If your upbringing was in a home with an alcoholic mother or an alcoholic father, or both your parents were alcoholics, you are probably used to being with people who are intoxicated. You have been used to seeing your parents, and likely their friends or acquaintances drunk or drinking. Even though it is often meaningless to be around someone who is drunk, you have gotten so used to it that you probably do not think about how damaging it is to you.
The consequences are often that you might repeat those kinds of interactions even though you suffer during them and find yourself sad and frustrated afterwards. The quality of that kind of interaction is very low. Situations around intoxicated people are often stupid, inappropriate, insecure, unsafe, meaningless, disrespectful and unloving. You cannot count on what an intoxicated person says. The person is not him- or herself and might not even remember the situation later on.
Taking Responsibility for Yourself as an Adult
As a child of alcoholic parents, you had very little influence on your life. You could not properly respond to what happened to you. Now you are an adult.
As an adult, you can start asking yourself the questions:
“How much will I accept?”
“How do I want to be treated?”
“How much do I want to be involved?”
“How much do I want to witness?”
“What are healthy and reasonable boundaries for what is my responsibility and that of my parents’?”
Most alcoholic parents have a tendency towards behaving irresponsibly. They have neither been responsible for themselves, nor for their children. Throughout your childhood, teenage years and now adulthood you have likely been pressured into taking more and more responsibility for your parents’ problems. Those problems could be emotional, financial or practical.
In this blog post I will suggest possible ways you can shift your interactions with your parents so it will be on your terms, not theirs. My focus is to help you create healthy boundaries (link: https://www.vumc.org/health-wellness/news-resource-articles/establishing-effective-personal-boundaries). I will also give you important information about the damaging effects of having an alcoholic parent. My hope is to give you a kind of roadmap and as much information as possible, so you hopefully first and foremost can take care of yourself.
Alcoholism Can Be Stopped, but Not Cured
Alcoholism (link: https://medlineplus.gov/alcoholismandalcoholabuse.html) (also called alcohol use disorder, link:
https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders) is a severe disease, which consists of both a psychological and a physical dimension (dependency?).
Psychologically, when a person is addicted to alcohol, he or she changes character over time. His or her loved ones will not be able to recognize him or her. Over time, a person who drinks too much will become extremely self-centered. As a drug, alcohol affects the brain and the personality in such a way that interactions with the family and others will be characterized by neglect, emotional manipulation, lack of genuine commitment, and lack of empathy and identification.
Physiological changes also occur. All internal organs are affected by alcohol and will slowly be damaged, parts of the brain are damaged and memory is affected. Once the body is dependent on alcohol, the person can only alleviate his or her withdrawal symptoms and cravings by drinking more alcohol.
People addicted to alcohol usually deny the overwhelming scope and significance of the abuse and are rarely motivated to stop drinking.
Alcoholism is characterized by:
- Psychological obsession – the person believes that alcohol will solve everything.
- Lack of control – the person cannot control how much he or she drinks
- The disease develops over time – it is possible to be an alcoholic and still hold down a job in the beginning of the disease and for quite long as the disease takes hold.
- Denial – the person does not believe that other people will notice the disease; he or she thinks that all is well, despite experiences to the contrary.
- Change of personality – denial, changes of mood, postponing appointments, hiding how much he or she drinks, not being present, lack of memory, embarrassing behavior.
I want you to know these symptoms, because I want you to know that you cannot change your mother’s alcohol dependency or your father’s alcohol abuse. Your parents’ alcohol problems do not vanish by you getting rid of all alcohol in your home, by you trying to control all situations or by you helping with all kinds of things.
A person with alcohol use disorder may very well make his or her family members feel guilty and that they are the reason for the person’s drinking in various situations. But it is no one’s fault. When people who are addicted to alcohol drink, they drink because they are addicted to alcohol. The best treatment for the disease is by professionally qualified people (https://www.naadac.org). The disease cannot be cured, but it can be stopped. In other words, people who have grown addicted to alcohol will never be able to drink alcohol again.
You Are Not Responsible for the Well-Being of Your Parents
Sooner or later any child of an alcoholic will try to help an alcoholic father or an alcoholic mother. Some children will try to take responsibility by taking over chores at home and adult responsibilities. Some children will try to be sweet and funny, defuse tension and try to improve the mood. Some children will try to make themselves invisible and hide their problems. Some children will become scapegoats for everything that goes wrong in the home. These are some of the child roles in dysfunctional families. These roles can become so ingrained that even as an adult you see yourself in particular way and you continue to help your alcoholic parents. Link: Read more about family roles and exercises to identify which role you may belong to in “Raised in a Bottle”.
However, it is ineffective, because not matter how much love or how much help a person with an alcoholic use disorder receives, the disease does not go away. In much the same way as a broken leg does not heal properly without adequate and professional treatment, your parents’ alcoholism cannot stop without proper professional help. You are NOT the reason your parents drink too much, and you are not the solution either. Despite the fact that you might constantly be thinking about how you can change or solve it.
Damaging Effects of Having an Alcoholic Parent
Until your mother or father is willing to receive treatment for her or his alcohol abuse, your interactions will be dominated by the shadow of alcoholism.
That shadow might take the form of:
- A perpetual fear of drunkenness and inappropriate behavior at parties, during holidays or big family gatherings.
- Silence, because any situation in which someone is drunk has now become taboo. The family tries to move on, not look back, but each family member feels wounded, insecure, lonely (link: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/children-of-alcoholics_n_3920163), shameful (link: https://www.hazelden.org/web/public/adult-children-of-alcoholics.page) and powerless in relation to the alcoholic.
- Isolation, the family becomes more and more isolated from the rest of the world. Friends disappear, and other people are kept at a distance. Children stop bringing friends home, because they can never anticipate what will happen.
Possible Actions, Ways to Set Down Boundaries
If you are an adult now, and you have adult siblings, perhaps you could talk together about how to set boundaries for yourselves and limits to what kind of treatment you will accept from your alcoholic parents.
Spending time with intoxicated people is meaningless. So are phone conversations. Intoxicated people say many stupid things and often cannot remember the conversation later on.
You Can Make a Decision to:
- Spare yourself from spending time with intoxicated people.
- Not speak on the phone when can hear that your mother or father has had too much to drink.
- Not spend time with your mother or father when she or he is drinking.
- Not let your parents look after your children as long as they have not addressed their alcohol abuse.
- Not listen to your alcoholic parents’ internal and personal problems. They should seek help from other adults or professional therapists.
Peer Support and Helping Yourself
Being in a family with an alcoholic can be sad, frustrating and draining. You need adults around you who you can trust. By seeking help and speaking with others who have also experienced growing up in an alcoholic home, you can start your recovery.
By creating a taboo around the issue of alcohol and alcohol abuse, the alcoholic will try to hinder the family from trying to the drinking. The alcoholic might respond with stonewalling, silence, tension or even violence when the subject is alcohol and the person’s drinking. You might even have experienced some or all of these reactions
Even though your mother or father or the entire family has stopped communicating properly and honestly, you still need to express your experiences. And to express what those experiences have done to you. I suggest you seek help, either in groups with other adult children of alcoholics or talking to a therapist who has expertise treating adult children of alcoholics.
You will find it can help you heal from emotional trauma, help you build self-esteem and confidence, and help you understand the characteristics of a child of an alcoholic.
You CAN have a good life, even if your family may never be able to escape the alcohol abuse.
Child of an alcoholic syndrome:
Roles of children of alcoholics:
The Lost Child:
Effects of having an alcoholic parent:
Alcoholism (also called alcohol use disorder, link: )
Family Systems: What Happens to Families When Addiction Occurs:
By Craig M. Nakken, MSW
NB: very interesting slides, I wish I had heard the talk.
Links to treatment programs (USA only):
Kristina wants to use this one: https://www.naadac.org