According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (YEAR), there are approximately 18 million alcoholics in the US. As a result, an estimated 26.8 million children are exposed, at varying degrees, to alcoholism within their families. These children are at higher risk to develop a problem with alcohol and other drugs compared to 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 including anxiety and/or depression, antisocial behavior, relationship difficulties, behavioral problems, and/or alcohol abuse.
Children of alcoholics may be exposed to 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 may become connected with the child’s sense of self. It is often difficult to determine whether a child’s problems 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 individuals physically and emotionally--in the way they behave, think and feel. It can also affect family members in these ways, too. Alcohol may be the central guiding principle of family life, causing trauma and shaping (or restricting) each individual’s development, yet family members will work hard to hide this secret. Addiction has the power to destroy a family. Families often try to deny the problem, fearing the family will fall apart if the problem is faced. Alcoholism can cause pain and confusion that spreads, entangling friends and family in a web of explanation and denials.
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 family 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.
Getting Professional Help
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 can I do to help my kids?
Maintain a stable environment that includes family rituals and daily routines. 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
National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA)
Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
Children of Alcoholics Information and Resources