’t understand something. ACOA’s often see questioning as aggressive. It is not. They are just questions. Kids learn by asking questions and you were most probably not given that opportunity. Ask questions of partners in a respectful way.

· Talking and resolving conflict is the hallmark of a good relationship. Practice, practice, practice.”


· Try to examine all sides of a decision. Try to talk it over with someone. ACOA’s need to learn that no human makes a right decision each time. Learn to deal with the anxious feelings that trail and error produce. Time and practice will free you from alcoholic family fears and distortions and will give you confidence in the process.


· Don’t act out: Try very hard not to get rid of the fear or anxiety with a compulsive action: overeating, overspending, sex, drinking. Instead work it through, learn to tolerate some emotional pain. It will pass; breathe, meditate, exercise or talk it through. You are not the helpless fearful child you once were.


· Check along the way whether you are becoming an alcoholic. Every ACOA I have ever had in therapy has said…”I would never drink like my mother or father…I hated their alcoholism and it caused great damage to my life” . ACOA’s believe this revulsion will keep them safe…WRONG. I said that too and went on to be a much worse alcoholic than my mother. Whatever decade you are in, if you are genetically loaded , you must keep your drinking under close supervision and maintain total honesty around it. Chart your drinking year to year. Have 2 glasses of wine become 4? We don’t know when the switch will flip and you may begin to crave alcohol. Accept that you are not a normal drinker because of genes. Watch very carefully that your alcoholism has not been activated.

· One of the best things an ACOA can do is drink very little (includes other drugs too). Limit your use. Don’t relay on alcohol to enjoy parties, or have good sex or to feel confident.


· It is essential and the ultimate freedom to realize that your parents are “hopeless”. By that I mean they may never be able to change to fully connect with you in a way that would fill the hole you feel. In dealing with this, first look at the rage that produces inside of you — feeling helpless and unable to get your parents to change. If you can accept that they can’t or won’t and LET GO, if you can stop saying in other words “if I were better or if I said it differently they could change” you will get some relief and emotional detachment. Accept the REALITY — they could not do it….they could not meet many of the needs of you as a child. Let it go. You were probably a wonderful kid and your parents were too distracted by addiction or their own problems to be really connected and empathic to your needs. Figure out how to understand that hole in your heart and fill it with love of self and commitment to want to trust and love another.

· Alanon is a great help in letting go and detaching with love, the people in those rooms have gleaned wisdom over three quarters of a century of learning and growing. Accepting the reality. Moving on. So is therapy — find a therapist who understands the alcoholic family and start talking about yourself and your feelings.


Breathe: learn to do a deep breathing technique when anxious — here is a really good one that WORKS

Inhale thru the nose for a count of 4

Exhale through the mouth for a count of 8

Repeat 4 times to start

Later you can do a few cycles of 4 times

Meditate and become mindful: Learn to meditate so if earlier trauma comes up you can at least calm your brain and body down. Then analyze what set off your fear.

Tian: Any last thoughts?

Polly: Being an ACOA is a lifetime journey, by understanding what happened to you in your family of origin and that you are out of that place and able to see reality and to cope, you can get free of a painful legacy. Bad feeling will pop up as the brain does not know time and place and trauma gets reactivated. But you can develop “decoding tools”. I call it “taking the hit” and then figuring out how to cope using your new tools. You develop the power to understand. The effect of these “hits” will diminish over time, and you are prepared to deal with them when they do arise.

Share these reactivated moments of fear or rejection with a friend or partner. Do not let them twirl around inside or suffer in silence. Let them go.

And there is great hope! Know yourself, know your talents, what you like to do. Know what being in your family produced for you emotionally and MOVE ON. Deal with reality. Don’t deny feelings or push them inside. YOU can still have a really nice, open loving life even if your parents were not or are not able to have one, or to fully appreciate you, or to move into sobriety. GRAB LIFE!

To learn more visit NACoA at

“You provide the heart: NACOA provides the help”

Originally published at on February 9, 2017.

It’s COA Awareness Week: So Let’s Look Into What Happens to Children of Addiction When They Grow Up… was originally published in Thrive Global on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Children Learn What They Live -The Recovery Version

Posted: February 22, 2017, 8:25 pm

It’s COA Awareness Week (Children of Addiction)

If children live with parents who are high,

They learn that people are unpredictable and unreliable.

If children live with denial,

They learn to mistrust what they feel and sense.

If children live with shame,

They learn to hide who they really are.

If children live with rage,

They learn to be afraid or act out themselves.

If children live with emotional abuse,

They learn to feel bad about who they are.

If children live with trauma,

They learn to become anxious and despondent.

If children live with addiction,

They learn to become addicts.

If children live with recovery,

They learn that people can change for the better.

If children live with parents who face their issues,

They learn their own problems can be overcome.

If children live with amends,

They learn to forgive.

If children live with peace in the home,

They learn to feel safe inside.

If children live with dependability,

They learn to trust.

If children live with honesty,

They learn to tell the truth.

If children live with emotional maturity,

They’re allowed to be children.

(Inspired by Dorothy Law Nolte PhD)

Originally published at on February 13, 2017.

Children Learn What They Live -The Recovery Version was originally published in Thrive Global on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Healing Energy of the Women’s March

Posted: January 22, 2017, 6:34 pm

Why Taking Action Rather than Collapsing Helps to Heal the Trauma Response

Just after the election I write a blog “Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something” citing research on why action trumps (forgive the pun) passivity when it comes to feeling better after a disaster. In that article I quoted folks expressing the mood of the day…

“I feel as if my world just turned upside down”

“I feel disenfranchised”

“I am sick inside, feeling depressed, anxious and afraid”

“I feel like withdrawing into my house and not coming out”

By stark contrast, after yesterday’s Women’s March I have a very different set of quotes from those who participated:

“I haven’t felt this good in months” (Chicago)

“The feeling of power and hopefulness was amazing” (Washington DC)

“This is something we CAN DO, so we’re doing it and it feels good” (London)

“This is the first day since Trump was elected that I feel optimistic. What happened today around the world has been life-affirming…” (NYC)

“We’re letting our voices be heard” (Australia)

“This is very inspiring” (NYC)

So why does taking action, even if it does not have an assured result help?

To provide a scientific explanation of the action phenomenon, I refer again to this brilliant bit of observation by Bessel van der Kolk, expert on post traumatic stress from his trip with FEMA in 1989 to aid victims of Hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico:

“I arrived in the middle of this devastation, and what I saw were lots and lots of people working with each other, actively putting their lives back together-carrying lumber, rebuilding houses and shops, cleaning up, repairing things. But the FEMA officials immediately told everybody to cease and desist until assorted bureaucracies could formally assess the damage, establish reimbursement formulas, and organize financial aid and loans. Everything came to a halt. People were suddenly forced to sit still in the middle of their disaster and do nothing,” van der Kolk remembers. “Very quickly, an enormous amount of violence broke out-rioting, looting, assault. All this energy mobilized by the disaster, which had gone into a flurry of rebuilding and recovery activity, now was turned on everybody else. It was one of the first times I saw very vividly how important it is for people to overcome their sense of helplessness after a trauma by actively doing something. Preventing people from moving when something terrible happens, that’s one of the things that makes trauma a trauma.” (Dayton 2015/2017)

Doing something to change the energy, to reignite a sense of agency, self respect and hope, and doing it with others, adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It shifts a sense of powerlessness toward a sense of empowerment.

Again I excerpt van der Kolk’s research from my previous article:

“The brain is an action organ and as it matures, it’s increasingly characterized by the formation of patterns and schemas geared to promoting action. People are physically organized to respond to things that happen to them with actions that change the situation.” But when people are traumatized, and can’t do anything to stop, reverse or correct it, “they freeze, explode, or engage in irrelevant actions. Then, to tame their disorganized, chaotic physiological systems, they start drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in violence-like the looting and assault that took place after Hurricane Hugo. If they can’t reestablish their physical efficacy as a biological organism and recreate a sense of safety, they often develop PTSD. (Wylie, 2004, p. 5) (Dayton 2015/2017)

We are beings designed by nature for movement and action. Collapsing into a state helplessness is not healthy. The state of mind that grew from the marches yesterday, by engaging in as Jane Austin puts it, “the healing waters of action” is helping to restore a sense of agency and hope.

One of my favorite readings on “Hope” is by Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

“Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.

Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.

It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,
even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”

Jane Austin regretted that “the healing waters of action” were often denied, due to social structures, to the women of her day.

This is no longer true.

In the words of a New York marcher…

“I feel a ray of hope ….all through the organizing of women.”


Dayton, T. (2015). Neuropsychodrama in the Treatment of Relational Trauma. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Van der kolk B. (2004) The Limits of Talk, Wylie, New York.

The Healing Energy of the Women’s March was originally published in Indivisible Movement on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Where It’s Warm

Posted: January 3, 2017, 4:33 pm

How to Accomplish the Tasks of Your Day with Greater Ease and Creativity

My daughter says of the many (read: endless) pieces of advice I have given her, one that she really uses is to “go where it’s warm” i.e. choose the activity that you feel most like doing so that you will approach it with a kind of energy, acceptance and creativity rather than resistance. She uses this as an architect before tackling a pile of work and even in the way that she organizes the course of her day as a homemaker.

I am a psychologist with a specialty in psychodrama. I help people heal , grow, and explore their inner and outer worlds through the use of role play. One of the cardinal rules of role play is to do some sort of warming up process before entering into any “drama” that requires deep engagement. In much the same way as a dancer warms up their muscles before a performance, I help people warm up their emotional muscles so that their role play will go more smoothly and naturally. Or I teach them to become aware of when they are already warmed up, and to pay attention to what they are warmed up to do.

The theory is that people just do better, freer and more creative and spontaneous work or play for that matter if they are warmed up to the particular activity that they are doing.

So there are two issues here:

1. How do you become aware of where you are warmed up, what’s the feeling you’re looking for?

2. How do you get warmed up, if you’re not?

So for question #1 just become aware of that next activity that you have the most ease of entry towards, what’s nearest your hand, what to put it simply do you feel most like doing?

Answer #2 is more complex because how you warm up is very personal. For example, some people warm up to the morning with a cup of coffee and a check into the news, without it they don’t feel quite prepared for their day. Others meditate, some exercise, some have rituals that include a variety of things, such as stretches, tea, bathing and making up. Whatever your warm up is to the day, get to know it and value it as your way of entering your next activities.

Work undertakings have similar warm-ups. I am most warmed up to writing for example, when I wake up in the morning, as opposed to later in the day when I feel resistant to that same undertaking. My warm up to writing includes waking up and becoming aware of the day, looking out the window and feeling aware of being alive in a new day, I tune in on what is in my mind related to what I am about to write I then go into to the kitchen and prepare/steep a cup of tea. Next I go to my lap top and get cozy and comfortable, I take a couple of breaths, muse a little and start writing or culling through research that I have done the day before. If I am writing a book that first writing period may be half the day with different writing rhythms such a research and editing for the second half of the day. If I am writing an article or a blog, the period tends to be shorter. If I get distracted into other activities I can loose my richest writing period, when my ideas flow the most smoothly and easily. When my children were young I started writing at 5:00 am so that I was ready for a break when they needed to be gotten off to school. So part of my warm up came through years of necessity, if I wanted to do a lot of writing and have children it worked for me to go to bed early and get up early. These days I can play with that rhythm but I still find morning to be my prime writing time and my favorite way to warm up to my day. Writing has over the years become almost mixed together as my warm up to my day and my professional task.

As a psychodramatist we have a similar sort of ritual, we “check in” in the beginning of group so that people talk about what’s at the top of their mind and others can tune in on them. The check in is timed at three minutes tops, so it trains people to focus fast, to sift through what they most want everyone to know. The shortness of time makes them more choosey about what they want to share.

About now you are thinking, “yea but I don’t have choices as to what to do when etc, etc…” but having lived this philosophy for several decades now I suggest that you do. There are so many little choice points through out the day that in fact do allow you to put your work in order, in other words, even if you have “X” number of tasks to accomplish you can accomplish them in the order you choose. If you apply this thinking to your life this year or even this month there are a few things you might notice:

1. You will accomplish things more easily because you are not introducing the level of resistance that makes things tedious and unnecessarily hard.

2. You will bring more ease, creativity and spontaneity to your endeavors because you are “warmed up ‘ to doing them.

3. You will feel less frustrated throughout your day because you’re not jammed up in the kind of ruminating, resistance and ambivalence that being stuck where it’s cold generates.

So throw this concept into the back of your mind and play with it as this new year dawns, you may find, as my daughter has, that it will let you approach the activities of your life with more spontaneity, creativity and more of you!

Tips and Take Aways…..

Go where you feel like going, where your intuition takes you, where you feel already a little engaged…

1. Figure out your best warm up to a task OR

2. Start with the task you already feel most wormed up to…

Enjoy this process and above all MAKE IT YOUR OWN!

Go Where It’s Warm was originally published in Thrive Global on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Tian Dayton on Twitter

Posted: December 31, 2016, 11:47 pm

Tian Dayton ‏@tian_dayton 5h5 hours ago

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Good Night Year

Posted: December 31, 2016, 7:03 pm

Maybe the turn of the year gives us a lovely opportunity to de-clutter emotionally and psychologically, to look over the recent past and…

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Posted: December 21, 2016, 5:01 pm

There’s No Place like Home: How Unresolved Familial Trauma Can Emerge around the Holidays

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Post Election Advice from the Experts: Don’t Just Sit There Do Something!

Posted: November 27, 2016, 7:47 pm

In the wake of the election thousands, if not millions of Americans, are finding themselves feeling helpless and somewhat lost with the…

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