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Children of Alcoholics Week: How to Cope With Being the Child of an Alcoholic

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

Alcoholism not only affects alcoholics – children can suffer for the rest of their lives because of alcoholic parents. February 13-19, 2011 is Children of Alcoholics Week, which was started by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

Patricia O’Gorman, a clinical psychologist in New York, was one of the co-founders of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, which was started in the early 1980s along with the Children of Alcoholics Week.

She said the week was created to promote awareness and prevention, as well as increase knowledge.

“With awareness can come prevention,” O’Gorman said, referring to preventing the negative outcomes that children with alcoholic parents can have.

Although the tendency might be to focus on younger children who are currently still living with alcoholic parents, there are still adult women who are children of alcoholics and have learned or are still learning to cope with unstable, neglectful and sometimes violent parents.

“I have people telling me all the time ‘Well I should be over this. How come I’m not over it?’" O’Gorman said.

It’s because they haven’t dealt with the past yet and resolved past issues, she explained. Often, there is trauma involved.

“I think the most underreported mental health issue is trauma,” she said. “There tends to be a fair amount of trauma in this population.”

O'Gorman said that depression and anxiety are more often reported by children of alcoholics. Sometimes this is inherited from parents, and other times it’s the result of abusive situations or a combination. However, sometimes other issues, like learning disabilities and behavioral problems, are linked to trauma. Domestic violence and abuse are instances where trauma can be an outcome.

Children of alcoholics are often dealing with more than alcoholic parents as well, since alcoholism doesn’t always come by itself. People with alcohol abuse or dependence sometimes have comorbid psychiatric disorders, like depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety. Some alcoholics may have dealt with low self-esteem, or traumatic events and use alcohol to self-medicate. They might have even had their own alcoholic parents. Children of parents with alcoholism and any other comorbid problems are in even more trouble. While the parents are dealing with their own internal struggles, many times the children are left to fend for themselves.

“What we tend to think is for some people, it’s what starts them on the road toward alcohol and drug use, is really trying to address the mood disorders,” O’Gorman said.

In my own experience, my mother had problems with alcohol dependence and abuse, as well as bulimia and bipolar disorder. As you can guess, the going wasn’t always easy, and I haven’t come out unscathed. My twin sister and I at least had each other and other family support to help get through the tough times. And we’ve both learned to accept for the most part that there is nothing we can really do to help our mother besides providing support and encouragement. Other children aren’t so lucky, especially if these issues plague both parents and there is a total lack of support and stability.

Fortunately, adult women who are children of alcoholics can still have hope of recovering from their childhood experiences through therapy and meeting with groups of other women with similar experiences.

O’Gorman suggests turning to Al-Anon, a free group that helps family and friends cope with loved ones who have had or still have problems with alcohol abuse or dependence.

“It’s a program that really helps people work through not being responsible for the chaos that they’ve grown up in,” she said.

O’Gorman has also written self-help books: “12 Steps to Self-Parenting” and “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: How Women Master the Art of Resilience.”

Debra Borys, a clinical psychologist in California, said in an e-mail that there are many mental health issues that adult children of alcoholics can suffer from, including low self-esteem, “often obsessive anxiety,” “acceptance of being treated poorly,” “overresponsibility for others,” compulsive behaviors and depression. The list goes on, demonstrating the need for help and support at a young age.

Sherry Knapp-Brown, a psychologist in Ohio, suggested the following ways in an e-mail that women can deal with having an alcoholic parent or parents:

1) “Understand that you cannot “fix” their problem.”

2) “Don’t take responsibility for their drinking or drug use - that is their choice.”

3) “Encourage them to talk to a counselor, physician or clergy member about their drug/alcohol use. You can give them names and numbers but tell them they have to call.”

4) “Attend Al-Anon meetings or meet with a therapist for ongoing support.”

5) “Keep yourself safe. If [a] parent becomes verbally or physically assaultive while drinking, stay away. If parent drives after drinking, do not travel with them.”

Aleksandra Drecun, a licensed psychologist and coach, also gave some coping advice in an e-mail:

1) “Maintain healthy boundaries (eliminate codependency).”

2) “Know and honor your limitations in dealing with your parent(s).”

3) “Utilize constructive coping skills in dealing with stress (exercise, deep breathing, journal, talk to positive friends, engage in relaxation, etc.).”

Are you a child of an alcoholic parent or parents? How have you learned to cope? Please share your story.

Resources: http://www.nacoa.org/coaweek_tools.html

Add a Comment2 Comments

We all cope in different ways. Mine was to become quiet and introspective. I still am. The central character of my book, WAITING FOR POPS, was modeled after me. The way he copes is interesting, and like our own individual ways of coping, it works for him.
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January 21, 2011 - 4:05pm

Great article, Rheyanne!
As a child of an alcoholic and co-dependant other parent, I can personally attest to many of the points brought up in your article. When I was in highschool, I was in an al-anon teen group, and read many self-help books on co-dependence, and toxic relationships. I was the wave-maker in my family. Yes, it was a tough road, and I couldn't wait to go away to college, hard as it was finding the money to do it, student loans got me through. I have had my own struggles (doesn't everyone?), but with hard work I finally found some semblance of security for myself. Self-awareness is key--know yourself, trust yourself, and always reach for a better you. As far as I know, my parent has been sober since 1992, but still has their own behavioral struggles.

January 21, 2011 - 8:36am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.