The Affects of Parental Alcoholism on Children

How does having a relationship with an alcoholic parent or family member affect your life and who you are? This question I have struggled to answer most of my adolescent life. My (absent, alcoholic) father has not been in my life for about 5 or 6 years now. Although he contacts me through emails I don’t often respond.

My mother tried to protect my siblings and I from the reality of living with an alcoholic parent. I had no idea about most of the things he had brought to pass and the things that had happened until about 2 years ago when I had asked my mother. She told me, reluctantly, but then added that “he wasn’t a bad person he just doesn’t have his life together and doesn’t make the right choices.”

I haven’t had a relationship with my father for over 5 years. However, sometimes I wonder if I have made the right choice not seeing him. Contrary to what my father believes, my mother said she would be willing to take me to visit him if I want to. Yet I have chosen not to, because, I do not want to have someone in my life-a supposed father-who I have known to be closed minded and in some ways, more immature than me… But then again, he is not getting any younger and if I decide not to see him forever I would be filled with guilt. I would feel guilty for not trying to mend our relationship or not seeing him one more time. This, is my dilemma, but I’m only 16 and don’t know how to process guilt.

Whether you’re at a family gathering, a party, or celebration you will probably always see a glass of alcohol in someone’s hand. In 2010 the U.S. was ranked as the 48th country in the world with the highest pure alcohol consumption per capita, (per person) for people ages 15+. In 2015 the U.S. ranked 24th and according to a recent study done by JAMA Psychiatry, between 2001–2002 and 2012–2013 alcohol use increased from 65% to 73%. The consumption of alcohol has become more frequent in the past couple years. It’s not a stretch to assume that one of the reasons people consume alcohol in large amounts is because they are trying to escape from the world they’re in or because they just want to feel “free” and “lively”.

The percentage of people in the U.S. who consume large amounts of alcohol, (binge drinking or AUD: alcohol use disorder) have been increasing rapidly over the years. The amount of people who have AUD has increased from 9%-13% to 50%. All studies in the last 15 years have pointed towards an increase in alcohol consumption. Thus meaning, more families with alcoholic tendencies. This is not a surprise to me considering our country’s history. There has always been a yearning for alcohol and the unpredictable impulsive behaviors that follow.

More and more children are being exposed to alcoholism within their families every year. According to an article referencing the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “alcoholism affects about 18 million adults in the U.S. Approximately 26.8 million children are exposed to alcoholism in the family and 6.6 million children age 18 and younger live in households with at least one alcoholic parent” (Raychelle 2). People who live in households with an alcoholic parent are more likely to have behavioral changes. There is more of a chance for children of alcoholics (COA’s) to have lives filled with stress, anxiety, violence, and substance abuse. It is not always apparent to those who aren’t familiar with alcoholism within their family the stress that comes with it. I remember always being nervous to talk to him because he was so angry a lot of the time. I remember one time, I was probably 6, I was suppose to be sleeping but I was scared of the dark so I went to sit by my nightlight-a butterfly with beaded string hanging from the wings-and I’m not sure why but I decided it was a good idea to put a bead from the nightlight up my nose. It was extremely hard to get out and I started crying silently because i knew if my father heard me he would be get very angry-resulting in yelling and spanking-and I did not want that. After what felt like hours I finally got up the courage to walk down the hallway to tell him what I had done. I started walking down the hallway when suddenly, the bead feel from my nose and I felt a rush of relief. I was so relieved to NOT have to talk to my father about something that could possibly (but probably not) harm myself. I should not have to feel ashamed or nervous to talk to my own father, but unfortunately this is what comes with having an alcoholic parent.

COA’s are usually more stressed because they feel responsible to take on the responsibility for the alcoholic parent resulting in COA’s having to grow up quicker to take on adult roles, which ends in them missing out on being a kids. This can cause emotional damage later in life. COA’s can also be more prone to alcohol or substance abuse, an article called Impact of Alcoholic Parents on Teens and Substance Abuse Problems states, “An alcoholic parent frequently creates an environment that makes substance abuse easy for teens in the home” (Laura 2). The article explains that this is largely because they have easy access and if the parent is intoxicated they may not care if a child drinks or not.

My mother is a psychologist and professor of psychology at St. Mary’s University. I asked her about her professional opinion on the topic. An estimated 40% of Dr. Sarah Hart’s patients have or had an alcoholic parent(s). She has seen the effects having an alcoholic parents can take on teens and adults, “Having an alcoholic parent puts a lot of stress on the child/teen. It can also make them feel like they aren’t enough, thinking if their parent had loved them more they would have chosen them over drinking” (Sarah). However this is not the case Dr. Sarah Hart PhD. explained to me. “Alcoholism is a disease and no matter what you, (COA’s) may think you are not the problem.” (Sarah). This is important for all COA’s to hear and understand.

She explained how difficult it can be to have a relationship with an alcoholic parent who is still drinking and is not recovered. Because, the COA (child or adult with an alcoholic parent) most likely will be looking for something in the relationship the the alcoholic parent simply cannot provide. This is because of the unpredictability of alcoholics i.e., lots of empty promises. Dr. Sarah Hart PhD. also pointed out that all of her clients-adults-that still currently have drinking alcoholic parents have deeper rooted mental health issues than those whose parents who went into recovery early during their childhood and still remain sober.

I inquired about her professional thoughts on whether or not she thinks people should have relationships with their alcoholic parents and if so, at what age she thinks it to be appropriate. “I think having a relationship with an alcoholic parent should be determined on a case by case basis, depending on the stability of the parent and the age of the child. I think that when someone is in their teens they are better suited to determine for themselves what kind of relationship they want with their parents and I think teens are at the appropriate age to decide for themselves” (Sarah) Being a psychologist gives Dr. Sarah Hart PhD. an outside perspective on these particular family situations. But I happen to know she also has a more personal experience with this topic as well.

In addition to asking her professional opinion, I asked for my mom’s-Dr. Sarah Hart PhD.-personal opinion on how her alcoholic ex-husband’s behavior took effect on my siblings and I. She said she saw a mixture of emotions: sadness, anger, confusion, etc. She saw how confused we were because we didn’t understand why he was so angry all the time or why he had move out. She saw us miss out on having a second parent in the house and the extra financial help that other parent would bring. She said she was sorry for not being the best she could be for us. She concluded with saying that “alcoholism is a dark and aggressive disease that can change anyone and realizing that and understanding that is a hard but necessary thing to do” (Sarah).

Looking back I remember being sad, angry and hurt. I remember taking a lot of it out on my mom. She sometimes tells me that she wished that I had grown up with two parents because she feels bad for all the things I missed out on. But I see it differently. Looking back I would not want to change growing up without a dad. You could say it would make my mom’s life easier, having a second person to rely on and a second income. But if i’m being realistic I don’t think it would have been easier on my mom or my siblings and I for that matter. My dads disease is ugly and deeply rooted, having him around when he is not getting help wouldn’t have been helpful to anyone even himself.

It is not easy to fight this disease but it is possible and when I see him try to get help and be strong I might consider having a relationship with him but until then I think i’ll steer clear. The only health relationship I can have with him is if he’s sober and wanting to better himself, otherwise, it benefits no one.