Relationship Advice

Alcoholism and Child Abuse

"Adult children of alcoholics are adult survivors of child abuse."

A long term study of alcohol abuse found that over 75% of alcohol dependent people never get treatment. Of those who do get treatment, the average wait before beginning is 8-10 years. As Bridget Grant, the lead author of the study, said, two thoughtful sisters lyiing on bed"That 10 years can be devastating."

If we couple that with the information we know about childhood—our ability to form relationships with others is closely linked to childhood experience—the conclusion is obvious. If possible, the non-alcoholic spouse with children needs either to remove the alcoholic from the home, or to remove themselves and the children from the home.

The effects on children of living with an alcoholic parent are well known. These include depression, inability to form close relationships, relentless self-criticism, inability to complete projects, and constant approval seeking. Children growing up in a household with an alcoholic are damaged children.

If you drive drunk, you can end up in jail. If you drop your children off with a drunk babysitter, the state may take your children away from you. But if you keep a child in a home with a drunk for 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 days in a row, there is no legal penalty, though the effects are far worse.

For years alcohol abuse has been addressed as if there are two principal areas: the alcoholic and the adult child of an alcoholic (ACoA). This allowed people to pretend that being an ACoA, or adult child of an alcoholic, was something adults caught, like the flu.

It is not.

Adult children of alcoholics are adults who were systematically abused in childhood by living with a drunk.

When children are forced to share their home with a drunk, we need to call what is going on by its proper name: child abuse. The long-term negative effects on these children are profound. The children grow up believing they are powerless to effect change. They grow up with a fear, anxiety, and dread they cannot shed.

It is neither admirable nor moral to trap a person in someone else's behavior. The spouse of a thief doesn't have to say, I am trapped in thievery. That logic is wacky. It is a defense of the thief.

In the same way, the spouse and children of a drunk don't have to say, I am trapped by alcoholism. That logic is also wacky. Why? Because it is a defense of a drunk whose behavior may never change. It is a defense of child abuse.

Al-Anon, the organization for family and friends of alcoholics has 12 steps which parallel the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The first of Al-Anon's 12 steps is, "We admit we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."

That is absolutely not true. The family and friends of alcoholics do have power. They are free to say, "I am done with the effects of alcoholism in my life. I'm moving on."

Raising children in alcoholic homes creates more damaged people, and it encourages more people to be enablers.

Bridget Grant is correct in saying the 10 years before getting treatment for alcoholism can be devastating, but that barely touches the surface. It will almost surely be many more years before the alcoholic stops drinking and stops acting like an alcoholic. Indeed, that day may never come.

And, of course, 75% of alcoholics never get treatment.

If you are trying to deal with the aftereffects of growing up in a home with an alcoholic, and you are not yourself an alcoholic, a specialist who deals with adult survivors of child abuse can be most helpful.

• Bridget F. Grant and others, Prevalence, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Alcohol Abuse and Dependence in the United States. Archives of General Psychiatry, July 2007.
• Steven Reinberg, Third of Americans Have Alcohol Problem at Some Point. Washington Post, July 2, 2007.
• Janet G. Woititz, The Complete ACOA Sourcebook. Health Communications, Inc, 2002.