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What is the impact of alcoholism on children?
Most co-dependents are children of alcoholics, but not all come from alcoholic families. Some may have grown up in dysfunctional families who had other problems, such as poverty or a mental or physical illness. Adult children of alcoholics grow up physically — but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, many still function on a developmental level that is appropriate for a young child. ACoAs have never learned a "normal" way of thinking, feeling, or reacting. Their parents never grew up to be responsible, integrated adults. Consequently, ACoAs have never had appropriate role models to emulate. Frequently, childhood trauma has compromised their adult relationships, career trajectories, and marriages. For example, because they have never seen a functional parental partnership in action, they tend to have poor parenting skills, and often the cycle of alcoholism continues from generation to generation unless it is broken by an intervention.
Characteristics of Alcoholic Families
• Low levels of cohesion
• Lack of the expression of love and caring for each other
• Poor communication
• High degree of conflict
• Inconsistent parenting
• Lack of routine, such as meal and bed times
• Lack of traditions and rituals, such as celebrating Easter or 4th of July
• Chaotic family systems with loose boundaries between family members, often with role reversals such as a child parenting the alcoholic parent
• Rigid boundaries between the family and the community to hide the alcoholism and maintain a façade of normalcy
Young Children of Alcoholics
Young children have a tendency to blame themselves and feel guilty for their parents drinking. They worry about their parents, fearing that they might get sick or injured and get anxious when their parents fight. They may perpetuate the lie that their family life is normal and are ashamed of their parents, thus avoiding having friends play at their homes. Because of the many promises that are broken by inconsistent parenting, they do not trust other people. Other characteristics may include the following:
• Failure in school or truancy and poor high school gradation rates
• Lack of friends and withdrawal from classmates
• Difficulty having fun
• Judging one's self mercilessly, resulting in poor selfesteem
• Delinquent behavior, such as stealing or violence
• Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
• Abuse of drugs or alcohol
• Anger and aggression toward other children
• Impulsivity, risky behaviors, and a lack of self- discipline
• Mistrusting adults and authority figures
• Being super responsible or very irresponsible
• Depression, suicidal thoughts, or attempts
Adult Children of Alcoholics
The roles that children assume are sometimes functional within an alcoholic family system, but the danger is that ACoAs will continue these same behavior patterns, enacting roles that are no longer functional as adults. ACoAs often stay in abusive relationships because of their own lack of self-esteem, their comfort with chaos, their fear of abandonment, and/or their sense of unfailing loyalty. They frequently remain loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. Because of their past experiences with their parents who disappointed, hurt, or abused them, ACoAs often perceive themselves as victims and may continue to play the roles of martyr or victim as adults. ACoAs learn other roles in order to adapt to chaotic family patterns. The following are some of the roles that are identified in the literature on alcoholism. The behaviors associated with each role may persist into adulthood. Table 19 provides a list of roles that children adopt in order to cope within alcoholic families.
Table 19 Adopted Roles to Cope Within Alcoholic Families
Each family member plays a role in order to keep the family system in balance, which is true in all families. The difference between a "normal" family and an alcoholic family is that the roles in the dysfunctional family tend to be rigid and not interchangeable. Therefore, dysfunctional behavior problems persist into adulthood; thus, the enabler continues to rescue others. The hero continues to excel at all costs to himself or herself. The scapegoat continues to set himself or herself up as the victim of abuse or follows in his or her parents' footsteps by drinking or drugging. The mascot plays the comedian as an adult, and the lost child tends to remain isolated as an adult, under everyone's radar. The impact of having an alcoholic parent has lasting effects on children, as they continue to play out their assigned family roles. The good news is that if you are a child of an alcoholic, a number of self-help groups are available, as mentioned in the previous question. Sometimes depression hampers progress. If that is the case, psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medications may give the ACoA the boost in energy to work on his or her lifelong problems.
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