The topic I chose for the research assignment is children of alcoholics. I chose to focus more on the children that are involved in families of alcoholics rather than on the family as a whole, because I felt there would be too much information. Because I grew up in a stable, relatively normal family, I chose to research a topic in which I did not have experience with. The participants that I chose for the interview are people that I know to have problems with parental alcoholism. Both of the interviewees are mature enough to reflect upon their childhood experiences, and are also still dealing with them to a point. The male participant is a friend of my sister, and the female participant is my roommate. I will discuss the research that I have done on children of alcoholics and then I will discuss the interviews.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics reports that there are an estimated 11 million children of alcoholics under the age of eighteen in the United States (“Children of Alcoholism: Important facts”). Additionally the association states that "almost one in every five adult Americans lived with an alcoholic while growing up" (“Children of Alcoholism: Important facts”). These statistics are horrifying. Living with an alcoholic is a very dangerous and emotionally stressful experience. Effects of growing up in an alcoholic family include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome for a baby that is exposed to alcoholism in the womb, hyperactivity, alexithymia, low self esteem, child abuse and many others. Teenagers who are children of alcoholics are emotionally neglected and might start drinking earlier than their peers. Adults who have survived living with an alcoholic family often have trouble functioning in relationships.
In the 1970's, researchers and other professionals began to look deeply into the "impact of parental alcoholism on children" (Jacob and Seilhamer 168). This began to open America's eyes to the dangers of being a child of an alcoholic. Although research on this issue has relatively just started, concern for these unfortunate children has been documented as far back to the time of Aristotle (Jacob and Seilhamer 168). The gin epidemic in England during the 1700's sparked concern due to "high infant morbidity and mortality" (Jacob and Seilhamer). Problems associated with being the child of an alcoholic regained national attention in the past 25 years with the formation of such groups as the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, and programs for treatment and prevention such as Al-Ateen (Jacob and Seilhamer 168). The amount of attention that is paid to studying and trying to help children of alcoholics indicates how much of a problem it is. Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman and chairperson of the Task Force of Crisis Intervention once remarked, “Alcohol abuse seemed to be connected to and exacerbate, so many problems that American families and their children face” (“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”).
Although this paper will discuss the many family issues that accompany being a relative of an alcoholic, the main focus will be on the children of alcoholics. Children of alcoholics are important to observe and study because they are, in most cases, the innocent victims of parental alcohol abuse. Sara Markowitz and Michael Grossman articulate the importance of parental alcohol abuse by stating, “Alcohol use and abuse is an important research topic because of the significant costs alcohol abuse imposes on individual users, their families, and society as a whole” (309).
Dangers from Conception
Being born to a mother who is an alcoholic is a struggle from conception. Some of the outcomes that can occur from this type of pregnancy are "spontaneous abortion, still birth" and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Windel 30). The latter is a term that refers to "birth defects common to children whose mothers were chronic alcoholics who drank heavily throughout pregnancy" (Windel 29). Some of the abnormalities of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are growth retardation, central nervous system deficits, developmental delay, brain malformations, and characteristic facial features.
These effects of being born to an alcoholic mother have a devastating effect on both the child and the family as a whole. Families that deal with miscarriages and still births are faced with emotional distress which could include: “sadness, frustration, disappointment and anger” (Knox and Schacht 341). This may worsen the condition of the alcoholic mother because she might “blame” herself for the death (Knox and Schacht 341). Dealing with such problems as hyperactivity and developmental delay create extra stress on the parents of the children (Knox and Schacht 332).
Even in children that do not suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, there are other detriments associated to being in a family with a history of alcoholism. Corral et al. “observed lower performance in children with a family history of alcoholism than in children with out alcoholic relatives in attentional, visiospatial, and frontal tasks” (509). In addition, developmental difficulties may be expressed in a child of an alcoholic and include “elevated motoric activity, attention deficits, reactivity, impulsivity, and anxiety” (Hussong et al. 453). Again, all of these outcomes are an added stress on the family of the child.
Effects of Alcohol on the Family
Alcoholism impacts families of all races, socioeconomic status, religions, and other backgrounds. Although each family responds and deals with alcoholism differently, there are several universal problems that most families must face. Ruth Ann Seilhamer and Theodore Jacob have proposed a “pathway” in which parental alcoholism affects offspring (176). This pathway of will provide the structure in which the ways children of alcoholics are affected are discussed.
The first step in the pathway is consumption of the alcohol. The intake of the alcohol leads to three possible effects. One of the first effects is the “ethanol effects” (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). In this direct result of alcohol consumption, the ability to be an “effective parent” is impaired (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). According to Cathy Spatz Widom, in the article “Child Abuse and Alcohol Use and Abuse”, “under the influence of alcohol, individuals who may already be stressed may misinterpret cues and resort to abusive behavior” (291). Many parents that abuse alcohol perform their duties differently when intoxicated and when sober (Ackerman 13). According to Robert Ackerman, author of Let Go and Grow, “When drinking, the alcoholic would demonstrate irresponsible behavior to the child, and when sober would try to do all of the positive parenting at one time” (13). The behaviors exhibited by the alcoholic parent affect the child psychologically, because there is no consistency in parenting.
Child abuse is one of the most devastating side effects of ethanol consumption. Abuse can range from psychological abuse to physical abuse and in some cases sexual abuse. There are many statistics that support the fact that alcoholism and abuse go hand in hand. Markowitz and Grossman estimate that around “forty percent of all cases of child maltreatment (including physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect) involve alcohol” (310). Additionally, studies shows that “thirteen percent of child abuse cases involved a perpetrator who was intoxicated at the time of the attack”, and that “in sixty nine percent of cases of child abuse, at least one parent was an alcoholic” (Markowitz and Grossman 310).
There are many ways in which families are affected by alcoholism. Marital strain is one of the primary outcomes of parental alcoholism. Many times, if one parent is an alcoholic and the other is not, the non-alcoholic parent has a great deal of stress and responsibility. Spouses of alcoholics, may be resentful or frustrated with their partner’s actions. The non-alcoholic parent must perform the duties of both parents when the alcoholic is too intoxicated to fulfill them. Consequently, non-alcoholic parents may be “inconsistent, demanding and frequently neglect the children” (Duffy). Lindy Boggs asserts, “Spouses of alcoholics cannot support their children emotionally because they are so wrapped up in their own survival” (“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”). Studies have shown that it is unlikely for husbands of female alcoholics to stay married (Ackerman 50). Thus, additionally emotional strain is placed upon all family members.
Having financial difficulties is another issue that families of alcoholics cope with. The family may have to give up certain privileges due to the amount of money spent on alcohol. Anyone that is a chronic drinker of alcohol is susceptible to a “host of medical problems, which in turn may compound to financial problems” (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). Doctor and hospital bills are a large financial burden on a family, which could create more tension and stress. Because many alcoholics’ drinking interferes with employment, unemployment is closely related to alcoholism (Boggs). Without one possible source of income, and money being spent on an addiction, a family would experience great financial distress. Children may not receive the nutrition and necessities that are needed.
Children of alcoholics often experience social isolation or difficulties (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). Ellen Duffy from the Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters reports that, “Children may be ashamed of their home or afraid they will be embarrassed in front of their friends” (“The Effects of Alcoholism on the Family”). So, in order to escape the embarrassment, the children of alcoholics tend to shy away from friendships. The “anxiety, depression and avoidance” that many children of alcoholics feel lead to “withdrawal, isolation and poor social skills over time” (Hussong et al. 455). And, because the alcoholic parent or parents are more attentive at sober times than when intoxicated, the children receive a conflicting portrayal of intimacy and family “cohesiveness” (Seilhamer and Jacob 182).
Although alcoholism is a genetic disorder, environmental factors are also important in the manifestation of the disease (Windel 9). Children look up to their parents and model their behavior, so it is no surprise that a great number of children of alcoholics turn into alcoholics themselves. Cathy Spatz Widom suggests, “Early onset and heavy use of alcohol may represent a coping strategy used by abused and neglected children to help them adapt to their early childhood trauma and to distance themselves from the painful realities they experienced” (295). The children dealing with parental alcoholism learn from parental actions that to deal with stress or problems, drinking is viable option. This is not a healthy response to stress and the family problems are never resolved.
According to the pathway described by Seilhamer and Jacob, both the family effects and the ethanol effects lead to “disrupted parenting” (176). As mentioned before, alcoholic parents do not provide a consistent and supportive environment (Seilhamer and Jacob 177). In some cases, there is no motivation for children to perform well because parents are too wrapped up in dealing with alcoholism, and pay little attention to accomplishments of the child (Ackerman 7). All of these effects of alcoholism lead to “child adjustment difficulties” (Seilhamer and Jacob 176).
Being in a family of an alcoholic has devastating effects on a child’s performance academically. In addition to being at a disadvantage due to being born with “cognitive and attentional impairments” caused by parental alcoholism, children must face additional hurdles (McGrath et al. 20). Because alcoholic and dependent parents often do not provide structure and are inconsistent, the children have poor organizational skills (McGrath et al. 19). Alcoholics may be dealing with their own impairments and “may not provide an intellectually stimulating environment that encourages academic competency” (McGrath et al. 19). Education is an area in which a child should be encouraged and supported. Without proper values instilled in their young minds, children of alcoholics are robbed of their opportunity to succeed in life.
In his book, Let Go and Grow, Robert Ackerman lists some concerns of young and adolescent children of alcoholics. For young children the emotional conflicts are: worrying about the health of the alcoholic parent and fights between the alcoholic and the dependent, being confused by the inconsistency and unpredictability of the family patterns, feeling unloved and being scared by the possibility of violence in the family, and feeling responsible for the alcoholic’s drinking (Ackerman 52). Adolescents have other conflicts such as: being concerned about what others think of their families’ alcoholism and whether or not they will inherit the disease; dealing with living with an alcoholic and how to develop better skills for coping with their parents’ alcohol abuse; worrying about the health of their parents and how to “survive their parents’ troubled relationship” (Ackerman 52).
Children of alcohol dependent parents are often deprived of having enjoyable experiences as a family. Because the children are conditioned to constantly handle conflict and crisis, they are unable to relax their defenses and have fun (Ackerman 9). This is a horrible way to experience childhood and undoubtedly has an emotional effect on the individual as a child and will be carried into adulthood.
The Alcoholic Cycle
Numerous studies and research has attested to the fact that alcoholism is passed on through genetics and behavioral learning. Former Senator Paula Hawkins revealed that, “the sons of alcoholic father are four times more likely to become alcoholics, and the daughters of alcoholic mothers are three times as likely to become alcoholics” (“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”). Because the children of alcoholics “experience a greater number of life stressors than do non children of alcholics”, they are more likely to be depressed, have a lowered self esteem, and associate with peers that are involved in deviant behaviors (McGrath et al. 19). These characteristics which develop from being a child of an alcoholic are often the cause of alcohol and other substance abuse (McGrath et al. 18). Alcoholic families often allow this behavior due to the fact that little attention is paid to the child. Children of alcoholics are also prone to resolving conflicts by drinking, because the behavior is reinforce by the parents (Dunn and Goldman 579). Alcohol may serve a variety of functions for the emotionally scarred child. It can reduce the feelings of isolation created by the alcoholic and their spouse, act as an escape from a neglecting and abusive environment, act as a means to gain control over the child’s life or be used to help boost the child’s self esteem (Spatz Widom 295). Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to begin drinking at an earlier age than their peers (Windel 15). Also, as mentioned previously, parental alcoholism may cause hyperactivity. In a study by Michael Windel, it is shown that a number of children who are hyperactive children of alcoholics become aggressive and undersocialized teenagers (134). These teenagers consumed “larger quantities of alcohol” than their peers and the behavior expressed “is predictive of adult alcohol abuse and alcoholism” (Windel 134).
Results of the Alcoholic Cycle
It is a sad fact that many children born to alcoholics will be destined to become alcoholics themselves. With both genetic and environmental forces working against them, children of alcoholics have little chance of creating a normal, nurturing life for themselves and their future families (Seilhamer and Jacob 170). Unfortunately, the emotional impact on being born to an alcoholic family is long lasting, even if a child does not end up being an alcoholic. Many adult children of alcoholics developed “exaggerated coping styles,“ which ”lead to dysfunction in adulthood (Seilhamer and Jacob 168). It is difficult for children of alcoholics to “achieve successful intimate relationships” in adulthood because all they have ever known were negative relationships (Ackerman 10). Adult children of alcoholics often find themselves intimately involved with someone who is an alcoholic, or is in some way abusive. Thus, the suffocating and detrimental cycle of alcoholism continues.
In order to gain a more personalized perspective on being a child of an alcoholic, I conducted two interviews. It is important to understand that not all families that have an alcoholic member of the family are the same. I learned this first hand from the interviews that I conducted.
The first interview that I conducted was on an eighteen-year-old male, C E. He is the child of an alcoholic father and is considered to be lower class in socioeconomic status. When asked if he drank or used other substances on a usual basis he replied that he drank approximately once a month and did not use other drugs. I asked the interviewee if he was afraid of becoming an alcoholic and he replied that he wasn’t. When furthered questioned about life as a child of an alcoholic, he was rather unresponsive. I feel that this is a part of the response mechanism that most children of alcoholics possess. Ackerman states that often “the parents live one way and instruct the children not to tell anyone or ask the child to deny to outsiders whatever he or she sees” (7). Thus, this child is not accustomed to talking about the problems of his parents, therefore was not willing to share sensitive information.
The second person that I interviewed was more open and willing to share life experiences than the first. The interviewee is a nineteen-year-old college student named J T. Both of her parents are alcoholics and she has received counseling for the problems associated with being a child of an alcoholic. A great deal of the conflicts and experiences that J has been through can be explained by the issues mentioned in this paper. Realization of a problem began at the age of five when she remembers asking her parents to get a divorce. The interviewee’s alcoholic parents had a great deal of marital conflict, which is common in alcohol dependent families. On several occasions, the interviewee was blamed for the parental arguments or blamed for the alcoholism of the parent. There were also financial problems due to the constant purchase of alcohol. She has seen the receipts of five or six bottles of vodka and scotch purchased at a time. Because her parents were concerned with their own lives and drinking, she never really had a structured childhood. Ms. T recalls never having a set curfew and never having to prove to her parents where she was going when she went out. This lack of guidance and consistency is another characteristic of alcoholic parents’ behavior. Although as a child she was not asked to keep the alcoholism of either parent a secret, the interviewee was often embarrassed to invite friends over. This is a common reaction among children of alcoholics. When she was you, Ms. T got very upset when she would find alcohol hidden around the house. However, as a teenager, she would just take the alcohol and save it for herself. She started drinking at age fourteen and was even given alcohol often as a baby. The family never had any “fun” family events because most holidays, occasions, or seldom trips were disrupted by alcohol abuse. As in other families, Ms. T’s parents were not very encouraging or supportive in terms of education. They just expected her to do well and punished her when she did not perform to their standards. When asked if she was afraid of becoming an alcoholic, the interviewee responded that she was. Because alcoholism is very abundant in her family, she tries not to fall into the pattern of becoming an alcoholic. She is very careful not to drink when she is upset and does not let alcohol determine if she is having a good time. I believe that the statement made by Ms. T that most encompasses the feeling of being a child of alcoholic parents is this: “I don’t know what a problem is because I don’t know what normal is.” The life that she has lived as a child of alcoholics is, unfortunately, the only one she knows.
As can be seen by examining the wealth of literature on alcoholism and conducting personal interviews with children of alcoholics, alcoholism is a problem that many families are faced with. Many institutions have been created in order to help the family members that are caught in the web of alcohol abuse. In studying families, it is important to learn more about alcoholic families because they represent a large number of families. Every member of a family is affected by an alcoholic, whether it be in marital problems, child abuse or a host of other problems. Family therapists need to understand the dynamics of a family dealing with alcoholism in order to be successful in aiding the family. More efforts need to be taken to help the innocent victims of alcohol’s devastating wrath. The words or former Senator Paula Hawkins are a call for action: “In our mutual effort to create a better world for our children, we must ensure that their freedom to develop and grow, from fetus to maturity, is not destroyed because of the disease of alcoholism” (“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”).
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