There are 18 million alcoholics in the U.S. according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. As a result, an estimated 26.8 million children are exposed, at varying degrees, to alcoholism in the family. These children are at higher risk for alcoholism and other drug abuse than are children of non-alcoholics, and are more likely to marry an alcoholic as well. Children of alcoholics or addicts are commonly referred to as “COA.”
How Are Children Impacted?
Many children have great strength, resilience and coping skills, which can help them adapt in order to function as normally as possible. Others do not adapt so readily and face a multitude of problems. Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, antisocial behavior, relationship difficulties, behavioral problems, and/or alcohol abuse. One recent study finds that children of drug-abusing fathers have the worst mental health issues.
Children of alcoholics may experience any of the following: chaos, uncertainty, instability, inconsistent discipline, emotional and physical neglect, arguments, instability of parents’ marriage, disorganization, violence and/or physical and sexual abuse, emptiness, loneliness, the terror of repeated abandonment, or the witnessing of violence or abuse to others. The family environment may be characterized by tension, fear, and shame--feelings that become connected with the child’s sense of self. It is often difficult to determine whether the problems a child is having are directly linked to parental alcoholism, separate, or a combination.
Since young children believe their thoughts and feelings are all-powerful, they imagine that they cause bad things and may assume their parents drink because of them. A parent may even encourage this belief with remarks like, “Who wouldn’t drink with a family like this!” So, leaving the bicycle in the driveway, getting bad grades, or thinking bad thoughts can lead, in the child’s mind, to a parent drinking. One of the most important messages children can hear is that the alcoholism is not their fault. It is not possible to create alcoholism in another person.
Impact on the Family
Alcoholism affects the drinking individual physically--in the way they behave, think and feel. It can affect family members in these ways, too. Alcohol may be the central guiding principle of family life, causing trauma and shaping each individual’s development, yet family members will work hard to cover this reality. Addiction has the power to destroy a family. No family wants to be destroyed, so they often try to deny the problem, fearing the family will fall apart if the problem is faced. But facing the problem at least brings hope of recovery. If the family doesn’t face it, it will only get worse. Without treatment, it keeps spreading through the family causing pain and confusion. Helping professionals, friends and family can get caught up in the web of explanations that are given to continue the denial.
Road to Recovery
The family in which one or both parents stops drinking can experience growth that eventually leads to healthy individuals and a healthy family. The recovery process is difficult and often out of control during the early months and years of the process of healing, and can be as disruptive and chaotic as the addiction itself. For example, the anxiety experienced by a child whose mother is newly sober is normal. One can expect that treatment will involve education about what is expected and normal in the first weeks and months of recovery, along with guidance in providing safety and stability for the child.
What Should We Expect from a Professional Helper?
Therapists may ask the family direct questions to better understand the role of drinking in the family. They will look for clues that drinking is an important part of family life. For example, do your family arguments always occur following cocktail time? Who drinks? When? How much? What happens when someone is drinking? What happens before and after?
These questions help determine the degree of denial and the kinds of other defenses and explanations that help maintain the addiction. Perhaps the family will acknowledge that Dad drinks, but will insist that his drinking is not the problem. If it weren’t for the demands on him at work, he wouldn’t need to drink so much. Kids may also hear that parental drinking is their fault. If they didn’t fight so much, if they got better grades or didn’t whine, Mom wouldn’t need to drink.
The questions of who needs treatment, when, and for what reasons may need to be answered by a variety of helping professionals. When it is not clear if a child needs help, the therapist might consider providing educational opportunities and small groups as an introduction to treatment and further evaluation.
What Would My Children Get From Alateen?
A small educational or therapy group is a powerful help for children because of the peer support it offers. Sharing in the safe environment of a group can help erase denial, so the child can see there is an option for a healthy and good life even if a parent has this disease. In addition to physical safety, a safe environment means clear rules, consistency and predictability, and a place where children can learn about alcoholism and its effects on the whole family.
Messages of Support for Children and Families
- You are not alone: there are many other children with alcoholic parents who experience what you experience and feel like you do.
- You are not responsible for your parent’s alcoholism, behavior or recovery.
- You can get help for yourself so things will be better.
Whether it is you, a neighbor, teacher, or relative, be open to encouraging your child to talk to a trusting adult.
What Can I Do to Help My Kids?
Maintain family rituals, daily routines, and a regulated environment. Keep the lines of communication open and talk to your children. Children feel unsettled when they see problems that are denied or never discussed honestly. They learn not to trust their own perceptions. Children need the truth, but the truth should be given to them with thoughtful consideration and suited to their developmental level. Often, hurt is underneath anger and comes out as anger. If we can help kids put words to their pain and fear, it will help them relieve it.
Children of alcoholics have little or no choice but to adapt to the environment and the family in which they are raised. In the future, affected children who go untreated may bring their troubles to adult relationships and families.
This Consumer Update written by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Children of Alcoholics" pamphlets to market your practice.