Alcoholism Awareness Month is an opportunity to raise awareness about a disease that engulfs 17.6 million adults in the United States. People whom are alcohol dependent are often stereotyped as drunks who have been making poor choices for years and are incapable of change. Alcoholism does not discriminate among social class, race, age, gender or sexual orientation. It is easy to criticize and focus on the maladaptive behaviors that accompany an addiction without thinking of the individual as a mom, dad, brother, etc. These people are just that. They are members of families and many have children of their own. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, an estimated 25 percent of all children in the United States are affected by or exposed to a family alcohol problem.
When a parent is in the vicious cycle of addiction, their children often experience some form of neglect or abuse and as a result, children of alcoholics often have a variety of emotions that need to be addressed in order to avoid future emotional and behavioral problems. For example, a child may feel responsible for their parent’s alcohol abuse and feel guilt or shame for the chaos in their family. Children of alcoholics may feel angry at their alcoholic parent for drinking as well as anger toward their non-alcoholic parent for not providing the safe and secure environment that every child deserves.
Research has identified that alcoholism has a genetic component putting children of alcoholics at a higher risk for future addiction. These children often exhibit signs of depression and anxiety in addition to an increased number of physical and mental health problems. It is apparent that children of alcoholics make up an at-risk population in need of support.
How do we best assist children of alcoholics? First of all, we need to be able to identify the signs that there may be an alcoholic parent in the home. Withdrawal from friends or a lack of friends, frequent absences, truancies or failure in school, physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches, depression, risk-taking behaviors and verbal and physical aggression towards other children all constitute possible symptoms of a child of an addicted parent. Many children of alcoholics do not show these symptoms which make identifying and supporting that child difficult. Simply making ourselves available and providing empathy is an important step in offering help.
Often therapy is a beneficial tool to help children understand that they are not responsible for their parent’s disease as well as to help children process and sort through their roller coaster of emotions. Opening up and sharing from the heart in a safe environment is an exceptionally healing experience. Education is a key factor in assisting children of alcoholics. Children need to learn the facts about the disease and early education about prevention should be priority with this at-risk population. Since alcoholism tends to make a person feel isolated, peer support is especially helpful as children can learn they are not alone. Alateen and Al-Anon are great programs that are offered in many communities.
Fortunately, not all children of alcoholics are adversely affected, as some children show resilience to their parent’s alcoholism. Regardless, we know that alcoholism is a family disease and can pose problems for children if they are not given opportunities to cope and deal with the stress of having an alcoholic parent. No child of an addicted parent should have to grow up without support. We need to offer hope to those children still suffering from the difficult impacts of parental alcohol addiction. For more information on helping a child with an addicted parent, please visit the National Association for Children of Alcoholics website: www.nacoa.org.
Leaha Jones is a clinical therapist here at Family Service Center.