Disruptive child? It may be their disruptive behaviors are the result of what’s happened to them, not “them.” And the “what’s happened to ‘them'” may be secondhand drinking.
Secondhand drinking is the impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others, such as the drinking behaviors associated with alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Children who grow up in homes with untreated, unhealthily discussed alcoholism (or alcohol abuse) experience the insanity of trying to make sense of, protect themselves from, deflect, deny, cover-up, internalize, fix a family member’s drinking behaviors, when they don’t understand the drinking behaviors have NOTHING to do with them (the child). The drinking behaviors are a result of the brain changes caused by alcohol’s impact on the brain. The frustration of not being able to control or protect themselves from secondhand drinking, often causes a child to act out and exhibit any number of disruptive behaviors. They soon earn the label, “disruptive child.”
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry explains in their piece, Children of Alcoholics:
“A child being raised by a parent or caregiver who is suffering from alcohol abuse may have a variety of conflicting emotions that need to be addressed in order to avoid future problems. They are in a difficult position because they cannot go to their own parents for support. Some of the feelings can include the following:
- Guilt. The child may see himself or herself as the main cause of the mother’s or father’s drinking.
- Anxiety. The child may worry constantly about the situation at home. He or she may fear the alcoholic parent will become sick or injured, and may also fear fights and violence between the parents.
- Embarrassment. Parents may give the child the message that there is a terrible secret at home. The ashamed child does not invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help.
- Inability to have close relationships. Because the child has been disappointed by the drinking parent many times, he or she often does not trust others.
- Confusion. The alcoholic parent will change suddenly from being loving to angry, regardless of the child’s behavior. A regular daily schedule, which is very important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes and mealtimes are constantly changing.
- Anger. The child feels anger at the alcoholic parent for drinking, and may be angry at the non-alcoholic parent for lack of support and protection.
- Depression. The child feels lonely and helpless to change the situation.”
When a child doesn’t understand these feelings are normal given their situation, let alone provided tools to help them cope, the child understandably acts outwardly (or inwardly), and here’s why…
The Developing Brain – Why Untreated, Unhealthily Discussed Alcoholism Changes a Child’s Brain Circuitry and Can Result in Disruptive Behaviors
A child is born with approximately 100 billion brain cells – roughly the same number we have as adults. Given the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does through brain cells talking to one another and to and from cells throughout the body via the central nervous system, an infant would come out behaving like an adult if their brain cells were “wired” at birth. This “wiring” is explained through concepts of neural networks and embedded brain maps. Check out Understand Brain Maps.
Obviously, an infant’s brain is not wired at birth. This means, then, the brain starts wiring (brain cells talking to one another) from birth and that in those early years key influences on that wiring are the interactions a child is experiencing at home and with their parents. Check out this related posts: The Brain and the First Years of Life.
So imagine, then, what it must be like to be a child trying to make sense out of drinking behaviors that make absolutely no sense. Imagine what it must be like to watch your father “accidentally shove” your mother in an argument about how much your father has been drinking. Imagine what it must be like to be a child told never to drive with mommy when mommy drinks, and you, as the child, are constantly watching mommy to see if she drinks or you warily open the car door at school when she stops to pick you up – looking for clues in her smile and tone of voice. These are very basic examples of secondhand drinking. Now imagine what happens when a child is daily “forced” to cope with a family member’s ongoing drinking (or drugging) behaviors. It can actually change how that young person’s brain wires. This, in turn, means it can actually change that young person’s life.
It can cause that child to withdraw, to act out, to lash out, to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression, cutting, disordered eating, fearfulness, inappropriate behaviors – the list is endless. It can cause a child’s brain to wire in unhealthy coping skills that will last a lifetime if not addressed. Check out this related post, Coping With Secondhand Drinking | Drugging as a Young Person Can Cause a Young Person to Wire Unhealthy Coping Skills. It can even cause that child to develop a substance abuse problem, for childhood trauma is one of the five key risk factors for developing addiction. Check out these related posts: Why Do Some People Become Addicted and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study: Major Findings.
If you are in a position of influence with a disruptive child, dig deeper – it may be that child is living in a home with untreated alcoholism or alcohol abuse or both. What signs should you look for? Quoting again from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry piece, Children of Alcoholics:
“Although the child tries to keep the alcoholism a secret, teachers, relatives, other adults, or friends may sense that something is wrong. Teachers and caregivers should be aware that the following behaviors may signal a drinking or other problem at home:
- Failure in school; truancy
- Lack of friends; withdrawal from classmates
- Delinquent behavior, such as stealing or violence
- Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
- Abuse of drugs or alcohol; or
- Aggression towards other children
- Risk taking behaviors
- Depression or suicidal thoughts or behavior.”
For more information
To learn more about preventing these impacts, check out my related post, Secondhand Drinking Prevention
For more on the impacts of childhood trauma, such as that associated with familial alcohol abuse or alcoholism, on a child’s future, visit CDC > Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study > Major Findings
Download a free PDF Booklet, “Talking to a Child About Secondhand Drinking.”