Myers Counseling Group presents our second article in our substance abuse series: article “Helping Children Cope With Their Parents Drug or Alcohol Problem.” The remaining series include: Addressing Your Teenagers Substance Abuse”, and “Tools for Abstaining from Drug or Alcohol Problems.”

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” — Vaclav Havel

Helping Children Cope With Their Parents Drug or Alcohol Problem

Parents with a substance abuse problem are not always aware of the impact of their problems on their children. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 6.6 million children under the age of 18 live in a house hold with at least one alcoholic. Seventy six million Americans, about 43% of the U.S. adult population, have been exposed to alcoholism in the family, and almost one in five adult Americans (18%) lived with an alcoholic while growing up. They also note that children of alcoholics possess a genetic vulnerability to become alcoholics themselves

The stress of living with a substance abusing family member affects the entire system even when children are not obviously aware of the substance abuse. The tension in the marital relationship, the unpredictability of the using parent, family interaction patterns, and the anxiety of the home environment, increase the likelihood of developing low self esteem, depression, anxiety, school and social problems.

Most of the time, families do not talk about the substance problem. This is even if it clearly a problem. This is what is referred to in the substance abuse field An Elephant in the Living Room. Families tend to avoid discussing this issue even if it is as obvious as an elephant in the living room.  A child growing up in this environment internalizes events and learns to keep quiet about what is clearly a problem in the family. This  impacts on their own self confidence and causes a disconnect between what a child recognizes as normal and what actually may be normal. They carry this expression into adulthood and later relationships..

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics identifies 7 C’s to help children with the challenge of having a substance abusing parent.

· I didn’t cause It. Children may feel responsible for their parent(s) use. Sometimes this is reinforced by the alcoholic parent, blaming the child for their use.

· I can’t cure it. They may believe if they could magically do something the problem will go away.

· I can’t control it.  Children of alcoholics often try to hide or throw away their parent(s) substances The belief is this will stop the use.

· I can take care of myself by communicating my feelings. A big part of their recovery and emotional stability lies with being able to communicate what they are feeling and seeing. Equally important, is the ability for them to feel validated and to have their perception of reality confirmed.

· I can make Healthy choices. Since children of substance abusers are more susceptible to being substance abusers themselves, they need to know they are more vulnerable to this problem. Understanding what they grew up with was not normal and that they can make healthier choices then their parent.

· I can celebrate myself.  Their parent(s) use does not define them and they need to separate themselves from that belief. Not depending on parent(s) approval and developing confidence in oneself, is an important emotional task to address for the child of an alcoholic.

Living in this type of environment clearly impacts on the emotional well being of children. Families are encouraged to seek help from professionals, support groups, or religious institutions for guidance.