According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, “one in four children lives in a family impacted by parental addiction.” Hidden from most people is the chaos and uncertainty these children go through on a daily basis.
When I think of alcoholism I often think of the common portrayals in movies of a physically or verbally abusive person or a drunken, passed out, and non-engaged parent. This is often not the case, and the experience for Children of Alcoholics (COA) is often very different. Some common problems associated with families affected by alcoholism can be physical or emotional violence, increased family conflict, and increased family isolation and stress. Family stress can include work problems, illness, marital strain, financial problems, and decreased family cohesion. However, the experiences for each family are different, just like it can be different for each child affected.
On the surface, you would be hard-pressed to tell there were any issues around the home. We hosted family functions, attended church every Sunday, were involved in sports, had good relationships with our neighbors, and spent time as a family every weekend. The presence of beer was standard around the home and at family functions. Not all alcoholics are low functioning or depressed. Many are high functioning and, on the surface, look and act “normal”. It’s when they are not around others that things take on a different look and feel. You could say my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. To varying degrees, we witnessed and experienced things like increased family stress and marital problems, decreased family cohesion, and family isolation.
As a child, I didn’t know any better and thought this was normal. There is no doubt my parents loved us and did their best to provide the best they could for my siblings and me. Our family life was not “bad” as compared to others but we did have our share of issues related to alcohol. That is the thing with families of substance abuse, the experiences can be severe or subtle, but the one thing that does exist is trauma, in some form, to children in these families. Children of alcoholics often have to navigate a “minefield” of emotions; uncertainty, disorganization, possible physical/emotional neglect, arguments, and marital problems to name a few.
Looking back, armed with the knowledge I have gained through therapy, the evidence was there but not easily seen. Arguments between parents were normal, higher expectations and degree of discipline were common, and staying home from social events was standard. At the time, I did not know anything other than, “This is the situation I am in,” and “How do I survive this?” When you’re in the moment you learn to develop survival instincts to get you through the chaos and uncertainty.
Every situation is different, and every child develops differently through their experience. While on the “battlefield” children can develop anxiety, depression, insecurity, low self-esteem, emotional isolation, and many other issues. Living with an alcoholic parent, the child may not get their emotional, behavioral and/or social needs met. Additionally, within the family, different roles may appear, with some members taking on hybrid roles. The common roles present include: addict, hero, mascot, lost child, scapegoat, and caretaker.
In alcoholic families, these roles can lead to codependency. Codependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction” and is described as an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy relationship. There are many different signs of codependency, and I encourage you to explore them further. Maybe this is my idea for a future blog post.
This topic is much bigger than what I was able to explain here and I hope this brings some attention to a topic that is seldom talked about. Next time you discuss alcohol and its effects in your classes, please consider talking about this topic and making available resources to support students who may need it but do not know where to go for help.
The next NACOA Children of Alcoholics Awareness Week February 11-17, 2024
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Pair this blog post with the following:
Talking to Teens About Alcohol and Breast Cancer by Candor Health
How Legends Are Made by Heather Burd
A Poem About Stories by Amy Dawson
Have you read the latest Book of the Month recommendation?
Check out Emily Zien‘s list of recommended sobriety books.