Each year, the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) designates the week in February that includes Valentine’s Day to highlight the needs and problems of children of alcoholic parents, regardless of their age. Children of Alcoholics week in 2014 is February 9-15.
The two-fold purpose to the awareness week is to raise awareness of how children of alcoholics (COAs) are affected by the drinking problems of their parents, and to provide support for the children, because they are often the ones hurt most by the abuse of alcohol or another addictive substance.
Children Of Alcoholics
Children of alcoholics grow up in an unpredictable and confusing environment, dominated by chaos. They may feel that the alcohol abuse is their fault, which can cause guilt. They may feel abandoned because the parent is emotionally unavailable. They also feel ashamed, and stressed because they feel that they cannot talk about the “family secret.” These dynamics can shape their adult lives, and even the lives of their own children. Effects can include physical illness, emotional disturbances, behavior problems, lower educational achievement and even increased susceptibility to alcoholism and other addictions.
The NACoA estimates that as many as one child in four in the United States is affected in his or her day-to-day life by alcohol abuse or alcoholism. It is estimated that there are more than 11 million children of alcoholics (COAs) under the age of 18 in United States. They can be found in every economic, social, racial and ethnic group. That is one reason that Children of Alcoholics Week has become an international phenomenon.
Children from homes where one parent – or both – abuses alcohol or some other substance can be scarred by the unpredictable, chaotic and confusing behavior of the people who are supposed to be their role models. That experience can leave them feeling scared and isolated.
Being A Child Of An Alcoholic Is A Risk Factor
Children who live in environments where at least one adult in a parental role has an addiction to alcohol or drugs are two to four times as likely as other children to develop addictions themselves. They are also at greater risk of having emotional or behavioral problems as children because their environment makes them vulnerable to lack of trust, anger, depression and a need for approval. These issues may also affect them later in their lives, after they have become adults.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that a child of an alcoholic or addict may have a variety of problems, such as:
- Guilt: The child may see himself or herself as the main cause of the mother’s or father’s use.
- Anxiety: The child may worry constantly about the situation at home. He or she may fear the parent will become sick or injured, and may also fear fights and violence between the parents.
- Embarrassment: Parents may give the child the message that there is a terrible secret at home. The ashamed child does not invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help.
- Inability to have close relationships: Because the child has been disappointed by the drinking/using parent many times, he or she often does not trust others.
- Confusion: The alcoholic/addicted parent will change suddenly from being loving to angry, regardless of the child’s behavior. A regular daily schedule, which is very important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes and mealtimes are constantly changing.
- Anger: The child feels anger at the alcoholic/addicted parent for drinking, and may be angry at the non-alcoholic/addict parent for lack of support and protection.
- Depression: The child feels lonely and helpless to change the situation.
Adult Children Of Alcoholics
The damage inflicted on children of alcoholics begins as their childhoods are stolen from them. In addition, alcoholism and addiction are considered “family diseases,” meaning that there is a strong likelihood that addiction-related emotional and behavioral problems will ripple through successive generations.
Dr. Janet G. Woititz was a pioneer in the field to address the implications of being an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA). Her best-selling book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” was published in 1983, and earned her the reputation as the “mother of the ACOA syndrome.” An updated version of the book said that the syndrome also applied to children affected by the dynamics of substance abuse in general, as well as other dysfunctions, including compulsive gambling, eating disorders or chronic illness.
Dr. Woititz’ writing includes the following list of insights into common traits:
- Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
- Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
- Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
One support organization is Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, Inc., generally known simply as Adult Children of Alcoholics, (ACA). This organization is an anonymous 12-Step, 12-Tradition program for men and women who grew up in families with an alcoholic parent or homes that were dysfunctional in other ways.
Alcoholism Was Not Always Understood As A Disease
The American Medical Association did not acknowledge alcoholism as an “illness” until the mid-1950s, and did not classify it as a disease until 10 years later. Today, alcohol addiction, dependence and abuse are considered part of a continuum. The most current definition, from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, says that:
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry…Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.
Children Of Alcoholics Week Has Become An International Phenomenon
Children of Alcoholics Week has spread internationally in order to raise awareness of the damage that drinking can do to people who do not even drink. Every community in every country is touched by this disease. If you have a drinking problem, or if your life has been touched by a loved one with a drinking problem or some other substance abuse issue, help is available from Sovereign Health Group.
Sovereign Health is headquartered in San Clemente, California. We are accredited by the Joint Commission and dually licensed to treat substance abuse and mental health disorders. Detox and rehabilitation are among the services we provide. To learn more about our programs, call us at 866-264-9778.