How To Support A Child Exposed To Alcoholism
Children depend on their parents or care-giving adults for love, support, nurturing, and a healthy sense of self. When alcohol use or abuse is present in the home, children may not often receive what they need from one parent or may experience anger, violence, and sadness at the hands of the drinking parent. It is hard for children to understand why someone they love is acting this way and often a hard conversation for the other parent or caregiver to have, albeit a necessary one.
Children of Alcoholics
These children are at risk for mental health issues, substance abuse issues of their own, as well as a greater likelihood of marrying an alcoholic. Children of alcoholics are under extreme mental trauma as an alcoholic parent cannot offer stability, which is what nurtures a child through their developing years. Children may often face assault, violence, and a household full of turmoil. They are not developed enough psychologically to process what is occurring and their neural development develops in a way that is unlike children who are not subjected to the trauma of alcoholism.
Children who are subjected to an upbringing with alcohol abuse learn to live with confusion in the household. This confusion is shrouded in denial. On one hand, children have to pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary while hiding or disregarding the alcoholic parent’s behavior. The alcoholic parent is often a parent that is not present, at the very least emotionally. With the denial and the emotional distance, a child can learn not to trust. They cannot trust the alcoholic parent to remember things of importance, show up when necessary, or to remain stable when upset or faced with difficulty. This trust extends to the outside world. Unintentionally, children may be encouraged to also repress their feelings, to maintain an image, and to appease the alcoholic parent. This is damaging to a child’s psyche and personality as well as their self-expression. Because they repress their feelings at home, they also often do not talk about their feelings generally, or about other matters that affect them as well. They learn how to live with trivializing things, trivializing themselves, the feeling of worthlessness and how to avoid talking about such feelings.
Development and the Child
With the trauma of the alcoholism, children can develop mental health disorders and have trouble developing trusting close interpersonal relationships or dealing with those in positions of authority. The Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology reported that there were problems the ways in which these teenagers connected information within the brain. The amygdala and hypothalamus were both affected, explaining why teenagers who were survivors of domestic violence had issues regulating emotional responses.
Aside from developing a mental health disorder, children run the risk of self-harm, violence, and sexually explicit behavior. These kids are more likely to grow up and become alcoholics or use substances as a way to cope with childhood trauma and may also become partners in codependent relationships or abusive relationships themselves.
What Can Be Done To Help?
There are a few things that can be done to help children who are living in a household where there is an Alcohol Use Disorder. They are:
One of the best things the non-alcoholic parent or another caring, supportive adult can do is offer the child structure. This structure and stability will help them learn to depend and trust others as well as realize that healthy relationships can be developed and sustained. It can also improve their sense of self-worth by understanding that someone values and cares about them.
2Open expression of emotion
Encourage the child to openly express how they are feeling. There is nothing to hide and a caring adult can be a safety net for expression. Remind the child that they are unconditionally loved and that their parent does or parents do love them, and that the disease of alcohol is just greatly disabling how they show it. Allow them space and help them to understand they can feel both hate for the disease and love for their parents.
Children need time to be a child. Allow them time or help them to become engaged in activities that are fun and age appropriate. Point out that laughter is restorative and that it is something that all children should experience. Children may need to be reminded that it is okay for them to be happy even if they have an angry drunk parent at home.
Talk often and check in with the child. Explain to them that one (or both) parents(s) have a disease and what it entails, in age appropriate way. NACOA, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, says to help children learn the seven Cs, which teach children they didn’t cause it, they can’t cure or control it and they can care for themselves by communicating, making healthy choices and celebrating themselves. Additionally, teach kids how to stay safe and what to do if they feel unsafe.
Books are a great resource to help a child understand and process what is happening. Purchase or download books for their age and subsequent ages as the child grows older and can understand more about the disease of alcoholism.
Encourage the child to find support. Support groups for children do exist such as Al-teen and others, where children affected by alcoholism have a safe space to share and support each other. These groups will help children to feel less alone and have somewhere else to turn if things become tough. Additional support numbers are beneficial as well. One association, National Association for Children of Alcoholics (1-888-55-4COAS / www.nacoa.org ) can be a great resource for both you and the child.
There are many ways to talk to and support a child that is subject to the trauma of alcoholism. A child really needs to know that there is someone who cares and that they can make it through this disease called alcoholism. Once they know the facts and find structure and support, then they are on their way to a healthier life.