Can the sins of alcoholic parents be visited upon their children? Dr Poloko Ntshwarang certainly thinks so. A senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana makes a disturbing prognosis about children raised by parents with a drinking problem: “Although children who grew up in alcoholic families know firsthand how devastating the use of alcohol and drugs can be, they may still develop substance abuse problems themselves. Being raised in an environment permissive of heavy substance use, early age of first use, a lack of positive coping mechanisms for managing stress or some combination of these things. However some choose to stay far away from alcohol knowing and seeing how destructive it was but then they develop other coping mechanisms. Most adult children from such families face a multitude of problems including anxiety and/or depression, antisocial behavior, relationship difficulties, behavioral problems, and/or alcohol abuse. Emotional neglect is common in an alcoholic household. Sadly, a parent in the throes of addiction is simply unable to provide the consistent nurturing, support and guidance their child needs and deserves. In addition, all too often, the parent who is not an alcoholic is too swept up in their spouse’s disease to meet the child’s needs.”
In a nutshell, what Dr Ntshwarang says is that for most children who grew up in an alcoholic family, chances are this has had a profound impact on them. Often, the full impact isn’t realized until many years later. The feelings, personality traits, and relationship patterns that they developed to cope with an alcoholic parent, come with them to work, romantic relationships, parenting, and friendships.
One misconception that many people dealing with alcoholism have is that their drinking doesn’t affect anyone else. Children of alcoholic parents bear the brunt. Most alcoholic families are in “survival mode.” Usually, everyone is tiptoeing around the alcoholic, trying to keep the peace and avoid a blow-up. Home can be a scary place. Alcoholics are often unpredictable, sometimes abusive, and always checked-out emotionally and sometimes physically. As a child, you never know who would be there or what mood they would be in when you come home from school. Stress levels are usually through the roof. Since alcohol use is normalized in families with alcoholism, children can often struggle to distinguish between good role models and bad ones. Children with an addicted parent often experience a chaotic or unpredictable home life which may include physical and emotional abuse. Even more common is emotional neglect, where the child’s emotional needs are neglected due to the chaos and focus on the parent’s addiction. Some children cope by trying to be perfect and others cope by cracking jokes and getting into trouble.
Kgomotso Jongman of Jo’ Speaks in Gaborone explained to Sunday Standard Lifestyle that, “children of alcoholics often have to deny their feelings of sadness, fear, and anger in order to survive. Since unresolved feelings will always surface eventually, they often manifest during adulthood. They experience feelings of shame – that they are bad or wrong and unworthy of love. There are so many things that alcoholic families don’t talk about – to each other and especially to the outside world. These secrets breed shame. When there are things so awful that they can’t be talked about, you feel there is something awful about you and that you’ll be judged and cast away. When you feel unworthy, you can’t love yourself and you can’t let others love you either. “
Addiction and the resulting chaos are a tightly held secret in most addicted families. Children are clearly told not to talk about what’s going on at home. Family members don’t have the opportunity to explore their own interests and feelings. Life is about keeping the peace, simply surviving, and trying to keep the family from imploding. Even though these children have likely been hurt by the actions of their alcoholic parents, they often have an innate desire to protect them. As a result, a role reversal often takes place in the relationship between an alcoholic parent and their child, with the child “parenting” the parent. The child may clean up messes made while the parent was drunk or apologize for the parent’s actions if he/she acts poorly in public due to being intoxicated. This results in the child being robbed of the traditional protection of a parent. The adult children of alcoholics almost often end up developing compulsive behavior. They may develop addictions and co-dependence in relationships. Their compulsiveness may lead them to become alcoholics just like their parents. To feel that they are in control and have power, the children who grow up with alcoholic parents develop an addiction to drama and chaos. They may be violent people and end up getting into violent crimes like robbery and rape. Some may see violence as a way of being in control of their lives and those of others.