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The Effects of Parental Alcoholism On Children

 Until  recently, the impact of alcoholism was measured by its effect on the alcoholic, by days lost from work and highway fatalities. New research has tended to concentrate on the impact of alcoholism on the family, especially the children of alcoholics. Studies have reported on the familial transmission of alcoholism. It has been shown that alcoholics have more biological relatives with an alcohol problem than do nonalcoholics. Furthermore, these people have a higher probability for developing alcoholism earlier in their lives, and experiencing more severe effects of alcoholism (Jones-Saumty p.783). There are in the vicinity of twenty million children under eighteen years of age whom are growing up in households where one or both parents are alcoholic in the United States alone. These children are the unwilling victims of a disease which generally is the center of their childhood existence, and therefore shapes their personality and behavior as adults. “Because of the familial nature of alcoholism children have been identified to be of high risk for developing this illness” (Merikangas p.199). Unless something is done to break the patterns initiated during childhood, a significant percentage, (between 50%-60%), of those who don’t become alcoholics themselves will marry an alcoholic upon reaching maturity, thereby continuing the cycle of abuse and depression. “Studies of the development of drinking behavior recognize the formation of socially appropriate rules about the use of alcohol and the role of the parent behaviors and attitudes in determining drinking patterns” (Wilks & Callan p.326). In addition, “Clustering of depression, alcoholism and antisocial personality within families has been frequently observed” (Merikangas p.199). Alcoholism is a disease of denial, that is, those suffering from it often refuse to admit they are affected by it. Alcoholics with a long history of family alcoholism have more sever symptoms and more social problems versus those families without a history of family alcoholism. Parents in such a situation tend to insist to their children that their alcoholic symptoms are neither serious nor permanent in nature. Many alcoholics authentically believe that their alcoholism is hidden. This is further complicated by the fact “ that problem drinking is in part a function of the definition of oneself as deficient and the concept of alcohol as useful for altering the definition of oneself” (Cutter & O’Farrell p.321). Consequently, the children of alcoholic parents are confronted with various dilemmas. First, the child sees his parent[s] drinking in excess, while simultaneously denying the fact. Second, the child further observes the personality of his parent[s] significantly alter after the alcohol has taken effect, confusing the child to greater extent, (Which is my “real” dad?- from the child’s point of view). In order to cope with the family situation, the child of an alcoholic parent generally learns to go along with the “conspiracy” of denial and silence. Although generally the pattern of secrecy which permits this to occur ultimately has affect on the child’s future life. Unfortunately, the impact on children from families with an alcoholic parent is both enduring and direct. For instance, these children tend to drop out of school voluntarily in large numbers than any other group of children thus far studied in this correlation, (i.e., duration of voluntary schooling). This has been especially the situation with affected male children of alcoholic parents. “It has been reported that family history positive men with alcoholism have had significantly more suspensions from school, poorer academic and social performance in school, and more premilitary antisocial behavior”(Cutter & O’Farrell p.305). As previously stated, these children (those with alcoholic parents), also have a greater incidence of problems with alcohol and substance abuse themselves in later life. This condition, in turn, leads to a greater risk of developing not only emotional problems but physical problems as well. These problems range from the inability to establish rewarding long-term relationships to difficulty facing reality, traceable to early familial experiences. In many ways, childhood is abbreviated for children whose parents are alcoholics. They learn to parcel out feelings to avoid upsetting the alcoholic parent or to avoid being held responsible for triggering a bout of parental drinking. The manner in which the child relates and responds is too often determined by the state of the alcoholic, which can be rather unpredictable. The entire family is, in fact, engaged in a struggle to control an uncontrollable situation. As a result, the methods utilized by affected children to cope with their parent’s alcoholism initiates a variety of behavior which inevitably proceeds into adulthood. The related problems of behavior and adaptation often are not distinguishable for ten or twenty years. Even in maturity, these individuals tend to be unable to trust their own perceptions or feelings. Often, they continue to deny, (just as their parents had), that anything is wrong. Adult children of alcoholics often doubt their inability to control both themselves and their relationships. Most recent “data suggests that concordance for alcoholism in parents is a potent risk factor for the development of antisocial personality-conduct disorder in children”(Merikangas p.203). Due to the fact that their lives were in concurrent states of turmoil and confusion when they were children, they often believe that the mere expression of commonplace and normal emotions (i.e. anger, joy) indicates that they lack control. The manner of coping as children permits affected individuals to survive as adults in a seemingly “normal” fashion, for quite a while. However, crises begin generally in their to late twenties. Very often, these adults do not relate their problems to having grown up with an alcoholic parent. They become depressed and dissatisfied with life, without understanding why. They lack an appropriate perspective of normal behavior and have no concept of their power to alter this situation because the people who where supposed to be responsible for them as children, (their parents), were not. Therefore, the adult child of an alcoholic has difficulty in identifying needs and/or expressing feelings. They also have substantial fears regarding proper responses and social behaviors which date back to their youth. In the end alcoholism is a very serious disease which must not be taken lightly. It is a legal vice that when used, or abused can cause irreparable damage. Alcoholism effects many people and the families of those people, both directly and indirectly.

Bibliography works cited: Cutter, Henry S. & T.J. O’Farrel. “Relationship Between Reasons for Drinking & Customary Behavior.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Volume 45, #4, July 1992, pp. 321-325. Jones-Saumty, Deborah, “Psychological Factors of familial Alcoholism in American Indians & Caucasians.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Volume 39, #5 September 1989, pp.783-790. Merikangas, Kathleen R., “Depressives with Secondary Alcoholism: Psychiatric Disorders in Offspring.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Volume 46, #3 May 1994, pp. 193-204. Wilks, Jeffery & V.J. Callan, “Similarity of University Students & Their Parents’ Attitudes Toward Alcohol.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Volume 45, #4 July 1997, pp.326-333.

deleted deleted 26-30 6 Responses Jun 15, 2009

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Thank you for sharing this. It was almost as if this was written about me.

Do those of you who had alcoholic mothers have a relationship with her?

Not a very good one. She lost custody of me when I was 5. I do remember before that time, too, and it was quite scary/ confusing. She does try to be in my life now, but I find it hard to see her as my mother

I know this is true. I am not an alcoholic and no one in my family has ever been. My husband is and his dad was along with several others in his family. He has difficulties dealing with emotions. He gets angry easily at next to nothing. It has gotten to the point that most of the time he lives with other members of his family. My children shut down when they are around him. I have two children from a previous marriage and one child with him. I couldn't bare to see them go through what he is going through. I don't blame him, but I don't know how to help him either. Thanks for posting.

Thanks for sharing. I am the product of at least three generations of alcohol abuse. Now I understand me a little bit better.

lot a research there man. frightening when you consider the ripple effect of alcohol abuse.



thanks for the post

Thank you SO much for posting this. I don't think people realize how much having an alcoholic in the home compromises their children. My ex is an alcoholic, and from first hand experience, children pick up on this, and start hiding and not expressing their emotions at a VERY early age. For anyone that this is happening to - PLEASE - tell someone. You do not have to be ashamed. This does effect the entire family, and it is NOT your fault. Al-Anon and Al-Ateen are also organizations that can provide strength and support for families and children of alcoholics.