When a parent is an alcoholic
The conspiracy of silence surrounding alcohol or drug addiction within the family can do as much damage to a child as the substance addiction itself. Often the partner of an alcoholic puts all his efforts into fighting or covering the addiction, and the children may become lost in the family struggle. Alcoholism is often associated with abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional, and with subsequent family breakdown. It is always associated with the neglect of children by the addicted parent. As a result of the parent's broken promises and harsh words and the threat of abuse, the children learn not to trust, not to feel, and not to talk about their problems.
Children's reactions to the stress of alcoholism vary with the age and sex of the child and their temperament. One child may become withdrawn, another aggressive, still another may become depressed and unable to concentrate in school. The responsible eldest child may take on the role of superachiever, excelling in school, taking care of younger children, and otherwise filling in for an absent parent. As she covers for the family, doing her utmost to make everything appear normal, she neglects her own hurt and need. Another child might become withdrawn and unable to communicate with anyone, because her trust has been destroyed by the unacknowledged turmoil in her family. Some children become scapegoats and act out aggressively both at home and in school. Or one may become the class clown, whose jokes and hijinks call attention to himself and away from the problems at home. It takes a long time for these children to relearn appropriate patterns of behaviour.
Being the partner of an alcoholic
Children need one very resilient parent to help them overcome the effects of a partner's alcoholism. One important step is to acknowledge the problem in an age-appropriate way. School-age children can see the difference between what happens in their family life with an alcoholic parent and what happens in that of a nonalcoholic parent. Telling them what's going on can help re-establish healthy patterns of communication.
There's no agreement among addiction counsellors about the best way to describe alcoholism to children. Some adopt the Alcoholics Anonymous method of describing it as a disease: "Daddy behaves that way because he's sick. He cannot control himself when he's drinking." Although your children may wonder why Daddy can't just get a pill from the doctor, describing alcoholism as a disease helps the child feel less responsible for the drinking parent. You might tell a younger child that Daddy is "stuck on drinking like a magnet on a piece of steel. He can't let go." The message you give your child should be geared to his level of understanding. Your child needs to have an explanation for the alcoholic partner's denial of his condition, and to know that the parent's condition is not the child's fault. "We can't make Daddy well. He has to get help for himself."
Page 1 of 2Coping strategies
Covering constantly for an alcoholic partner is a mistake and one your children will see through. If your wife has a problem with drugs or alcohol, urge her to seek counselling. If she's reluctant, point out the effect that she's having on the children, something most alcoholics deny. If she does take treatment, participate in all the family counselling available, whether you believe that you'll stay together as a family or not. Through the provincial health-care system, some provinces fund residential treatment programs that include family counselling. In Ontario, Renascent Centres offer a 21-day, live-in program at no charge for men and women willing to take treatment. The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, which is publicly funded, will initiate family counselling while encouraging the addicted parent to get involved in treatment. Alcoholics Anonymous and its family support groups like Al-Anon/Alateen offer effective follow-up in most communities. You can seek help through a family doctor or a mental health centre if you're unsure where to go.
Children of alcoholics grow up fast. They feel responsible for their parent's drinking and for the future of their family, but they also feel powerless. Authoritative parenting by the nonalcoholic parent might help alleviate some of the child's burden. An authoritative parent makes it clear that she's the adult, the person with authority, but she's willing to negotiate with the child on the rules and the consequences of breaking them. This parenting style can help children to maintain consistency in day-to-day routines and family rituals.
Children of alcoholics should be helped to develop coping strategies for the kind of situations they face.
• If Dad starts drinking when you're out together, call home and I'll come and get you both.
• If Mom passes out at home, call Grandma to get help until I get home.
• Speak to a favourite aunt or uncle for advice and comfort.
Children of alcoholics, if given permission to express their doubts and fears, can learn and become stronger through their experiences. If you think that you're not equal to the role of helping your child, look around your community for others who can help -- perhaps a coach, a teacher, or a leader in your religious group. Your children need as many models as possible of how to be healthy adults.
What kids need to know about alcoholism
1. It's not your fault. Your parent doesn't drink because of something you do or don't do. No matter how perfect you are, you can't change it.
2. You can't fix it. Forget about watering down the booze or talking your parent into seeking treatment. That's not your responsibility.
3. You can learn to deal with it. Find a friend, relative, or teacher you can talk to. At home, find a safe place for yourself.
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