Alcohol and Its Effects on Children
Andrelea Foerster Marriage & Family Dr. Ekechukwu 4/12/13 The Impact on Children of Alcoholic Parents The significant and detrimental impact on family life and child development caused by parental alcohol use cannot be underestimated, often putting children in danger. Alcohol use and disorders are a major public health problem. Alcohol abuse in poor and deprived communities is particularly deleterious as the scarce financial resources of the family needed for food, health care, and education are diverted to alcohol. Pinto, Violet) It rarely exists in isolation as a problem and is commonly intertwined with mental health, bereavement, family breakdown or domestic violence. Children are impacted in a number of different ways: parental alcoholism affects them financially; it affects their home environment; they may be exposed to unsuitable care and care givers or inadequate supervision, poor role models and inappropriate behavior; and their physical/emotional development and school attendance can suffer.
Many children whose parents drink at a significant level can often find themselves having to take on the role of care giver, both for their siblings and their parents. Approximately 5-10% of the country’s population suffers from DSM-IV alcohol abuse, and this figure appears to be growing. Alcohol use problems affect spouses and children, unfortunately, in addition to the heavy substance users themselves. A recent study estimated that one in four American children have a parent who meets criteria for DSM-IV alcohol abuse. Brennan, Patricia) It is important to understand the feelings a parent will be experiencing in relation to their alcohol use and to recognize that just because a parent may or may not have disclosed that they have an alcohol problem, it does not necessarily mean the problem is not there. In practice, most standard policies and procedures are reactive to the parent admitting they have a problem. Consequently, workers from universal services often focus on gaining evidence and then initiating procedures, which is a difficult balance to strike as workers often have to make social services referrals when disclosures are made. If you do not know what the problem is you cannot fix it’ is a good place to start. In fact, it is difficult to meaningfully help a parent before they have accepted there is a problem; you cannot force change or engagement. From both sides, this can be difficult to manage as the positivity of a parent’s disclosure can be overshadowed by a reaction to the referral to children’s social care. Understandably, this can cause a dilemma for the professional and a great deal of anxiety for the parent. Encouraged by the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, they find it easier to enter the world outside their family borders in search of relief and self-assertion. ” (Tomori, Martina) Professionals often worry about immediate safety when a parent has a drinking problem. Because they did not have an example to follow from their childhood and never experienced “normal” family relationships, adult children of alcoholics and addicts may have to guess at what it means to be normal. They sometimes can’t tell good role models from bad ones.
Some are not comfortable around family because they don’t know what to do or how to react. Many adult children of alcoholics or addicts find it difficult to give themselves a break. They do not feel adequate, and feel that they are never good enough. They may have little self-worth and low self-esteem and can develop deep feelings of inadequacy. Because they judge themselves too harshly, some adult children of alcoholics may take themselves very seriously. They can become depressed or anxious because they have never learned how to lighten up on themselves.
They can get very angry with themselves when they make a mistake. Many adult children of alcoholics find it difficult to let them have fun. Perhaps because they witnessed so many holidays, vacations and other family events sabotaged by the alcoholic parent, they do not expect good things to ever happen to them. In order to have an intimate relationship, one must be willing to look to another person for interdependence, emotional attachment, or fulfillment of your needs. Because of trust issues or lack of self-esteem, adult children of addicts may not be able to let themselves do that.
They don’t allow themselves to get close to others. After growing up in an atmosphere where denial, lying and keeping secrets was the norm, adult children of alcoholics can develop serious trust problems. All the broken promises of the past tell them that trusting someone will backfire on them in the future and because the alcoholic parent was emotionally unavailable or perhaps physically not around, adult children of alcoholics or addicts can develop an absolute fear of being abandoned. As a consequence, they can find themselves holding on to relationships they should end just because they don’t want to be alone.
If their alcoholic parent was mean or abusive when they were drunk, adult children can grow up with a fear of all angry people. They may spend their lives avoiding conflict or confrontation of any kind, thinking it could turn violent. Because they constantly judge themselves too harshly, many adult children of alcoholics are constantly seeking approval from others. The can become people-pleasers who are crushed if someone is not happy with them. They can absolutely fear criticism. Many children who grow up with an addicted parent find themselves thinking they are different from other people and not good enough.
Consequently, they avoid social situations and have difficulty making friends. They can tend to isolate themselves as a result. Perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their alcoholic parent, many children from alcoholic homes become super responsible or perfectionists. They can become overachievers or workaholics. On the other hand, they can also go in the opposite direction, becoming very irresponsible members of society. Handling disclosure is the key to being able to start to support a parent and get them the help they need.
Listen to what the parent is saying and recognize that by starting to talk about the alcohol problem they are acknowledging it exists. This is the first step and can be a very vulnerable time; parents can become distressed at this stage. The parent is usually in a very negative space and it is important that this is a positive interaction where they feel supported and have hope. If this is handled badly their defenses usually go up and they disengage. Ideally, parents should be listened to and reassured that they have done the right thing in acknowledging they have a problem and that they will be given the right support.
Stay with them until they have finished saying everything they want to–they will usually indicate why drinking became a problem. End by reassuring them and explain what you are going to do to try to help them. This might involve referral to your local alcohol service, providing them with printed information or calling someone else to look after the children. It is a good idea at this stage to give them a diary sheet to keep track of what they are drinking, when and why. You can now also draw up a safety plan or contingency plan with the parent.
This is important as it empowers the parent to take control of the situation, even while the problem drinking continues, and it is something they can immediately succeed at. It should prioritize the child’s needs and safety, which will also help the parent deal with feelings of guilt. We have all been in a room or meeting with a parent where we have suspicions of parental alcohol use. It is really important not to ignore this, but ‘say what you see’ and offer help. Don’t add a judgment, an assumption or interpret; simply say to the parent what you see.
Examples of this could be: ‘I smell alcohol on your breath–if you need support with that we can help’ or ‘you seem unsteady on your feet, your speech seems slurred’. This is an important process for the parent even if it does not lead to a disclosure as it forces them to face some of their own denial. If this is not done they may convince themselves everything is fine. Fundamental to working with parents is accepting that it takes time to change. Goals need to be pragmatic, realistic and timely, with a focus on finding solutions rather than obstacles.
Sometimes you have to accept that it may only be possible to put a simple routine in place and that the parent will need support with anything that needs longer-term planning. A useful tool is a basic wall chart, which does actually need to go on the wall so it can be checked. The chart should outline tasks to be completed each day. Allocate a specific day for household tasks; for example, laundry on Mondays and food shopping on Tuesdays. This is useful as it enables the parent to have some basic structure to their time.
They can also tick things off as they are completed, which will increase their confidence and make day-to-day life seem more manageable. It is also not reliant on the problem behavior changing immediately. Things often get worse before they get better–be prepared initially for the parent to deteriorate before they improve. It is a process and parents need to learn new coping mechanisms; support networks can help. Think about things that can be changed and what can be put in place to support parents and their children through the period of change.
Accepting and anticipating a realistic timetable is crucial. For example, when a child has had little or no supervision and a parent then starts to put boundaries in place the child will react negatively, especially if the parent is still drinking. Putting this part of the program in place will increase parents’ stress levels and could result in further drinking and disengagement with services. Therefore, think about support plans you might need for both parent and child. If the parent is still drinking they will find it difficult to maintain the changes.
The situation could be handled by addressing the drinking first and ensuring the parent is engaged with an alcohol service that can provide relapse prevention support. Next, introduce intensive parenting support so the family has the maximum chance of benefiting from the intervention and maintaining the changes by using this support network to protect the family against wobbles. Think about the family as a system and look at what works well within it and ways other areas can be improved. This needs reviewing constantly, as if one factor changes the family dynamics will change.
For example, if a parent’s alcohol consumption changes, the family system will change and these periods of adjustment are stressful for all involved. Sometimes you have to accept that the parent’s alcohol abuse might not improve immediately. However, the situation may change and, importantly, things may improve for the child over time–don’t give up. Children will record their parent’s actions at their worst. When Mom and Dad are most out of control, they are the most threatening to the child’s survival. The child’s survival alarm registers these behaviors the most deeply creating shame.
Any subsequent shame experience, which even vaguely resembles that past trauma, can easily trigger the words and scenes of said trauma. What are then recorded are the new experience and the old. Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached together. Each new scene potentates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow. As the years go on, very little is needed to trigger these collages of shame memories. Shame as an emotion has now become frozen and embedded into the core of the person’s identity.
Children of alcoholics grow up trying to control their parents drinking by hiding or throwing away the alcohol. Then they try the use of guilt control – (If you really love me you’ll stop), or (You care more about that bottle than you care about me). They don’t realize that you cannot control or reason with a disease. Some try to cure the disease by being the perfect child; by keeping perfect grades, always being good, being responsible and trying to cure the illness, while keeping the path smooth for the drinker.
To an outsider looking in, they are the perfect child. The truth of the matter is they are. People just don’t see the whole picture. Other children may choose to be the scapegoat, the one in trouble all the time. They are the family’s way of not looking at what’s really happening. Then there are those who become the class clown, making everyone laugh and all the while knowing that life is not really that funny. And then there is that little child off in the corner; the withdrawn child who never gives anyone any trouble and feels like he/she is invisible.
All of these children look like a child, dress like a child, to some degree they behave like a child, but they sure as hell don’t feel like a child. Children of alcoholics grow up and become adults quickly. But underneath the mask of adult behavior there is a child who was neglected. This needy child is insatiable. What that means is that when the child becomes an adult, there is a hole in his/her soul. They can never get enough as an adult. An adult child can’t get enough because it’s really a child’s needs that are in question.
Growing up and not having your needs met as a child creates many scars; co-dependency being one of the most serious. Much has been written about co-dependency. All agree that it is about the loss of selfhood. Co-dependency is a condition wherein one has no inner life. Happiness is on the outside. Good feelings and self-validation lie on the outside. Children of alcoholics, learn to be care takers or rescuers early in life. They’ve developed a mechanism that helped in coping with fear, pain, insecurity and growing up in an abusive alcoholic family.
Usually this is how the child copes with not being able to get their own needs met. “Self-confidence and readiness to accept different, sometimes negative views and responses of others, coupled with the ability to cope with occasional refusals or failures, are the key characteristics that help adolescents adopt healthy patterns of social behavior. ” (Tomari, Martina) But later in life, as an adult, those well learned habits imprison them in frustrating, painful, co-dependent relationships, at home and at work.
Some of the most common side effects are guilt; the child may see himself or herself as the main cause of the mother’s or father’s drinking. Another is 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. Then the 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.
Then comes confusion; the alcoholic parent will change suddenly from being lovey 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. And then the 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. 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.
Although the child tries to keep the alcoholism a secret, teachers, relatives, other adults, or friends may sense that something is wrong. Child and adolescent psychiatrists advise that the following behaviors may signal a drinking or other problem at home. Failure in school, 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, aggression towards other children, risk taking behaviors, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Some children of alcoholics may act like responsible “parents” within the family and among friends. They may cope with the alcoholism by becoming successful “over achievers” throughout school, and at the same time be emotionally isolated from other children and teachers. Their emotional problems may show only when they become adults, but in fact they have been “adult children” their whole lives. “Adult Child” carries a double meaning: the adult who is trapped in the fears and reactions of a child, and the child who was forced to be an adult without going through the natural stages that would result in a healthy adult.
When the adult child of a dysfunctional family begins to enter the “real world” schools and the workplace they discover their family system is not the reality shared by their classmates and co-workers. Many adult children become loners or form tight, unhealthy relationships with other children of dysfunctional homes. These relationships actually re-enforce their dysfunctional view of the world by “finding another person who really understands. ” The tightness of the bonds created in these relationships is accented by the child’s lack of an individual sense of identity.
They do not yet know where they stop and someone else begins. As a result they are unable to define their limits and begin to take on other people’s opinions, defects and needs. If the adult child is able to form lasting friendships (some never do), it is usually with other adult children who provide familiar characteristics similar to the family’s dysfunction. Adult children can be very slow to recognize the patterns of family problems. They spent their lives being trained by the family to not see the problem, even when they are re-created in friendships, marriages and work relationships.
Whether or not their parents are receiving treatment for alcoholism, these children and adolescents can benefit from educational programs and mutual-help groups such as programs for children of alcoholics, Al-Anon, and Alateen. Early professional help is also important in preventing more serious problems for the child, including alcoholism. Studies from the US and Australia have shown that easy local alcohol access is associated with adolescent alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse. Dale, Richard) Child and adolescent psychiatrists help these children with the child’s own problems, and also help the child to understand they are not responsible for the drinking problems of their parents. The treatment program may include group therapy with other youngsters, which reduces the isolation of being a child of an alcoholic. The child and adolescent psychiatrist will often work with the entire family, particularly when the alcoholic parent has stopped drinking, to help them develop healthier ways of relating to one another.
One very successful form of recovery for adult children involves acknowledging the existence of an inner child. The child, who was small, lost and without hope never really went away, but froze. Recovering adult children can find that inner child and resume the process of nurturing to allow him/her to complete the job of growing into a healthy adult. Many counselors, therapists and psychologists have been valuable to many adult children in the process of recovery. Growing up in an alcoholic family is certainly traumatic, and it seems there are no positive aspects involved.
The fact of the matter is these children will be scarred for life and most likely need some kind of counseling in the future depending on the severity of the abuse. Too many children in America have lived through this dreadful lifestyle. Alcohol simply should never be abused, neither should the children. One misconception that many alcoholics and addicts seem to have is that their drinking or substance abuse is not affecting anyone else. Many times they will make statements like, “I’m not hurting anyone but myself! ” Unfortunately, there is a great deal of research and a vast amount of anecdotal evidence that this is simply not the case. Hurt people . . . hurt people. ” The behavior of addicts and alcoholics can affect everyone around them, including family, friends, employers and coworkers. Perhaps those most vulnerable to the effects of alcoholism or addiction are their children. If you have a drinking or a drug abuse problem and you have children in your home, they are being affected, sometimes so profoundly that the effects last their entire lifetimes. Children of alcoholics and addicts can have deep-seated psychological and emotional reactions to growing up with an addicted parent. Emergent from an alcoholic family is harrowing.
In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. Survival becomes a full-time job. While most of us know that alcoholism is a disease, too few recognize it as a family disease, which may emotionally, spiritually and often physically, affect not only the alcoholic but each member of the family. Little emotional energy remains to consistently fulfill the many needs of children who become victims of the family illness. For many years, professional psychologists were barely aware of the vast pool of suffering of the family of alcoholics.
They concentrated on healing the alcoholic and felt that it solved the problems of the family as well. Today they realize that the whole family suffers this sickness and all must be made well. By looking at what it is like to live in an alcoholic’s home, the side effects, and how to cope with the problem there is conclusive evidence to see how the disease negatively affects the children. Dale, Richard A. , et al. “Alcohol environment, gender and nonfatal injuries in young people. An ecological study of fourteen Swedish municipalities (2000-2005). ” Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy 7 (2012): 36.
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