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August 5, 2011

How children deal with parents' alcoholism

Millions of Americans suffer from the psychological and physical disease of alcoholism. The resulting emotionally destructive impact on the children of alcoholic parents and the family unit is enormous.

Alcoholic parents usually act out their addiction in one of two negative ways: violent and abusive behavior or emotional unavailability and neglect. People who grow up in an alcoholic family often demonstrate a pattern of specific emotional issues and behaviors as a result of their parent's addiction and dysfunction.

For example, among alcoholic families, there is a high percentage of abuse — physical, verbal and sexual. The resulting dangerous climate in the home often pits the children against one another. As they struggle to survive the violent atmosphere, they may express their own frustrations by physically or verbally abusing each other. Some may develop bullying behaviors at school to deal with their fear, others in the family may withdraw emotionally retreating deep into themselves, while others may simply runaway from home. In another pattern, the parent is more or less an invalid. He or she drinks and then passes out. The children are physically and emotionally neglected and need to take on the adult role of caretaker and parent to each other. In addition, they often become surrogate parents to both the addict and the non-addicted spouse.

In some families, the alcoholic parent alternates between both of these behaviors. Unfortunately, the non-alcoholic parent typically provides little comfort for the children. That parent's energies are used up trying to cope with the alcoholic spouse. As the children begin to take care of one another they eventually feel they cannot trust or rely on adults. They may become hostile to all adults and, understandably, have problems dealing with authority figures.

As adults, children of alcoholic parents experience suffer painful inner turmoil and a deep sense of personal shame because as children they often blamed themselves. Their self-esteem is damaged and that damage carries over and can negatively affect every aspect of their adult life. They often experience bitterness and a sense of loss about the childhood they never had. Lacking role models for positive problem-solving, they often act out their bitterness, rage, low self-esteem and lack of trust in unhealthy ways that hurt themselves and others. They may become addicted themselves — to alcohol, food, sex, shopping or gambling, and the risk that they will marry someone who is alcoholic is very high.

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