The Power of Labels (Part 1)

Children & Recovery

I am an advocate of "un-labeling." I don't think that's actually a word, but it should be. Too much time is spent grouping people into categories. I am guilty of it as well.
With that being said, I want to acknowledge that labels do have a purpose. They make things easier. They give us a context, a frame of reference. Labels can be a pathway to needed help and services. But there are times when too much emphasis is placed on what a person's label is, and it becomes a distraction. We see the label first, and the person second.
Labeling contributes to stigma. People naturally label human differences, but these differences are often linked to undesirable or negative traits. A separation occurs; a framework of "us" versus "them" is established. Language provides an avenue for this separation when people are thought to “be” the thing that they are labeled. This practice is especially evident in those struggling with the disease of addiction. People simply are "addicts." In the case of most other illnesses, this does not occur. A person “has” cancer or some other disease. They don’t “become” the actual illness [i].
As you may know, my professional life has been spent working with children whose parents struggle with addiction. The label for these kids is Children of Alcoholics/Addicts, or "COA." While it is a useful term in some contexts, I try not to use the acronym. There is something about it that can place the focus on the negative instead of on the resiliency and potential of the child and family. Using it (for me) can also serve to diminish the individuality and uniqueness of each child who I come into contact with.
This may simply be a personal thing for me. I am an adult child of an alcoholic (or "ACOA"). If I review the characteristics of an ACOA, I definitely qualify. Yet there are times when I cringe to hear it, because I am so much more than that. Being an ACOA is not the whole of who I am, just like being an "alcoholic" is not the totality of who my mother is. While I have no problem attending a group for ACOA's and identifying as such within that context, there are times when I struggle with the term. I sometimes dislike hearing others use it, so I try to bring this awareness of labeling into my everyday life.
How do I address this internal struggle? I avoid using the labels "alcoholic" or "addict" and instead try to state the person first, followed by the disease they have. I remind myself how it felt to me as a child when I would hear someone (usually an adult) use these terms, a scowl on their face. I remember the sinking feeling of shame I had as I thought about the fact that this was my mother they were speaking of.
It would definitely be easier, but labels feel too impersonal. When I use them, I’ve noticed that I tend to feel less empathy for the people I work with. I also find that I become less compassionate toward myself. As a person who grew up in a family that struggled with addiction, it was the subtle messages that caused the most damage. Language is powerful. The way that labels are used (and misused) can make an incredible impact.

[i] Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 363-385. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.363

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.

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