Monday, February 11, 2008

National Children of Alcoholics Week!

This week is National Children of Alcoholics Week! As an adult child of a recovering alcoholic, and as a friend of many children of alcoholics, including some who are still very young, this week is important to me! Did you know that at least 25% of children in the USA are exposed to a family alcohol abuse problem? The chances are, you know at least one child, in your extended family or your community, who is living with someone with an alcohol problem. So, instead of mixing this post in with my usual "Events Of The Week" post, I thought I'd give this topic a post of its own!
It is important for children of alcoholics to know that the alcohol problem in their family doesn't have to be a "shameful secret", and that they are allowed to talk about it with their teachers, caring family members, mentors, counselors, or whatever other adults are available. Unfortunately, this concept is the exact opposite of what many children of alcoholics learn in their families. Many adults have trouble admitting that they or their spouse are dealing with alcoholism. And many parents would definitely rather not acknowledge that the family problem could be effecting their children, in a big way! So, in many families, the members just do not talk about the problem. Have you ever heard people talk about "the elephant in the living room?" Thats exactly what happens in many families. Everyone tiptoes around the elephant, tries not to wake it up, and the children learn to just pretend like there is no elephant there at all.
As a result, children's stress levels are much higher than the stress levels of their peers. The reason for that is pretty obvious. Lets look at some things children of alcoholics may deal with in their everyday lives.

- They often do not know what to expect in their household. Different people act in different ways when they're drinking. Some people may abuse their children, either physically, sexually or emotionally, when they're drunk. Others may become especially loving, to the point of weepiness. One eleven-year-old girl I know says that, when her father is drunk, he "acts stupid" and she has trouble understanding what he is saying. People's personalities can change drastically when they're drinking. Children of alcoholics often learn to "take the temperature of the house" as soon as they wake up, or come home from school, to figure out what kind of day it will be. They may listen closely to hear what the parent's voice sounds like, look around to see if the house is messy or if there are bottles out, or try to detect the smell of alcohol. Whether or not the parent is drinking, or how much the parent has drunk already, will effect the way the child must act. Children who develop this habit often carry it out into the world with them, and approach all situations very cautiously, wondering what will happen.
- Children of alcoholics are often making sure they always have a "backup plan" at all times. If Mom forgets to pick them up from school, they'll walk home, or ask a friend's parent for a ride, or call Grandma. If Dad is drinking when they get home, they'll go over to a friend's house right away, or take their younger siblings to another room and distract them. Many children of alcoholics learn that the adults in their lives just can't be depended on. Even if one parent in the household is not an alcoholic, that parent can be so overwhelmed by the problems of alcoholism, that they too can become undependable.
- Children of alcoholics may witness violence in their home. Some people become angry and violent when drinking. One little boy I know saw his father threaten suicide with a knife while drinking. And even when the drinking parent is not violent, often the drinking itself causes large fights between the parents. A child may hear his parents screaming at each other, even throwing things in anger. Children may always be waiting for the next fight, or the next act of violence, to break out.
- Children of alcoholics are often frightened. They may be afraid of the fighting. They may be afraid that the drinking parent will hurt them or the other parent. They may be afraid that the parent will lose his job and the family will become very poor. Or they may be afraid that something bad will happen to the drinking parent... he could get very ill from drinking, and die, or he could get in an accident while drinking. They constantly live with these worries.
- Children of alcoholics often don't have many friends. First of all, they are often reluctant to bring friends over to their house, or they may not be allowed to, because of the drinking parent's behavior. Second of all, because they live in a dysfunctional environment, they often have trouble learning the social skills that would allow them to make healthy friendships.
- Children of alcoholics often have trouble in school. The household may be too chaotic for anyone to help them with their homework on a regular basis. Children may go to school tired from staying up listening to fighting, or from sleepless nights of worrying. They may have trouble concentrating in school.
- Children of alcoholics often blame themselves for the parent's drinking. Kids are naturally self-centered. I don't mean this in a bad way, but in the way that, they assume everyone is focusing on them. If Mom or Dad is drinking, the child assumes maybe he has something to do with it. If he kept his room cleaner, fought less with his sister, or got better grades, perhaps everything would be perfect. They may also feel that they are not doing a good enough job of hiding the alcohol, covering up for the drinking, protecting the other parent, etc.
- Children may be physically or emotionally neglected. Even if the family is financially well-off, the drinking parent may be too undependable, and the non-drinking parent too preoccupied, to meet all of the children's needs. Children may often be wearing disheveled clothing, be unwashed, or be hungry, when a parent has been drinking.
- Even if the parent eventually stops drinking for good, the child may remember other times when the parent promised to stop drinking, or stopped for a while, but then went back to it. The child may always live in fear, waiting for the parent to pick up a drink again.

If you know a child of an alcoholic, the best thing you can do for her is make yourself available for her.
You can teach children of alcoholics about how alcohol works in the body. Explain that the alcohol effects a person's brain and makes them think and act differently. You can explain that alcoholism is a disease.
Always explain to the child that the drinking is never the child's fault!
Allow the child to talk to you about how things are at home. Keep your ears open, and try hard not to be judgemental! Children of alcoholics are in a tough spot, because they love their parents and want to protect them, even when they know the parents' behavior is wrong. If they sense something they are telling you is making you angry at the parent, they may clam up. Concentrate instead on the child, how the child is feeling and being effected. For instance, instead of saying, "I cannot believe your dad did that!" you could say, "That must have been scary for you!"
If possible, you can open your home to the child and provide a safe place for them. The child doesn't necessarily have to actually live with you, but knowing that she can always come over to your house and have a normal, peaceful day can be helpful.

And what if you are the "other parent," the child's one parent who doesn't drink? Although you are undoubtedly stressed out by the other parent's drinking, you can help your child to be as healthy as possible.
First of all its important to take care of yourself. We want to tell the children that it isn't their fault that the other parent drinks, that they don't have to be ashamed of it or keep it a secret. But you need to know that too! It may be good for you to join a support group of your own, such as Al-Anon. Even if you are no longer living with the child's other parent, the fact that the other parent will always be in your life because of the children means you'll have to look for healthy ways of coping.
As the healthy parent in the family, be an advocate for your child. Try to avoid putting too much responsibility on the child. For instance, saying, "Be on your best behavior today, because Mom is in a bad mood," can put too much pressure on a child. The other parent's drinking is not the child's fault, ever, and we need to always keep telling the child that.
Also try to avoid telling your children to keep the household's secrets. That can make the child feel ashamed, and also make it hard for him to make friends at school. The children need to feel that its okay to talk about things that happen at home. Your children are probably not going to be whisked away by DCFS because their other parent is an alcoholic.
(On the other hand, if the alcoholism is causing something more dangerous to happen... if the child is being abused in some way, for instance, or seriously neglected... then it is your responsibility to get the child out of that situation no matter what.)
You can refer your child to a counselor, either through the school or in the community, who is experienced in talking with children of alcoholics. They may also be able to go to a support group, such as Alateen. Signing your child up for a mentor can also be a wonderful way for your child to develop a healthy and stable relationship with an adult, a way for your child to get out of the house and have positive experiences on a regular basis, and also a way for you to have some respite time for yourself.
A parent with an alcoholism problem may never stop drinking. But that doesn't mean her children will never be healthy. With the help of their family members and community, children can learn coping skills, have positive experiences and relationships, and grow up to be healthy adults.
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1 comment:

nithya said...

Hi, I have gone through your article. I agree with the concerns that you have expressed in your article.It is a very shocking information that children's are also exposed to drug/alcohol.Proper awareness should be provided to people so that they should stay away from the evils of drug/alcohol. keep it your good work...
Alcohol abuse affects millions. This site has a lot of useful information.