The girl stares out the window as her school bus approaches her home. While other kids on the bus may be thinking about enjoying an after-school snack or playing a video game to unwind, this girl has thoughts that are much more troubling.
Is her mom waiting until after dinner to pop the cork in the wine bottle? Or is it one of those days where she started drinking the minute she crawled out of bed that morning?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 14 million Americans abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. A portion of these are parents, adding their children to the 26.8 million children of alcoholics in the United States.
Before being diagnosed an alcoholic, people go through a stage of alcohol abuse. This pattern of drinking can harm one’s health, interpersonal relationships and ability to work. After experiencing this part of the cycle, some people then enter the chronic stage of alcoholism, which includes a strong craving for alcohol and an inability to limit its usage.
Effects on the children
The repercussions of alcoholism affect not only the drinkers but also the people around them – especially their families. When alcoholics lack the ability to parent their children adequately, the children often must grow up early and take on big responsibilities.
Fairmont High School Guidance Counselor Lois Isaacs, who has dealt with students in this situation, feels it’s not fair that kids have to go through this.
“A child who lives in a home where any kind of alcohol problems are present often has certain characteristics due to coping with the situation,” she said. “I’ve noticed that a lot of students have had to become adults too early. By doing this, they have to take care of and manage their home while having to cover problems up so no one else knows what goes on in their home.”
The chaos and unpredictability in these homes can lead to high levels of stress for children. Dr. Oscar Bukstein, a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pennsylvania, told ABC News that people must be careful not to over-generalize what children of alcoholics go through. “However,” he said, “many grow up too soon and attempt to act as parents while their parents’ alcoholism renders them childlike.”
Speaking of growing up, some students who live in alcoholic homes as children also will face challenges as adults.
Barb, a Dayton-area adult who grew up in an alcoholic home, said she feels that when children’s needs aren’t met, it can affect the way they handle their needs as adults. (The Flyer agreed not to reveal Barb’s last name to abide by the confidentiality policies of Alateen, an organization that helps teens cope with alcoholics in their lives. Barb is the Alateen coordinator for Fairmont and the Miami Valley.)
“I grew up with parents who were alcoholics, and my father is still an alcoholic,” Barb said. “I currently don’t have a relationship with my father because of the alcoholic home I lived in when I was younger. And for other students who are put into these situations, I feel it’s really hard for them to have relationships when they’re adults, considering they never had a loving and affectionate relationship with their parents when they were younger.”
As with other family crises, children of alcoholics at times take the blame or responsibility upon themselves. Barb believes students must know the problem is about their parents, not them.
“This problem is not the child’s fault and they need to focus on their own priorities,” said Barb. “It’s good for students to keep in mind their personal choices and take care of their own needs before anything else. They shouldn’t be the ones that have to sacrifice anything.”
Fairmont students face struggles, too
Certainly no one can describe what it’s like to live with an alcoholic better than someone who has been there. One Fairmont freshman believes dealing with the situation is hard at first, but support from others really helps.
“Living with an alcoholic is definitely hard. There were times when I blamed myself and was even suicidal,” said the girl, who is remaining anonymous to avoid problems at home. “But to cope with this situation, I attend Alateen. This group really helps me because everyone there doesn’t just try to give you advice – they actually listen to you.”
Alateen, which has been in existence for more than 55 years, recently established a branch at Fairmont that meets every Wednesday during fifth period to eat lunch and to talk about any problems the members wish to discuss.
Isaacs and Cheryl Abraham, another Fairmont counselor, organize and attend the Alateen meetings, and Isaacs feels the organization has helped Fairmont students in an extraordinary way. “Students who live with an alcoholic need to talk to people – whether it’s at school or in support groups. Alateen is one group which I think really helps students,” she said. “Having support from others is the key, and to suffer silently is not the answer.
Fairmont psychologist Karen Johnson, who sees many students who face the difficulty of living with an alcoholic, agrees Alateen or any support group is effective for students. “There’s a lot of research that shows teens respond positively to a group. I think Alateen is very effective and is the foremost best thing for students in this kind of situation,” she said.
Johnson said children of alcoholics must find a way to relieve the stress of their situation. “Those kids who hold everything inside just get angrier and angrier. These students need to find some outlet, whether it may be a group like Alateen, a trustworthy friend or even a journal to release their stresses to.”
‘This too shall pass’
After attending several Alateen meetings, the anonymous freshman girl has taken the Alateen motto to heart so she can get through hard times. “They use the slogan, ‘This too shall pass,’” she said. “This means that you should think about the next day and know that what’s going on will soon pass, and hopefully one day, everything will be better.”
The chaos of living with an alcoholic may at times seem inescapable, but it’s not a permanent fixture. Many children of alcoholics grow into strong adults who overcome their family difficulties. The success stories prove the pattern doesn’t have to continue.
“I can’t imagine how stressful it is for students to go home and not be able to expect certain things to happen,” said Johnson. “But I’ve seen kids come out of absolutely horrible homes and be pretty overall together in the end.”