In families where one or both parents are alcoholic, alcohol becomes an organizing influence, affecting the child’s development both in terms of personality and relationships to others. In discussing common characteristics of the alcoholic family system it is important to keep in mind that tremendous variation exists. Even with similar environments and issues, one must understand the meaning of parental alcoholism for the individual.
There are a number of variables that will determine the impact that parental alcoholism will have on a child. These variables include the pattern of drinking (whether or not it occurs in the home), the level of parental conflict, the occurrence of violence (directed at the child or observed), the quality of the parent-child relationship, interference with the child’s ability to develop and maintain friendships, and the nature of the extended family environment.
With this caveat regarding individual differences in mind, I will present a summary of the alcoholic family system and its likely effects on the child’s development. Common characteristics include: chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, unclear roles, changing limits, a high level of conflict, and often violence and incest.
Brown (1985, 1988) proposed that all members of an alcoholic family system develop a behavioral and thinking disorder, being simultaneously controlled by alcoholism while denying this reality. Denial is especially important in terms of the outside world; no one is to know what really is going on within the family. This denial is necessary to maintain the myth of control: the alcoholic’s control over drinking behavior and other family members’ control of the alcoholic’s behavior. The chaos, inconsistency and unpredictability remain denied as well. The family either reframes these characteristics as normal, or attributes them to some problem other than alcohol, most often blaming a child
Denial has a profound impact on the developing child. Even when a child is able to be aware of stressful conditions at home, she or he is unable to attribute them correctly to their source. The child instead internalizes her or his anger, blaming herself or himself for the family’s problems. The child may thus internalize the parents’ unsuccessful struggle for control of alcohol, believing that the way to cope with conflict is to control herself or himself.
The child may use control in various ways, for example to achieve self-worth. The child may even come to experience any awareness of feeling states as a profound loss of control, and therefore phobically avoids them. By denying her or his needs and feelings and instead taking care of the needs of others, the child attempts to defend against a desperate sense of helplessness and unmet needs.
Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) often present an “in control” facade as a defense against underlying feelings of deprivation, depression, loss and unmet dependency needs. In childhood it was only acceptable to express feelings or needs when this was acceptable within the family system. So now as adults, ACOAs may experience any open acknowledgment of their feelings as a source of guilt, vulnerability and dependence: the antithesis of being in control. While this kind of facade works in some ways and may be necessary for the child’s survival, as an adult it becomes more and more restricting and prevents true intimacy.
The unpredictability and inconsistency of the alcoholic environment result in severe costs to the child’s development in terms of trust and self-esteem. Guilt, shame and a desire to become prematurely responsible for the needs of the family are typical responses.
If you grew up with a parent who was alcoholic or who abused alcohol, how has this impacted you?
Was there chaos? How did you cope with it? Have you been able to attain stability in your life as an adult?
Do you see control issues at play in your life as an adult?
Are you able to acknowledge your needs and feelings or do you focus more on those of others?
Brown, S. (1985) Treating the alcoholic: A developmental model of recovery. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Brown, S. (1988) Treating adult children of alcoholics: A developmental perspective. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.