This week is Children of Alcoholics Week. Around the globe, organizations host events in recognition of the youngest citizens impacted by alcoholism and drug abuse. Here in the United States, one in four children lives in a family environment where alcohol and/or drug abuse affects their world and healthy development. In order to give these children the support they need and deserve, here’s a list of the top five myths about them, a look at what’s really going on, and the truth about how we can help.
1. Children cannot heal unless their mom or dad gets help first.
People often believe that the gateway to help for children is opened only after the addicted adult gets help. This is not true. Children can and should get help whether or not the parent is receiving treatment or in recovery. Around the U.S., twelve-step programs like Alateen and educational counseling programs run by schools and other organizations are geared specifically towards COAs and can be extremely supportive.
Children may feel guilty that they are getting help and their parent isn’t. That’s a normal and crucial part of recovery: uncovering the guilt and learning to safely cope with it and other tough feelings.
2. Children don’t know what they don’t see or hear.
Many parents believe that their substance abuse is safely hidden if it’s done outside the home or when the kids are asleep. Sadly, this is far from the truth. Studies show what common sense has always told us: that children are more intuitive and perceptive than adults. Because their language development happens so gradually, children rely on other senses to help them understand the world and those around them. That means they “pick up on” subtle cues in their environment–including what adults are not saying. Silent treatments between mom and dad, closed-door hushed discussions, a parent who, for no apparent reason, is fatigued or passed out, or one who seems to have two different personalities all add up to the perception that something is “not right.”
Believing that children won’t know what they don’t see or hear, families learn to abide by some “rules” typical for those living with alcoholism, such as “Don’t talk.” The danger? Children learn to live with secrets and false truths, and they internalize mistrust in the world around them. After all, if they are sensing and feeling what they believe is a problem, but they are told it isn’t, they learn not to trust who and what is around them—even themselves. It’s exactly these experiences that make adult COAs (ACOAs) vulnerable to addiction and other problems later in life.
3. Children from addicted family environments are easy to spot.
They may be the girl in library class who interrupts the teacher and pokes at the kid next to her. They may also be the child who does everything right. Unlike the challenging girl at the library, the “good” children from addicted families often get overlooked because their behavior doesn’t cause problems for adults. These children use achievement as a way to cope with what goes on at home, as well as to manage their internal experiences of anxiety, sadness, guilt, and shame. Consequently, they may grow into adults always searching for approval, overachieving to a fault, and feeling guilty and worthless when they fall short of perfection. These children need help just as much as their troublemaker counterparts.
4. Once the parent’s drinking stops, the children will be fine.
Both the troublemaking girl and the perfect student have learned ways of coping with the difficulties of life, and they don’t automatically unlearn these strategies—or learn new ones—when a parent stops drinking, nor will they automatically learn to trust themselves and others. During early sobriety, especially, there are enormous changes to the entire family. If only the person with the addiction gets help, the other family members, especially children, remain “at sea” without a beacon or compass to help them navigate this new life that no longer revolves around the parent’s addiction. Getting their own support—whether through counseling, faith-based programs, or support groups—will help them find direction in uncharted territory.
5. If children from addicted families don’t pick up a drink or a drug and live a sober adult life, they’ll be fine.
The impact of living in an alcoholic home doesn’t always manifest with the child developing an addiction themselves. It can show up in seemingly unrelated ways. For example, they may have difficulty with relationships, because the ones they grew up with were marked by a lack of trust and connection. Even if the parent is physically present to care for child’s needs, the parent often won’t be emotionally or mentally present when actively abusing substances, and so the child grows up feeling that relationships full of mistrust, secrecy and disconnection somehow feel “right”—even when they lead to stress and unhappiness. That is why ACOAs are four times more likely to marry someone who abuses drugs or alcohol than are adults who were not raised in a home with an addicted parent. Substance abuse in a relationship increases the likelihood of domestic violence, financial difficulties, parenting difficulties, and, especially for women, the eventual potential for them to begin using, even later in life.
That relates to another myth about COAs: that they are destined to become addicted, too. While it’s true that the chances of addiction are greater for COAs, they’re far from 100 percent. As concerned adults in a child’s life, we can lessen the likelihood even further in the following ways:
- Let them know they are not alone; it helps enormously for COAs to know that other children live with similar family issues.
- Be a trusting, safe adult in their lives, consistently over time. Statistically, this is the number one factor that can prevent COAs from their own substance abuse and other life difficulties.
- Encourage interests or activities outside of the family that allows for the child to create and develop an alternative life and provides a source of comfort when times are tough within the family.
- Foster their social competence. A child who is open to experiences and getting to know others is more apt to be liked and supported by others.
- Teach them problem-solving skills: seeing alternatives to any situation, being imaginative about solutions, reflecting on one’s own experience and how it could have been handled differently, and being resourceful (asking for help).
- Instill in them a sense of purpose and future. This includes fostering that special interest or activity outside of the family, as well as having a life goal, feeling a part of something greater than themselves, and having a sense of gratitude for things big and small.
This month, consider making a commitment to a new way of parenting your own child or reaching out to a child you know is struggling. It can make all the difference in the world.
Mary Kennedy, LCSW
Senior Advisor, Center on Addiction and the FamilyBack to Index