The Effects of Alcoholism on Children
May 21, 2012 Alcoholic Partners
The effects of alcoholism on children are too many to mention. How can the mind of a child wrap itself around alcoholism? How can a child deal with the fact that they have a parent who is either present and out of control or just absent? How can a child have a sense of self-worth when a parent's first concern is not their welfare but is getting his or her next drink?
The effects of alcoholism on children are insidious. Children are not independent. Children cannot just walk out when things get too bad. They are entirely dependent on their parents, and those parents may not even be able to take care of themselves. Even worse, alcoholic parents may take the pain of their situation and turn it toward the ones who cannot defend themselves.
Children are totally dependent on their parents. They are at the mercy of parents whether those parents are loving and kind or uncaring substance abusers. Children are taught to obey their parents, to respect them. They are taught that parents know best. If they have a parent who does not care about them or who is abusive towards them then they may accept that that is what it best. They will feel that they deserve it.
Children do not understand why things happen. When bad things happen, children must either accept that the world is out of control or they must blame themselves. Accepting that they have no control over what happens to them is often more than a child's mind can bear. The child in a case such as this will often blame themselves. They will feel that they were not quiet enough, that they were not loved enough, that they are not good enough.
At least when they blame themselves they have control. They can believe that if only they were better then they would not have a parent who is drunk all the time or who is angry all the time. If only they try hard enough then they could stop the world from being so uncertain and unkind. Sadly, it was never their fault, and there is nothing they can do.
It gets worse. The child and parent relationship is the first way that someone learns about love. If a child experiences attention only through abuse then abuse may become inextricably attached to love in that child's mind. If a parent is absent then the child may feel alone and undeserving of love.
The child of an alcoholic never knows safety. Even if a situation is not physically abusive then there is emotional abuse. The parent will almost unfailingly veer toward either abuse or neglect. The alcohol in this situation has long since been more important than the child. The child is too easy to either be the target for all the blame for the problems in life or to be put on the back burner indefinitely because the pursuit of alcohol is not furthered by caring for the child.
A childhood with an alcoholic parent feels interminable, and in many ways it is. A child does not grow up, forget, and move on. Even without the conscious memories, this individual continues to live in the shadow of a childhood wherein they never new safety, security, consistency, or real love.
If a person does not know what any of these things look like then it can be hard to build an adult life that has them. They may recreate a life with the same uncertainty and abuse of their childhoods. Even worse, they may take their pain and pass it on.
Children of alcoholics may have any of a multitude of possible problems. Children have to deal with situations that would be trying for adults, only they do not have the resources to frame the problems. They cannot stand back and take a logical look at what is going on. There are no rational explanations in the mind of a child.
Children are dependent upon those who harm them when their parents are abusive. The harm may come in different forms, but no alcoholic parent can properly care for children. No alcoholic parent can be present and supportive of their children as long as they are the victim of this heinous disease. It is not possible. You cannot provide a healthy environment for children if you do not begin with a health environment.
The underlying feelings of problems experienced by children of alcoholics follow familiar patterns. The manifestations vary, but the underlying issues are the same.
The child feels guilty. Whether directly blamed for the negative effects of the parent's alcoholism or not, the child attributes these effects to himself or herself. Children cannot step back and see that the alcoholism has nothing to do with them.
They can only look at others in the world who are not treated in the same way and come to the conclusion that they must be doing something to bring it about. If only they were better then they would not be treated in this way. They feel it is their fault.
A child believes that if they were only better, if they were only good enough, then their parent would not have to drink so much. This cripples a child's sense of self-worth. They measure their worth by something they cannot control. If they cannot change their situation, which they cannot, then they will never be able to believe that their life has worth.
The child feels fear. With an uncertain home life, the child may worry constantly. This child will never know what to expect from a parent as he or she arrives at home. They do not know if the parent will be happy or angry or distant. They do not know if they should expect violence at home or if the alcoholic parent has become sick or injured a as result of the drinking. They do not know if the parent will be there.
The child will worry about their parent's marriage if this alcoholism has lead to fights. The child will also be afraid to ask for help. As terrible as it is to have an alcoholic parent, for a child having no parent at all feels like the end of the world. Even if that parent is an alcoholic.
Children thrive in an environment with structure. An alcoholic cannot provide that structure. When alcohol is the priority then children cannot be. A parent cannot simultaneously be an alcoholic and provide a stable, loving home environment. It just cannot be done.
An inability to trust others can stem from these inconsistencies. A child may isolate from others because of many reasons when living in an alcoholic household. The reasons begin with the shame of holding this terrible secret and wanting to keep it.
Close friends will want to come over to their friend's house but doing so would reveal the truth of the situation. This mistrust is carried into other relationships. If the child's first relationships, the ones with his or her parents, could not be trusted then how can the child be expected to be able to trust anyone?
Anger and depression are common feelings too. The child will be angry at the parent for not being a more ideal, loving parent. Because of the powerlessness and hopelessness of the situation, the child will become depressed. He or she is caught in a bad place and has no way to get out of it. He or she learns that she is helpless, and this feeling of helplessness extends far beyond the home. This child feels that he or she can never hope to improve their life. If it could not be done at home then how could it be done anywhere else?
There are also more tangible manifestations of a child having one or more alcoholic parents. A child who starts failing at school is common with these circumstances. This could include the child skipping school. Other unlawful behaviour may accompany the truancy. The child may engage in behaviors ranging from stealing to acts of violence. It may not escalate to violence but may instead be shown as feelings and actions indicating aggression toward others.
Withdrawal from friends and social situations may result from having alcoholic parents. The combination of an inability to trust others coupled with the shame of a destructive home situation often leads to a distancing from other people. Feeling unworthy, unwanted, and unloved does not go away. If your parents could not love you then who could?
Finally, of course all this stress and negative emotion can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. In some cases, suicide may be attempted. Feelings of worthlessness and helplessness often accompany thoughts of and attempts of suicide.
Not all children of alcoholic families cope by acting out. Some go in the other direction. They may become the parental figures that they lack. They may become mature, responsible overachievers. They will work hard to receive impressive marks in school and use their control over themselves to attempt to solidify family living.
This control coexists with the distance found in a more obviously troubled youth. In this way, the damage that has been done to them may go underground for some time. The problems may only begin to surface after they have reached adulthood.