Growing up in a family with an alcoholic parent is traumatic--some experts say it's just as traumatic as being in military combat. Unfortunately, most children learn to regard whatever conditions they grow up in as "normal," so even as adults they often don't realize they've been traumatized. Yet, because their needs were not met, they are at risk for cognitive and emotional problems as well as addiction to alcohol or drugs.
Children need consistent rules, but life with an alcoholic parent is chaotic and leaves them overwhelmed and confused. What was okay two days ago was not okay yesterday--so how should I behave today? Often they find themselves having to take care of the parent while they themselves are neglected. A parent's anger is frightening to children, and they soon discover that any number of things can trigger that anger, so they learn not to say what they think or feel. And when parents are angry, hurtful words like "stupid," "selfish," or "lazy" are often hurled at them, destroying the child's feelings of self-worth. Shame and embarrassment are constant companions, so the children learn to deny the reality of their lives.
It's harder to make friends. Imagine a child--we'll call him or her Terry--coming home from school, not knowing what to expect. Will Mom be passed out or in a rage, or maybe not even be there? In a healthy home, asking a friend to come over to play is a common way to make friends, but for Terry, it's a risk. And even if that risk is taken, neighborhood parents may be aware of the situation and say "No." Some, in kindness, might invite Terry to come to their house instead, but the message is still clear: "Your home is not a place that you can invite friends to."
Older children may try to avoid having other people witness their parent behaving badly, even if it means missing out on school and neighborhood activities. Some will adopt a passive attitude, hoping to avoid conflict. In the extreme, they can become "people pleasers," thinking that if they keep their parent (or parents) happy, things will get better. Not surprisingly, this often involves the children swallowing their own anger, which can cause further problems.
What happens when these children become adults? It's not unusual for them to be depressed and not realize it because they've buried their feelings for so long. They think life is just crappy because it's always been that way. They may not recognize their own needs because their needs have been unmet all along.
Adult relationships may suffer for several reasons:
Because they've been emotionally rejected by their parent(s), they may fear further abandonment, and fear of
abandonment can poison relationships, either by becoming too possessive or by becoming emotionally distant.
(I'll abandon you before you can abandon me.)
In the same vein, a child who's been unable to trust parents can find it hard to trust a partner, but the lack of
trust makes intimacy difficult, or even drives the partner away.
As a result of having lived with so much chaos, they may try to take control of their lives, but because they've
grown up without reasonable boundaries, they can easily become overcontrolling, which is also destructive to
relationships because it makes the partner feel marginalized. (Everything has to be done your way--you don't
see me as an equal.)
Conversely, some children of alcoholics may only feel comfortable with chaos. After all, that's what they're used
to, and sometimes the devil you know is less frightening than the devil you don't know, and this is why children
of alcoholics sometimes become alcoholics or even marry one.
Because they're unable to recognize their own feelings and express or explain them, their partners may see
them as cold, unfeeling and uncommunicative.
The end result is that children of alcoholics often feel alone, believing that no one really understands them. If any of this is your experience, realize that the effects of your childhood do not have to color the rest of your life.
How do you change things? Therapy, of course, is a simple answer, but if that isn't feasible, Al-Anon is very helpful. It's a mutual support group consisting of others who have been affected by an alcoholic family member. The groups are almost everywhere, and there are no dues or fees to join. Members are asked to donate to meet the local group's expenses, but it isn't obligatory.
Here's a chance to meet others who have experienced what you've gone through--people who'll understand you and show you how to improve your life. You're not alone!
Why not try it? What do you have to lose?
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.