One in every four children is growing up in a home with a loved one who suffers from alcoholism, according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), and the ramifications are harsh.
“There’s been some important research done in the last 20 years that’s really identified the trauma and stress on the developing brain of children who live in this type of environment and what it does to them throughout their life,” says Mary Beth Collins, program and operations director of the NACoA.
Jody Lamb, whose mother struggled with alcoholism, is just one example.
“I grew up in chaos. I never knew what to expect. I have memories of being 4 or 5 years old and having days when my mom wouldn’t wake until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and I would sit in the living room watching the kids across the street play, just hoping my mom would wake up and we could be like the other families,” says Lamb. “One day my mom was a wonderful, sweet, and kind person who showered me with love and confidence, and the next day she was very aggressive and verbally abusive, which progressively worsened throughout my childhood.”
As a loved one, friend or neighbor of a child of an alcoholic, you can feel helpless in trying to make things better. Collins and Lamb say there are ways you can help.
Don’t Mind Your Own Business
Reaching out can make a difference, says Collins.
“Research shows and continues to reinforce that it only takes one caring adult to change the trajectory of a child’s life,” she says. “I understand the idea of ‘it’s none of my business’ because that’s what’s been ingrained in our society for generations. But you can have your care and concern coexist without providing forthright conflict.”
For instance, a grandparent who lives in another state can write letters back and forth to their grandchild; or a neighbor can make it a point to talk with a child for a few minutes every day on his or her walk to and from school; or a teacher or coach can create a positive environment for a child.
“Your interaction with the child can make a difference. It’s the demonstration of healthy living and self-talk that can be life-altering for someone,” Collins says, adding that this notion can break the don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t feel notion that many children of alcoholics (COA) exhibit.
“We watch every day the impact of trauma on kids. We see it with guns. We see it with eating disorders. We see it with self-harm. We see it with addiction. As adults, if we want to make a difference, we don’t have to legislate for gun control, or for new drug policies that impact our country. We don’t have to join the PTA. We just have to be willing to challenge that barrier and be a shining star for the life of one child. If every child had one adult who was willing to break that barrier, we’d have a whole new world,” Collin says.
Lamb agrees, and says her family and neighbors knew what was happening in her home yet no one reached out. “I think people think it could make things worse, but you have to let the possibility of [something positive] overcome fear of creating something negative,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I wish I would have told my grandmother and aunts how bad it was—that I was constantly going to school with stomachaches. That sometimes I didn’t sleep at all on school nights because my mom was up until 3:00 a.m. screaming and yelling. I wish family would have reached out to me and assured me that I could call them if I needed to.”
When Lamb was 14, her mom gave birth to another daughter. "I thought 'maybe I'm just not good enough for her, but this new baby will bring joy to her.' She did better off and on, but as soon as my sister was born, I had to take on a parental role for her because my mom wasn't capable of being a mom," says Lamb.
Lamb says her father worked a lot and had codependency issues. “He kind of buried his head in the sand and didn’t do anything to help himself or the family. He just hoped she’d get better or that it was a hopeless cause, and we all had to just deal with it. We had hundreds of conversations about getting her help, over and over again, and nothing ever happened. Like so many spouses of addicts, he was afraid to live without her because he didn’t know anything else,” she says. “In retrospect, he was just as ill as my mother was, and was trapped and paralyzed by the fear of leaving her to die.”
Collins points out that a healthy parent can empower children who are living with an addicted parent. “They are probably quite frustrated, perhaps terrified or concerned, but they have a very powerful role for children in this type of household. The minute you have a non-using parent building healthy boundaries with the using parent, children who are watching this happen learn a great deal from that person,” she says.
Lamb believes a positive adult presence in her life could have made a difference for her. “If you witness something and have the ability to do something, you should, even if it’s reaching out to the family and saying ‘addiction is part of my family and I know how it goes. Please let me know if I can help in any way,’” she says.
Explain the Disease
The NACoA says providing basic information about alcohol and alcoholism to COA can make an impact. Teaching children that alcoholism is a disease and has nothing to do with them allows them to understand that they’re not to blame for their parent’s behavior.
“When we talk about diabetes, breast cancer, and asthma, families have very frank conversations like ‘Yes. It’s in our family. Your grandfather had it. I have it. Here’s the signs to look for. Here’s the resources. But we don’t talk about alcoholism that way even though the science tells us it’s exactly the same,” Collins says. “If you introduce it that way in your family then there’s less shame.”
Additionally, learning about such things as denial, blackouts, relapse and recovery, may help children gain a better understanding of what’s happening at home.
NACoA suggests explaining these ideas to small children in the following ways:
Alcoholism is a sickness.
You can’t make it better.
You deserve help for yourself.
You are not alone.
There are people and places that can help.
Lamb believes it would have been helpful as a child to understand what her mom was dealing with. It was her own struggles with alcohol that opened her eyes to what her mom was battling. In her teens, Lamb began drinking alone and socially. “I would feel a need to have a drink to take the edge off or eliminate insecurities in a social environment. I began to realize that my mother and aunts and uncles had similar issues with self-confidence and saw similar patterns in myself,” she says.
As Lamb got older, she began researching alcoholism. “After learning the genetics of it all and what happens in the brain with being predisposed to addiction, I realized I needed to make a strategic decision about not drinking,” says Lamb.
While her relationship with her mom was strained in her teens and early 20s, “when I became educated on what my mom was battling and the things that happened to her as a child and teen that contributed to her needing to self-medicate in the way she does, it changed my whole perception of the situation. I became much more empathetic and understanding and our relationship is pretty solid today, even though she still battles and doesn't take steps to help herself. I’ve learned that it’s not my responsibility to make her better,” she says.
Give Them a Book
Providing a child with a book that either explains alcoholism or discusses living in a home with an alcoholic parent is a simple way of reaching out to a child. The NACoA lists a number of age-appropriate books on its website.
However, Lamb warns, “Many fiction books written for kids present a notion that there’s something wrong. Most kids won’t check out a book on something that reads ‘mommy drinks too much’ or ‘mommy’s going to treatment,’” she says.
To provide COA with another option, Lamb wrote her book, Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool.
“I started writing a story about a 7th grader who had problems in her household like I did and who struggled in school during these awkward preteen years,” says Lamb. “I wanted the book to be about other things going on at the time during the girl’s life beside her home so that children who read it don’t feel so stigmatized,” says Lamb. “Living with an alcoholic parent is so common that if more people talk about it, then others will feel empowered to share their stories and find help. If I had read this book as a kid, it probably would have prompted me to reach out to someone and may have helped me and my family.”
Lamb also recommends the following books:
The Brown Bottleby Penny Jones
Courage to Be Meby Al-Anon Family Group
Direct Them to Resources
In her mid-20s, Lamb found herself depressed and contemplating suicide. “As a kid, I had this grand vision of what life would be like when I had the freedom away from my house and the instability and unpredictably of my mom’s behavior, yet I still felt like someone had control of my life. I’d be at work in meetings worrying about my mom being drunk at home,” she says.
At 26 years old, Lamb convinced herself to go to an Al-Anon meeting. “I was terrified to go, but when I got there, I kept hearing the same story over and over again. Of course, some were a variation of mine with some people who experienced much worse, such as physical and sexual abuse. Still, we all expressed similar feelings like the inability to feel serenity or relaxed. I told my story and it felt like a thousand pounds lifted off my shoulders,” she says.
If she had attended a program like Al-Anon during her teen years, Lamb says she would have experienced much less turmoil. Places to direct children and teens of alcoholics include:
Alateen, a fellowship of young Al-Anon members whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking.
Children of Addicted Parents, an online community for people ranging from 7 to 30 years of age that have concerns about another family member's addiction.
Childhelp 1-800-4-A-CHILD is a 24-hour hotline staffed with professional crisis counselors who can provide crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources.
Contact Someone Who Can Help
If you’re at a complete loss and don’t feel like you can make a difference in the child’s life, Collins recommends reaching out to someone who is in the role to do something. Talk to the child’s guidance counselor at school or someone where they attend church, and tell them you’re concerned about the child. “Although schools can’t confirm there is a child by that name attending the school, they can receive the information and if it’s not something that has been witnessed, your call can generate great conversation,” she says.
The NACoA offers downloadable kits on its website for early childhood professionals as well as educators. “Pass these on to someone in the position who can help the child,” says Collins. “They may be the one person who makes all the difference in their life.”