Children of Addiction Awareness Week is an annual event celebrated around the world during the week of Valentine’s Day. It is sponsored by the National Association for Children of Addiction, NACoA.org. NACoA’s mission is to eliminate the adverse impact of alcohol and other drug use on children and families, and the theme for this year’s celebration is “Empowering Children to Heal.”
I am passionate About Celebrating Children of Addiction Awareness Week and the Organization Behind it for Four Key Reasons
The first is because of the emails I receive from children like this one:
I am 12 years old. I am asking about a parent who I think is an alcoholic…My mother has a hard time coping with drinking and usually gets drunk at home. She yells at me, and I get angry a lot. I have tried keeping my feelings aside from this, but it’s really hard. I keep thinking this is my fault, even though many websites say otherwise. There aren’t any places near to ask for help, but I cant talk to her about her getting drunk a lot. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you can, please tell me what I can do.
…and the sheer numbers of children affected…
Now, imagine if children could easily find the resources and forums they need to understand what is going on; share their experiences and learn they are not alone; and learn what they can and cannot do to stop a parent’s behaviors when their parent is active in their addiction, whether it’s to alcohol or other drugs. Two that I shared with this child were:
- the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA) section, “Just 4 Teens.”
- the website of Jody Lamb – she herself is the daughter of an alcoholic. Jody has some excellent videos, has written a book for tweens, and writes a blog at http://www.jodylamb.com/. On her “Let’s Meet” tab, Jody invites readers to contact her.
The second reason ties in with the theme of this year’s NACoA celebration, “Empowering Children to Heal.”
“Healing” is three-fold. The first is to facilitate the emotional healing that can come when a child understands addiction and that the child is not the cause nor can the child “make” a parent stop (the NCAoA “Just 4 Kids” and “Just 4 Teens” sections, for example). The second is putting children in contact with adults who can help them. These include other family members, primary care providers, social workers, teachers, faith community leaders, and the like, and these are the adults who can learn a great deal from the NACoA website on how best help a child in this situation. And third is to help these same adults understand the crushing impacts of a parent’s drinking or drug misuse-related behaviors | addiction-related behaviors on a child (something I refer to as secondhand drinking / secondhand drugging – see reason four below). These impacts are related to the physical and mental health consequences of toxic stress, toxic stress that results from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). To explain ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), Jane Stevens, Founder/Editor of the ACEs Connection Network and ACEsTooHigh, often writes,
ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking research that looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.
Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, spanking, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.
As I stated, the impacts of ACEs on a child are related to the toxic stress consequences of trauma. And as you’ve gathered reading the above, trauma takes many forms: neglect, sexual assault, physical abuse, emotional abuse, parental divorce, and growing up with a parent who has an untreated substance use disorder or mental illness, to name a few. But thanks to the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study, there is now solid research to help us understand the brain impacts of trauma (aka adverse childhood experiences), which in turn helps us better understand the physical impacts of trauma, as well.
These brain impacts are related to the way toxic stress changes how the brain works, wires, and maps. With these brain impacts comes the physical and emotional ailments and quality of life outcomes of toxic stress. These include: anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin disorders, sleep problems, neck/back/shoulder pain, and inflammatory diseases, to name a few. [I urge you to read the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma” and the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child’s “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain,” and to watch Nadine Burke Harris, MD’s TedMed Talk > How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime]. For more on ACEs, check out Jane Stevens’ “ACEs 101 > ACEs Science FAQs.”
Now imagine if parents, communities, families, teachers, church leaders, and medical professionals — anyone and everyone who comes in contact with a child of addiction — understood ACEs and the ACE Study. They would understand that a child of addiction needs to not only be able to identify, cope with, and stop the trauma of a parent’s addiction-related behaviors but to heal from the toxic stress-related physical and emotional health consequences of their ACEs.
The third reason I’m passionate about Children of Addiction Awareness Week is the fact that…
I am the child of an alcoholic. My mom didn’t stop drinking until age 79. She died at 84. There was no warning, no lingering illness. She died two days after an unsuccessful emergency surgery. But we had five years during which she did not drink, after forty-five years during which she did.
You see, my mom knew she had a drinking problem. So did we, the rest of her family. There were times when she fought mightily to stop or control it. There were times when the rest of us fought mightily to help her. She even succeeded in cutting back or not drinking for periods of time, which convinced her and us that she really wasn’t an alcoholic(1) . None of us knew alcoholism(1) was a developmental brain disease; a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. None of us knew one of the key risk factors for developing the disease is childhood trauma. None of her primary care doctors who saw her over the four+ decades her disease marched on ever diagnosed it.
Ironically, my mom was also a 17-year cancer survivor when she died. She knew to do (and did) self-breast exams. She found a lump and immediately contacted her doctor; her doctor immediately ordered a biopsy; and she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She had a mastectomy, went through chemotherapy, lost her hair, and showed such courage and grace in her battle to recover. (If you’ve ever witnessed someone recovering from cancer, you know what I mean by “battle.”)
But cancer was a disease people and their doctors understood. Symptoms and having the disease were openly talked about and medical protocols were routine. There was no denial, secrecy, lying or self-judgment.
This was not the case with my mom’s other disease – alcoholism.
Imagine if I and the millions of children (young, teen, and adult) like me AND my parent and society as a whole had understood alcoholism/addiction for what it is — a treatable brain disease — and what it takes to treat it — how incredibly different our lives (let alone the lives of our parents) would have been. But with celebrations like COA Awareness Week, we can change this for children, today.
And lastly, the fourth reason is the Connection between ACEs and Secondhand Drinking (similarly applies to Secondhand Drugging) and the Risk Factors for Developing Addiction
Secondhand Drinking (SHD) refers to the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others. Drinking behaviors include verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect; blackouts; unplanned/unwanted sex, sexual assault; breaking promises to stop or cut down; shaming, blaming, denying; unpredictable behaviors; and driving while impaired, to name a few. Many of these are also considered ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), according to the ACE Study. Drinking behaviors are caused by a number of drinking patterns, including: binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism. People engaging in these drinking patterns are referred to as alcohol misusers. The negative impacts a person coping with SHD experiences are related to toxic stress.
Further, as Vincent J. Felitti, M.D., and Robert F. Anda, M.D., co-principal investigators of the original ACE Study explained in their August 27, 2012, PowerPoint presentation, Adverse Childhood Experiences and their Relationship to Adult Well-being and Disease: Turning gold into lead, “Adverse childhood experiences are interrelated, not solitary” (slide 3), and “If any one ACE is present, there is an 87% chance at least one other category of ACE is present and a 50% chance of 3 or >” (slide 8). [Additional discussions of the interrelatedness of ACEs are presented by Robert Anda, MD, MS, member of the Board of Scientific Advisors of NACoA and co-principal investigator of the original ACE Study, in his paper, “The Health and Social Impact of Growing Up With Alcohol Abuse and Related Adverse Childhood Experiences: The Human and Economic Costs of the Status Quo.”]
As for the “Connection,” I explain it in my post, “The Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs,” and have illustrated it in the image below:
Often a parent’s alcohol misuse and the resulting drinking behaviors cause secondhand drinking for children in the family. Secondhand drinking creates many of the adverse childhood experiences measured in the ACE Study. Both SHD and ACEs are two of the key risk factors for developing addiction (of which alcoholism is one). The two key risk factors are childhood trauma and social environment. Given SHD’s genetic connection, a person experiencing SHD-related ACEs then has three of the five key risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).
Now, imagine how a child’s (young, teen, or adult’s) understanding of the connection between SHD, ACEs and the Risk Factors for developing Addiction could have helped that child understand and forgive their parent(s) sooner, rather than later, and it could have helped that child avoid developing addiction. It could have also helped anyone and everyone who comes in contact with a child of addiction to understand this connection and take proactive steps to help them. Check out “Secondhand Drinking Prevention.”
[Note about the terms alcohol abuse, alcohol misuse, alcoholism, drug misuse, drug abuse, drug addiction. There are new terms – alcohol use disorder, drug use disorder, and substance use disorder – now being used to replace these other terms in order to conform to changes in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, commonly known as the DSM-V. I still use the older terms as those are the ones with which people are most familiar.]
Join NACoA’s Children of Addiction Awareness Week Celebration
I urge you to do whatever you can to promote and celebrate Children of Addiction Awareness Week. I’ve copied the following from NACoA’s Children of Addiction Awareness Week resources and explanation page to help you in your efforts:
Tools for COA Awareness Week Activities
COA Awareness Week celebrates the recovery of the many thousands of children and teenagers who have received the help they needed to recover from the pain and losses suffered in their childhood. It offers hope to those still suffering from the adverse impact of parental alcohol and drug addiction through educational programs, proclamations by mayors and governors, poster contests in schools, and radio, television and print media. Advocacy tools and suggested activities can be found below.
- 2018 COA Awareness Flyer
- Why COA Awareness Week?
- Social Media Toolbox
- Suggested COA Awareness Week Activities
- Ways to Empower Children to Heal
- Infographic: Arrows to Healing
- Infographic: Attitude of Gratitude
- Children of Alcoholics: A Guide to Community Action – A comprehensive guide to support and advocacy for children living with parental addiction. Created in 2004, and still applicable today!
- Check out the NACoA store, Family Resources section, or Professional Resources section for additional resources to make available in your area, for those who work with kids, or for families themselves.
Important Information to Share with Kids and Teens
©2018 Lisa Frederiksen