By Stephanie Thomas
If you’re a parent and you’re reading this article, I can make one big assumption about you: You love your kid. The other details — the ones we’ll get into further down — don’t matter right now. That’s because your love, combined with appropriate action, has the power to set your child on a path toward healing.
In this moment, consider your past behavior irrelevant. Grant the same for your spouse. Put your family trauma on hold for a second, and ask yourself the following questions:
- How can I harness the love I have for my kid?
- Will I allow this love to open my heart, my eyes and my ears?
- In what ways can I take action?
- Am I willing to do everything I can to see my child healthy, happy and whole?
As you wrestle with the answers, let us help.
Children in Homes With Alcoholism Suffer in Obvious and Subtle Ways
More than 10 million American kids are growing up under the weight of a parent’s alcoholism.1 And while each home environment may differ greatly from the next, plenty of commonalities exist:
- Families are often plagued with emotionally straining drama, abuse and worry.1
- Children endure a lack of structure combined with unreasonably high expectations.1
- Depression and anxiety are more prevalent in children of adults with a drinking problem.1
- Children respond to the pressure of a dysfunctional home by taking over the responsibilities of the adults or by acting out to draw attention away from family failings.2
- Untreated trauma in children may encourage self-medication.3 As a result of this and genetic factors, children of alcoholic parents are four times more likely than their peers to develop alcoholism themselves one day.4
No doubt these examples fall short — by a longshot — of the life you want for your child.
Help Your Child Overcome the Negative Effects of Parental Alcoholism
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s lay a few ground rules. If you are the parent who struggles to control your drinking, the best way you can help is to first get help for yourself and then point your child in the direction of another adult who can provide stability and support until you are fully able to assume that role again. If your spouse deals with alcoholism, your influence — and the encouragement of other trusting adults — will be key to keeping your child grounded and growing.1
1. Be open: talk and listen. We often hear that the first step of a journey is the hardest, and this couldn’t be more true now. When you commit to open conversation, you willingly bare your family struggles to the person you most hope will admire you and your spouse.
Here’s why you must do it anyway: Silence helps no one and hurts everyone. So speak up. Tell your kid he may be more likely to develop a drinking problem.4 Allow him to ask questions and answer them with age-appropriate responses. In doing so, you set an example of trust in a healthy relationship and contribute to his sense of self-worth.5
2. Embrace emotion: understand and validate. You may be tempted to dismiss the list of commonalities above as troubles other children deal with, not yours. Maybe your kid even seems to excel.6 Avoid making assumptions, and ask a few questions of your own.
Try to understand how your child feels when he sees you or your spouse drinking, how he feels about himself and what his biggest worries are surrounding your family.1 Repeat back what you hear, in your own words, and ask, “Is that correct?” Let your child know you can see why they feel the way they do and that you want to help where you can.
3. Reach out: therapy and healing. Once you talk and listen to your child, once you work to understand and validate him, pause for our applause. You did some hard work, friend! Make the most of your efforts by building a new foundation through family therapy.
In family therapy, you’ll work together to develop habits that support both the recovery of yourself or your spouse as well as the emotional health of your family as a whole. Studies show this approach improves one-on-one, family and community relationships, and it reduces the chance that your child may face the same struggles as an adult.7
1 “Children of Addicted Parents: Important Facts.” National Associations for Children of Addiction, August 2017.
2 Dayton, Tian. “Portrait of an Alcoholic Family.” Huffington Post, April 18, 2010.
3 Dayton, Tian. “The Hidden Pain of the Addicted Family.” Huffington Post, November 17, 2011.
4 Seaton, Jaimie. “How to Talk to Your Kids about Family Addiction.” The Washington Post, February 3, 2017.
5 “Dealing with Alcoholism in the Family.” WBUR, October 8, 2015.
6 “Behavioral Roles of Children of Alcoholics.” West Virginia University, Accessed January 29, 2018.
7 “Family Therapy Can Help.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration