Living with an alcoholic parent is a traumatic experience that can leave lasting scars. The children do suffer the most in this type of situation because they are trapped in a nightmare that they can’t control. They will also lack an understanding for why their parent behaves the way they do. The child is put in a position where they begin to blame themselves. The parent may even accuse them of being the culprit. The child grows up believing that they deserve to be treated badly, and that substance abuse is normal behavior. Unless action is taken to help the child understand and cope with the situation it may have a grave impact on their future.
Those who grow up on an alcoholic home are likely to have a disturbed childhood. The behavior of the alcoholic parent (parents) may mean that the child needs to:
* They are forced into a position where they need to take on a great deal of responsibility in the home. This can mean that they are acting more like a grown up than their parents.
* They may feel the need to make excuses for their parent’s behavior and try to hide it from the outside world. The child may be too ashamed to bring any of their school friends back to the house.
* Children in this situation will often feel isolated and alone in the world. They live in fear and experience levels of stress that no child should have to endure.
* In order to make up for the behavior of their parents the child may put unrealistic expectations on themselves – they may feel the need to be perfect at everything they do.
* The will often be growing up in an environment where alcohol and drugs are easily available to them. This means that they may begin using these substances at an early age – the parents may even encourage this.
* Children of alcoholics will describe the situation as being similar to living with Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The parent can fluctuate between being happy and playful to angry and violent in a matter of seconds – this means that the child is always living on edge.
* Some children will become physically or verbally aggressive or act out in other ways.
Living with an alcoholic is a traumatizing experience. The type of emotions that the children of alcoholics are likely to experience includes:
* Impotence to affect the world
* Uncertainty about life and their future
If the children of alcoholics are not given an adequate explanation for what is happening to their alcohol abusing parent (or parents) it can lead to negative effects such as:
* The child can grow up believing that substance abuse is normal and acceptable behavior. This means that they will also be likely to engage in this behavior as they get older.
* Children can blame themselves for the behavior of their parents. The young person may actually believe that it is their action that is the cause of the abuse.
* The child may grow up to become codependent in their future relationships. This means that they end up in an abusive relationship because it is what they are used to.
* Some young children will respond to their alcoholic parents by copying the behavior. This means that they may be addicted to alcohol or drugs at a very young age.
* Many of these youngsters will grow up to have low self esteem. This means that they will not value themselves very highly and be willing to settle for very little in life because it is all they think they deserve.
* The child will often end up with mental and emotional scars that will greatly impact the rest of their life.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics use the 7Cs to explain the situation to children of alcoholics:
* I didn’t cause it.
* I can’t cure it.
* I can’t control it.
* I can take better care of myself, by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices and celebrating myself.
There can be a number of signs that a child is living with an alcoholic parent including:
* They are performing badly in school.
* They regularly skip school.
* Have started experimenting with alcohol or drugs.
* Unwilling to discuss their home life or appear evasive about it.
* They have symptoms of depression.
* Suicidal thoughts or suicide attempt.
* Verbally or physically bullying other children.
* Risk taking behaviors – they seem will to behave recklessly.
* They will tend to be loners and won’t have many friends.
* They may be involved in petty crime such as pilfering.
* Delinquent behavior.
* They appear to have low self esteem.
* The child is regularly sick with complaints such as headaches or stomachaches.
* Signs of physical neglect – for example, poor personal hygiene and grooming.
In order to explain alcoholism to a child it is important to:
* Emphasize that it is not their fault. Nothing the child has done could have triggered the alcoholism or made it worse.
* Explain to them that it is not their job to fix their parents. There is probably very little they can do to stop the alcoholic parent from drinking unless they are ready to stop.
* The child needs to know that while they may not be able to fix their parent they can fix themselves.
* Explain that the alcoholic parent is not a bad parent but a sick person. Once an individual is caught in a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol it causes them to behave in irrational ways.
* It is common to explain alcoholism as being a type of disease. The individual who becomes an alcoholic is no more responsible for their condition than the person with diabetes.
* Age appropriate information will help the child come to terms with what is happening to their parent.
* They need to know that they are not alone. The internet has made it much easier for the children of alcoholics to connect with one another.
* It is important that the child knows that there is help available to them. There is no need for them to cope with the pressures alone.
* Alateen is a support group for the children of alcoholics. It is closely connected to another 12 step group called Al-anon, and it provides a venue for children to share their experience.
* It is important that the physical and health dangers of substance abuse are explained to the child, and that such behaviors are not considered normal or healthy. It is important that the child understands that they do not have to follow their parent into addiction.
Just because a parent enters recovery does not mean that the ordeal is over for the child. They may continue to have problems because:
* It may take them a long time before they can trust the parent’s sobriety. There may be a long history of broken promises and disappointments.
* Just because the parent is sober does not always mean that life for the child will significantly improve. If the parent fails to deal with the things that drove them to alcoholism in the first place they may continue to perform badly in the home.
* If the parent enters recovery, and there is no real explanation of what happened, it can leave the child feeling confused. The parent may try to console themselves with the idea that their child was too young to understand what was going on, but this is often a false conclusion.
* The child is still likely to be carrying emotional scars from the years of abuse and neglect. These will likely take years to heal, and many will need professional help.
* The fact that the parent is no sober means that there is likely to be a major upheaval in the home. This type of sudden change can feel traumatic to the child.
Children of alcoholics in recovery can continue to have problems so it is important that they are not ignored. Joining some type of support group or receiving counseling is often required to put them back on the right track in life.