Title: Children of Alcoholics: How to Help When a Parent Has a Problem
Author: Lisa Turney
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: July 2007
Catalog Number: 808

..‘Family’ Values

It’s sometimes
called the “three-generation” disease, passed from
parent to children to grandchildren, like red hair or freckles.

But it’s way more
serious than that, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.

According to
the best estimates, about one in eight Americans — more
than 30 million of us — are products of alcoholic homes. And
the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism says
that 6.6 million kids are living with an alcoholic parent right

What’s life
like for them?

Well, it doesn’t
look like the families in Norman Rockwell paintings or feel much
like the Baileys in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

More often,
it’s like an endless marathon of “Married With Children”
episodes, where growing up is a constant struggle to cope with
disappointment and stress and embarrassment.

It’s a place
where a kid’s needs are often down-played or ignored, and family
life centers on the psychological “games” of the
drinking parent. Consider:

  • 55 percent of all family violence
    occurs in alcoholic homes.
  • Incest is twice as likely among
    daughters of alcoholics than their peers.
  • Children of alcoholics are three
    to four times more likely to become alcoholic than the general
  • 50 percent of children of alcoholics
    marry an alcoholic; 70 percent develop a pattern of compulsive
    behavior as an adult, including alcoholism, drug abuse, and overeating.

And no statistic
can measure the psychological pain that children of alcoholics
grow up with and often carry into adulthood.

Until recently,
children of alcoholics weren’t even considered all that different
from other kids with problems. Often, they were ignored by treatment
programs, which focused on the alcoholic parent.

Now that’s
changing. Today, professionals recognize the special problems
and needs of children of alcoholics (or COA’s), and family therapy
has become a big part of alcoholism rehabilitation.

And treating
the problem — rebuilding self-esteem and relearning to communicate
and trust and love — begins with identifying what, exactly,
went wrong in the first place.

The Alcoholic Family

One reason
identifying children of alcoholics can be so difficult is that
many kids — maybe even most kids — don’t like to admit that
there are troubles at home.

That’s because
denial can play as big a role in the life of an alcoholic family
as it does in the process of alcoholism itself. When a drinking
parent denies that drinking is a problem, kids usually learn
pretty fast that one thing that’s virtually guaranteed to cause
upset is for them to talk about it — or even think about it
much, at all.

The conflict
that comes from denying the obvious and the struggle to keep
up appearances for outsiders can trigger emotional tremors for
COA’s that can reverberate for years.

Common problems
can include:

  • Guilt. The child suspects that
    he or she somehow caused the parent’s drinking.
  • Anxiety. Fear of arguments or
    violence can cause constant worry and emotional hypervigilance.
  • Embarrassment. The child is
    ashamed of the family “secret” and withdraws from friends
    or other family members.
  • Confusion. A drinking parent’s
    mood swings and unpredictability can cause uncertainty and inner
    turmoil in the child about what to do next.
  • Inability to Trust. Repeated
    disappointments and broken promises by an alcoholic parent can
    make it hard for a child to trust and develop close bonds with
  • Anger. The child usually resents
    the drinking parent and may transfer the anger to the non-drinking
    parent for lack of support and protection.
  • Depression. Feelings of loneliness
    and helplessness are common — and almost inevitable.

In an alcoholic
family, a child’s need for love, support, and emotional nurturing
is often minimized or forgotten altogether in the endless tug-of-war
between the family and alcoholism.

And with few
role models for demonstrating how emotions can be expressed positively,
the child adapts to chaos in order to survive.

The Family Drama

The constant
hurt and confusion of the alcoholic household often reveals itself
in children protecting themselves by lying, suppressing
feelings, and withdrawing from close relationships.

Having learned
these defenses in adolescence, children of alcoholics tend to
repeat them in adulthood, usually without realizing the connection.

One leading
therapist, Dr. Claudia Black, says that children from alcoholic
homes tend to adopt a distinct role within the family.

Dr. Black,
a COA herself and national advocate for children’s rights, cites
four common roles that recur in alcoholic households:

  • Responsible
    : Some kids assume
    the role of the parent, by feeding and caring for younger brothers
    and sisters.
  • Adjuster
    : Here, kids simply
    accept whatever behavior a drinking parent dishes out. Many hide
    and become quiet and withdrawn.
  • Acting-Out
    : Some children
    assume blame for their parent’s drinking and deflect attention
    from family problems by creating problems of their own at home
    and school.
  • Placater
    : These kids ignore
    their own unhappiness to comfort others. Some become family clowns
    and try to cover problems with jokes.

According to
Dr. Black, children of alcoholics can become such experts at
playing their roles that they often create situations as adults
where they continue to act out the family drama. This strong
role identification, she argues, is one reason that many adult
children of alcoholics marry problem drinkers.

The Healing Process

Probably the
most difficult step in the healing process is the first one —
for the child to openly identify the problem and begin to talk
about his or her sadness and anger. Out of love or fear, most
children try to keep family problems a secret.

Believing that
they’re the ones with the problem and may even be somehow to
blame, children with drinking parents often hide behind a wall
of denial and defensiveness.

a child of an alcoholic usually involves little more than close
observation of changes or extremes in the child’s behavior.

A number of
behavioral signs can warn of a parental drinking problem, including:

  • School absences or truancy
  • Withdrawal from classmates and
  • Frequent illness or physical
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Overly aggressive play
  • Delinquent behavior
  • Under-achievement in school
  • Emotional distance from peers

Once a child
of an alcoholic is identified and begins to confront his or her
suppressed guilt and fears, the real process of recovery can

Since learning
about the dynamics of alcoholism is important to the process,
many therapists recommend such self-help programs as Al-Anon,
Children of Alcoholics, or Adult Children of Alcoholics.

Some recommend
dietary changes (especially low-sugar diets), and such stress-reduction
techniques as meditation, aerobics, and visualization or affirmation

Still, whatever
form treatment takes, children of alcoholics need to develop
a healthy sense of self-esteem — free of guilt, fear, and blame
— to see themselves as okay even when those around them may
not be.

It might seem
like a cliché, but before any of us can ever really trust
and love others, we really do have to learn to love and trust

Pushing Past the Past

Perhaps the
biggest he biggest trap that children of alcoholics can
fall into is to see themselves — ourselves, since I’m one, too
— as victims of horrible junk that’s basically beyond our control
and will somehow always keep us trapped.

That’s not
only self-defeating; it isn’t even true.

Once you learn
to see the past for what it is, past, and the present for what
it is, a present, you’re not going to find a good reason to be
stopped by anything at all — especially mom or dad’s problem
or our memories of it.

Each of us
may have had to grow up playing our parents’ games, questioning
our value, living in the shadow of alcoholism or chemical dependency.

But that doesn’t
mean we’re stuck there. And even if we did learn to pretend that
things were fine when they weren’t, it’s okay to stop pretending

How? By telling
the truth about who we are and where we’ve been, and accepting
and caring for ourselves — starting now, if you haven’t started

There never
has been — and never will be — a better time to put the past
in its place. So why wait?


Sidebar: If
Your Mom or Dad Drinks Too Much…

Some of the
things we’ve talked about in this pamphlet may sound familiar.
In fact, if one of your parents is an active alcoholic, it may
describe what’s going on in your family right now. If that’s
the case, you’re due for some good news, and here it is: There
are things you can do to help clear up the problem.

  • Step 1: The first thing to do is to realize that you
    aren’t alone. Millions of kids have been through the same problem
    and have felt the same fears. These kids (many of them adults
    now) have been where you are and know what you’re feeling, and
    they know how to help.
  • Step 2: The next thing to do is to tell someone. If you
    have a cool teacher or friend or a favorite aunt or uncle, talk
    with them and don’t hold back. Even though it might seem easier
    and safer to keep things a secret, what really hurts you over
    the long term is keeping problems stuffed inside yourself. Others
    understand and they can help.
  • Step 3: The last thing to do if you’re the child of an
    alcoholic is to realize that it’s not your fault. Your parents
    may love you, but your parents have a problem. The best way you
    can help them is to help yourself. Call a local Al-Anon or AlaTeen
    chapter (they’re listed in the white pages of the phone book)
    or write the Children of Alcoholics Foundation, 540 Madison Avenue,
    New York, NY 10022. For immediate referral to services in your
    area, call the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000.

And do it now.
Drinking or drugs may be your family’s problem today, but they
don’t have to be a problem forever.

..Getting Help

If you’re
worried about your drinking and you haven’t been able to cut
back or control it on your own, help is nearby.

Check the phone
book for an alcohol information center or treatment program.
The people there can tell you where and how to get help. It’s
never too early-or too late-to start.

If you can’t
find an alcohol information center in your area, phone or write
either (or both) of the following:

  • The National
    Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
    12 West 21st Street
    New York, NY 10010
    (800) 622-2255
  • Alcoholics
    P.O. Box 459, Grand Central Station
    New York, NY 10163

Just do it
— and do it now. There’ll never be a better time to get
your life back on track.

Here’s looking
at you, kid — and at the person you can still become.

..Sidebar | Bouncing
Back: Reasons & Resources

Problem drinking
touches more lives — and wrecks more families — than you might

According to
a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services…

  • 76 million Americans (43 percent
    of the adult population) report alcoholism in their families.
  • 18 percent say they grew up
    with an alcoholic or problem drinker.
  • 38 percent of U.S. adults have
    at least one blood relative with a drinking problem.

And the problem
doesn’t end with simple drinking. Physical and sexual abuse are
both linked to problem drinking, as are higher rates of divorce,
homicide, and suicide.

What’s the
solution? There are a lot of different solutions, according to
experts, and they all begin with those affected taking responsibility
for ending the problem.

If problem
drinking is a problem for you or someone you care about, do something
to stop it now. Contact the National Council on Alcoholism and
Drug Dependence at 1-800-622-2255 or a local chapter of Alcoholics
Anonymous (check the White Pages of your phone book).

And do it now.
Problem drinking is a problem that’s wasted too many lives for
too long.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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