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
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.
• 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
• The Enabler. The family member who helps, supports, and allows the substance abuse to continue by “saving” the abuser from the consequences of his or her behavior and then covering up the mistakes. The enabler may deny the alcoholism, but the child or spouse may feel angry and helpless to control the situation. He or she makes excuses for the alcoholic's behaviors. The enabler has learned to be a rescuer.
• The Hero. The sibling who excels in academics and sports in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy and guilt and to create the illusion of a successful family. The hero may also be the super responsible family member who takes care of both the parent(s) and the other children in the family, thus assuming the adult parental role.
• The Scapegoat. The sibling who acts out his or her anger by displaying unacceptable behaviors. The behaviors may include delinquency or substance abuse. This person allows the rest of the family to believe that the family problems are because of his or her acting out behaviors. The scapegoat may be the child who brings attention to the family so that family may be required by the school or law enforcement to seek help for this child. They are inadvertently discovered to be an alcoholic family.
• The Mascot. This child is the comedian who diverts the attention away from the alcoholic and the family to himself. His or her diversionary tactics defuse the anger that everyone in the family feels by providing comic relief.
• The Lost Child. This child is the family member who never causes a problem and is relatively invisible. The lost child has also been labeled the placater because he or she is sensitive to the needs of others and is often sympathetic to the alcoholic parent. The lost child may not only be a placater, but also an adjuster who easily follows directions and doesn't draw attention to him or herself. This child is protected from the family's anger and blame because the lost child is the unnoticed child who avoids the family's hostility.
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.