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Children breaking free from the chains of crime and addiction

I don’t want to become an addict or a criminal

As long as people have told stories to one another, there have always been tales of people who have managed to survive difficulties and succeed in life. Fairytales, biblical stories and traditional folktales all depict themes of struggle, transformation, persistence and success in the face of adversity.

So, what I would recommend is to imagine if we manage to apply these themes to children who have a parent or both parents involved in criminality or suffer from an addiction.

In every culture, the highest price children have to pay for their parents’ addictions and criminality is the endless labels and stigma they have to face. Stigma in relation to crime, especially imprisonment, elicits a variety of emotions ranging from shame to anger. In recent research looking at families of the incarcerated in the Maltese context, it emerged that stigma significantly affects children. A mother who was interviewed explained that her 3-year-old daughter experienced bullying and rejection as a consequence of having her father in prison. The mother, in order to protect her daughter, took an approach to choose what information she gave to her daughter in relation to her father. By doing so, the mother herself would eliminate stigmatizing information which she perceived as improper for her child to know (Azzopardi & Bishop, 2016). The embarrassment also forces the children to be tight-lipped about the parents that have the difficulty (Micallef, 2014). As stigma and shame persist, family members who have/had a person that suffers/suffered from addiction may experience exclusion from society, which may lead to feelings of sadness, anger and lowered self-esteem (Pace, 2016). Also our understanding of the world is also constituted by the language we use in order to express the discourse, narratives and cultural traditions (Witkin, 2011). The language affects the manner of our behaviour and actions in our relationships (Witkin, 2011).

Yes, it is true that children can break the criminality and addiction chain. In a study that I had conducted in 2017, which was aimed at exploring resilience and understanding the life experience of resilient Maltese children with a parent who led a life of crime as a result of addiction (alcohol, drugs and gambling), proved this point.

These were the themes that emerged about what helped these children, in order not to follow their parent/s footsteps.

ThemeWhat helped
Children negotiating their relationships in order to safeguard their own well-being– Shifting role model and therefore looking elsewhere
– The importance of extended family support
– The other parent’s support and involvement
– Siblings’ support and care
Attitude towards life and belief in coping
– Leading a busy lifestyle
– Routine leads to stability
– Optimistic about their future and their family
– Making long-term goals
Personal narratives and belief that underpin non-problematic transactions– Being a parentified child
– Accepting and adjusting to their situation
– Having a good sense of self-control
– Having a sense of what’s right and wrong
– The determination and rebellion to be different
– Working towards correcting their family scripts
– Negotiating distancing from criticism, stigma and judgement
Children negotiating their relationship with the parent with difficulties– Not knowing too many details
– Distinguishing the parent with difficulties from their problem difficulties
– Negotiating distance and closeness with parent with difficulties
The facilitation of decision-making– Choosing responsible relatives and peers
– Choosing peers that are mature, responsible and trustworthy
Parental relationship maintenance– Other parent encourages relationship with the parent who has difficulties
– Maintaining a relationship with parent with difficulties and hence being involved in their own parents’ lives
– The parent with difficulties discourages bad attitudes

Amazing, right?! So, let’s give a voice to these silent heroes who managed to break this cycle. Instead of being judgmental and stigmatising, let celebrate their success.


  1. Azzopardi, C., & Bishop, K. (2016). Locked out. Families of the incarcerated. ISBN: 978-99957-1-063-7.
  2. Micallef, L. (2014). Disregarded victims of crime: The effects of parental incarceration on children. A dissertation presented to the Department of Criminology, Faculty for Social Wellbeing in part fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelors in Criminology. University of Malta.
  3. Mifsud, M. (2017). Breaking free from the chains of crime: Transgenerational transmission of resilience. A dissertation presented to the Institute of family therapy in part fulfilment of the requirements for the Masters in systemic family psychotherapy.
  4. Pace, M. (2016). Experiencing drug related stigma in Malta. A dissertation presented to the Faculty of Social Wellbeing in part fulfilment of the requirements for the Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) Degree.
  5. Witkin, S. (2011). Social construction and social work practice: interpretations and innovations. 1st ed. ISBN 0231530307.

Maria Mifsud

About Maria Mifsud

Maria graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) in 2008, then went on to read for a Masters in Probation Services at the University of Malta. After years of being part of the Government workforce, she realised that to better understand her clients and be more equipped, she had to further her studies by enrolling in a Masters in Systemic and Family Psychotherapy with IFT-Malta. Some years later, she continued to pursue her studies in Clinical Supervision with IFT-Malta. Maria is also a qualified Victim Offender Mediator.

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