The sooner someone struggling with addiction realizes they have a problem, the sooner they can get on with their lives and work on their health and well-being. What many in recovery can tell you is that, as you begin to recover, you will begin to realize how addiction can take you away from important relationships in your lives – with parents, children, siblings, husbands and wives. Not everyone will see the same kind of distance between them and their loved ones that others will see. Nonetheless, alcoholism by its very nature removes someone mentally from their life for a while – which is not conducive to creating long-lasting relationships. This is most apparent in the children of those with alcoholism.
Are Children Really Affected by a Parent’s Alcoholism?
You might ask: are children really affected by a parent’s alcoholism? If so, to what degree?
If you think of a family of four in which one of the parents has a cold and everyone is advised to give them some space, then you begin to understand that every illness is a family illness. In similar, but much more far-reaching patterns, alcoholism is a family illness.
However, unlike a cold, families tend to enable and protect their addictive members instead of giving them space, often playing out strange dramas that children have to live with and adapt to. As opposed to a cold that you can talk about directly, to a child, alcoholism is like having an invisible predator in the room – something you cannot talk about in any direct or healthy manner. Spending their formative years in this environment leads to numerous issues with honesty and emotion control.
Is An Alcoholic in the Family Really Harmless?
It may sound innocent at first to say that an alcoholic in the family is really harmless, alcohol is just a way to have a little fun or to relax after a hard day of work. As a lifestyle choice, however, it is rife with contradictions and denial, and it becomes increasingly controlling as the strength of the addiction asserts itself. Any increased use in alcohol is decreased presence in family life, and using a substance to cope with stress is almost certain to consume more of that person’s life.
The World Service Organization’s program Adult Children of Alcoholics presents laundry lists that spells out many of the terrible possibilities that befall children who grow up in a family with one or more addicts present.
The lists begin with a fairly easy problem to understand. “We become isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.” That’s No. 1 on the list.
This certainly makes sense. To a young child, parents are all they have to turn to for their understanding of how the world works, how people behave. They look to their parents for a consistent set of rules and definitions, and if their parent isn’t fully there or doesn’t discuss their drinking, they begin to distrust them or not see them as proper authority. In time, they distrust all authority figures and their feeling of isolation increases. They can’t tell teachers at school, because teachers, of course, are just another set of authority figures, and friends won’t understand at their age. They feel truly alone in this problem.
This is only the beginning of how deeply the problem can affect a child and this is only the first issue on a lengthy laundry list of concerns.
Alcoholism Runs in Families for Two Reasons
As a disease, alcoholism runs in families for two reasons. The first is the genetic predisposition to alcoholism. The second is the children simply learning how to cope by watching how their parents do it.
Children, as most people know, mimic the behaviors of their parents. If a parent turns to alcohol or drugs, you can bet the children know intuitively how the behavior works. They sense the stress a parent feels, then watch that parent get inebriated or high. They see a parent depressed, then watch them turn to an addictive substance for relief. Children watch their parents carefully. Later in life, when they run into problems, they follow the teachings of their parents, turning to alcohol or drugs themselves to help them through their problems.
The following anecdote is not scientific, but it is still useful to mention. It is the story of two brothers, one of whom becomes a severe alcoholic as a grown up, while the other never touches drugs or alcohol. The first one explains his behavior by saying, “I’m an alcoholic, because I watched my alcoholic father when I was growing up.” The second brother, who never drinks, explains his lifestyle this way: “I never touch alcohol, because I watched my alcoholic father when I was growing up.”
Not All Children of Alcoholics Are Drinkers
There’s a lot more to the story than there may seem. The second brother, the one who never drinks or takes drugs, is not really out of the woods yet. He is likely confronted with a plethora of personal problems. He is apt to be controlling or angry, isolated or compulsive. His is likely overcompensating for his feelings of inadequacy and isolation, because his alcoholic mother or father paid little attention to him during their years of addiction. Not all children of alcoholics are drinkers, but it is very rare to find a child growing up in a home with an alcoholic who has not been profoundly impacted by the experience. It’s among the most commonly heard expressions in therapy: “My mother / father was an alcoholic when I was growing up.”
One is supposed to live life to the fullest. It is also a cornerstone of happiness to feel in control of your own life, to feel you are making strong decisions, not letting the chaos of life make the decisions for you – to be actors, not reactors.
This is hard to do when you feel inadequate, weak, controlled or a lifelong victim. This becomes impossible to do when your childhood always felt “crazy,” like the reality you witnessed didn’t match up with the reality you were allowed to discuss.
Of course, the sooner recovery begins, the sooner problems make sense and the sooner they can be addressed. If you can name a problem, some people say, then you are half way home. If you’re ready to make the change and remove alcohol from your life, please call our 24/7 addiction help hotline: 1-855-223-6171