Helping the Child of an Alcoholic

Helping the Child of an AlcoholicAlcoholism is a disease that develops as a result of a combination of factors from environment to heredity to experienced trauma. Unfortunately, this disease rarely impacts only the person directly involved in the behavior. Most often, many others also suffer along with the alcohol abuser and, frequently, that includes children. As many as one out of every five Americans (28 million) has grown up in a home with at least one alcoholic relative. Alcoholism affects children, but caring adults around those children can be of help in practical and meaningful ways.

One of the greatest risks, besides physical abuse, those children in alcoholic homes face is the poor modeling of relational skills and the tremendous amount of emotional confusion which results from having an unwell parent. Children from alcoholic homes are far more likely to experience emotional problems compared to kids from non-alcoholic homes. This is in part due to the fact that many of these children are either abused or neglected. In fact, kids who come from a home with a history of alcohol abuse are four times as likely to become alcohol-dependent themselves.

Children who grow up in an alcoholic home are often carrying around a heart filled with contrasting emotions which they do not know how to process or manage. Some of the most common are:

  • Anger – this can be directed at the drinking parent or toward the non-drinking parent whofails to stop the behavior or protect the family
  • Guilt – many children feel that somehow the abuse is their fault
  • Embarrassment – because the child never knows what the home environment will be like, they often avoid inviting others over to the house. Children are hesitant to discuss the home problems with other adults because they feel ashamed
  • Anxiety – the child has an underlying fear that conflict or violence is about to erupt or that the drinking parent will experience illness or injury without warning
  • Social isolation – the parent/child relationship has been so unreliable that the child struggles to trust others and finds forming meaningful attachments difficult
  • Depression – the child feels all alone in a desperate place where he/she is incapable of changing the situation

There are things that caring adults can do to intervene and help children of alcoholic parents.

  1. The best help is to get the parent into some sort of treatment program. Alcoholism is treatable. Removing the parent from the situation until they overcome their addiction is a help to everyone in the home.
  2. Whether or not the parent enters treatment, help is available for the child. Programs like Children of Alcoholics, Alateen and Alanon can all be useful. Support groups and counseling can help the child recognize that the disease of alcoholism is separate from them.
  3. Even if you can’t get the parent or the child into treatment, you can provide some stability for the child. Develop some sort of ritual for the child. It could be a weekly meal together, a regular shared activity like church or sports or predictable holiday traditions.

Children in alcoholic homes are at a greater risk, but that does not mean that they are predestined for emotional problems. The presence of a caring and involved adult can make a difference in the child’s emotional skill and development.