Alcoholism is a Family Disease

Alcoholism, like most chronic illnesses, affects every member of the family, not just the individual suffering from the primary disease. If we were to use a sample family of father, mother and four children, here is what we might see:

The father is the alcoholic.

He is dependent on alcohol. Some of the behaviors he demonstrates are:

  • increased alcohol tolerance,
  • continuing to drink when others have stopped,
  • drinking to relieve tension,
  • drinking before a drinking function,
  • uncomfortable in situations where there is no alcohol,
  • occasional memory lapses after heavy drinking,
  • irritation when his drinking is discussed.

The mother is the co-dependent.

She is dependent on changing the behavior of her husband and focuses most of her energy on that impossible task. Some behaviors she demonstrates are:

  • difficulty expressing her feelings,
  • high expectations for herself and others,
  • difficulty adjusting to change,
  • embarrassment at her husband’s behavior,
  • seeking constant approval,
  • difficulty making decisions,
  • sees herself as a failure.

The oldest child is typically the hero.

He takes on behaviors that are designed to establish routine and mask the inadequacy of his family. Therefore, he is independent, focused, organized, responsible and loyal. This child parents the parents, cares for his younger siblings, and excels in school and sports. Additionally, he also suffers from fatigue, guilt, physical illnesses and the belief that he is never good enough. This child fears rejection, avoids taking risks, and can be quite perfectionistic.

The next child takes on the role of scapegoat.

She is disruptive in the classroom, destructive to toys, skips school, and runs away. She takes on these behaviors to shift the focus in the family to her and her behavior and not the alcoholism. However, this child has lots of friends, leads an exciting life, handles stress well and loves attention. She is also manipulative and self-destructive. This child rationalizes her behavior, is disdainful of organized systems and frequently turns to addiction and crime.

The next child is the lost child.

This child is passive. He survives in a dream-world that is safer than the real world. Therefore, he is easy to parent because he expects nothing. This child is creative, imaginative, well-read and resourceful. He enjoys his solitude and can function alone. Additionally, he is a good listener and observer of others. This child is also quite lonely, isolated and withdrawn. He lacks social skills and suffers from low self-esteem. He has difficulty connecting with others and can fantasize his life away.

Finally, we have the mascot.

This child likes to show-off and tell jokes. Her role is to lessen the tension in the home. Therefore, she is popular and charming. Additionally, she has a good sense of humor, is playful and easily attracts attention. However, because she is not encouraged to develop emotional maturity she is never taken seriously and depends on her charm to get by in life. She hides her feelings of insecurity in order to maintain her image. Therefore, never gets her real needs met.

Clearly, from these descriptions we can see how the disease affects every member of the family. As a therapist, I frequently see adult children of alcoholics in my office. The coping strategies many of us developed as children can lead to painful life circumstances that bring us to therapy. Therefore, much of the work we do in therapy is directed at unlearning those coping strategies and developing healthier ones. The goal of therapy is to provide a safe place to learn about ourselves in an atmosphere of supportive concern. Clients are encouraged to give up their unrealistic expectations for perfection and learn to be flexible in their approach to life. They are encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings. They are encouraged to establish appropriate boundaries and they learn when and how to trust others.

Therapy is a growth experience and like many growth experiences, it is difficult and ultimately, wonderfully satisfying.

For more about children of alcoholics, check out the works of Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse.

Lynn Motley, MSSW, LICSW


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