Children of Alcoholics – a national celebration, February 10 – 16, 2013, and an international celebration the same week. Why a national and international celebration? To raise awareness about what happens to the silent victims of a parent’s chronic, often relapsing brain disease – alcoholism.
Before I continue, let me first say – the purpose of this post is NOT to blame or shame parents who are alcoholics because they – and most of those not familiar with this brain disease – do not understand they have a brain disease. They do not understand that the nature of their disease makes it impossible for them to drink any amount and not exhibit the drinking behaviors that can change a child’s life.
Rather, the purpose of this post is to draw attention to what happens to the one in four children under age 18 who live with a family member who abuses or is addicted to alcohol. The purpose of this post is to help all of us better understand what we can and must do to help children of alcoholics (see suggestions below). This is so important because growing up in a home with undiagnosed, untreated, unhealthily discussed alcohol abuse or alcoholism can change the way a child’s brain develops and these developmental changes can make that child more susceptible to developing a substance abuse problem, mental illness or stress-related ailment themselves.
What Happens to Children of Alcoholics
You can imagine what happens when you think about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a parent’s drinking behaviors and you don’t understand the reason for those behaviors (i.e., the alcohol changing how the brain works). In this video, kids share what it’s like:
Nick News: “Under the Influence: Kids of Alcoholics: Coping”
In her article, “Adult Children of Alcoholics, ACoAs: Qualities and Traits,” Dr. Tian Dayton, Clinical Psychologist and Author, shares the toll alcoholism takes on children as they try to stay out of harm’s way, avoid “triggering” their parent’s verbal or physical wrath, feel embarrassed to bring friends over, become anxious about their parent’s unpredictable behavior, or always feeling the need to take care of their parent instead of their parent taking care of them. The toll can include:
- Problem with self-regulation
- Hyper vigilance/anxiety
- Emotional constriction
- Loss of trust and faith
- Unresolved grief
- Traumatic bonding
- Learned helplessness
- Somatic disturbances
- Tendency to isolate
- High risk behaviors
- Survival guilt
- Developing rigid psychological defenses
- Distorted reasoning
- Depression with feelings of despair
- Loss of ability to accept caring and support from others
- Desire to self-medicate
Again, to learn more about the toll on children of alcoholics, please read Dr. Dayton’s post, “Adult Children of ACoAs: Qualities and Traits.”
To learn more about the connection between a child’s early experiences, such as those described here that occur when growing up with alcohol abuse or alcoholism in one’s family, and that child’s later-in-life health and well-being, check out the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s website, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, Major Findings.
What Can We All Do to Help Children of Alcoholics
1. Help them understand their parent’s behaviors change because they drink – not because of anything they (the children) do or don’t do.
2. Assure them they cannot do anything – not get good grades, not be super good or nice, not take care of their younger sibling, nothing – to make their parent stop drinking nor stop the behaviors they (their parents) exhibit when they drink (yelling, belittling, passing out, hitting, being confusingly nice or loving…).
3. Help them understand that once their mom has had 3 drinks (and show them what a drink is) or their dad has had 4, the alcohol will most likely change their parent’s brain works and thus their behaviors. This change is caused by alcohol “sitting in the brain” waiting to be metabolized by the liver. [It takes the liver about one hour to metabolize one drink.] Brainstorm what they can do to keep themselves safe when this happens – quietly going to their room, for example.
4. Assure them they are not alone – let them know that out of four children they know, one is also experiencing living in a family with alcohol abuse or alcoholism.
5. Share this link from TeensHealth, Coping With an Alcoholic Parent.
6. If you’re a teacher, general practioner or pediatrician – talk to your students or patients about secondhand drinking as a concept, in a manner that shares what happens when a person drinks too much – it may be the lead into a conversation a child needs in order to share what’s happening in their home.
To Learn More and Take Part in National Children of Alcoholics Week
Please do what you can – share this post with a teacher, pediatrician, friend or child. Most importantly, talk about it – it won’t go away until we bring this to light where it can be dealt with – for our children’s sake.