How to Deal With an Alcoholic Parent
Millions of children and adolescents throughout the world suffer the misfortune of being raised by an alcoholic parent. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 10 percent of US children currently live with an alcoholic parent—the majority of whom never receive treatment for their alcoholism. Alcohol destroys family units, sabotages successful parenting, and creates a dysfunctional climate in which to raise children. In many alcoholic households, children are forced to assume the role of parent as the social, medical, economic, and legal ramifications of the disease spiral out of control.
Unfortunately, children who are exposed to the toxic environment that almost always accompanies alcoholism are at a far greater risk for developing later addiction or substance abuse issues. They also suffer from a dramatically increased risk of mental health issues and instability. In this way, the disease of alcoholism is vicariously transmitted, and the consequences can be nothing short of devastating.
WHY THEY DRINK
Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing disease for which there is no single cause. Research reveals that there are numerous factors that contribute to the development of the disease. For example, in certain people, a strong family history of multigenerational alcoholism or substance abuse is the primary cause. In others, emotional distress, personal and professional demands, or the presence of pre-existing mental health disorders are to blame. And sometimes all of these factors combined converge to form a greater susceptibility.
Regardless of the exact reasons for a parent’s alcoholism, one thing remains certain: people who drink excessively do so in order to numb or escape from negative emotions. Underlying almost every case of full-blown alcoholism is the false belief that drinking to the point of self-intoxication will somehow make reality less painful and more palatable. In reality, the exact opposite is the case.
IS MY PARENT AN ALCOHOLIC?
Discerning whether or not your parent is an alcoholic can be extremely difficult. Some children have a strong desire to help an alcoholic parent, but are not educated about the disease. For example, they may not understand the diagnostic criteria used to distinguish alcohol dependence from alcohol use disorder (AUD), or may have been told inaccurate information by their peers. A parent having a glass of wine with dinner or the occasional cocktail on the weekends does not constitute an AUD, let alone alcohol dependence.
Although there are objective criteria for defining alcoholism according to clinical standards, children of alcoholic parents may need an easier, more casual method. Answering “yes” to three or more of the following 10 questions can prove useful in helping determine whether your parent is suffering from alcoholism:
- Does your parent drink excessively on a regular basis?
- Does your parent invest a significant amount of time in purchasing alcohol, drinking, and recovering from binge drinking episodes?
- Does your parent neglect responsibilities such as cooking meals, driving you to school, or taking you to recreational activities because they are drinking or hung over?
- Has your parent ever been charged with a DWI, DUI, or exhibited other reckless behaviors such as sipping wine while driving?
- Has your parent ever missed work, been late for important meetings, or been fired due to intoxication?
- Does your parent require more alcohol than they used to in order to feel calm and relaxed?
- Does your parent appear nervous, anxious, or depressed when not drinking?
- Has your parent ever attempted to quit drinking or reduce their alcohol intake only to begin drinking again?
- Does your parent experience marital conflict or other financial, medical, or personal problems related to their alcohol consumption?
- Does your parent appear to care less about you than they do about their next drink or drinking session?
Naturally, every child of an alcoholic parent will either feel or express a desire to help (and usually both). Although many children are emotionally overwhelmed by the effects of a parent’s alcoholism, they cannot instill in them a desire to stop drinking. Some try and are confronted by denial, resentment, or aggression in response to their attempts to help. Others seem to be making progress, only to be confronted by the same troubling behaviors following a brief period of abstinence. Regardless of how hopeless a situation involving an alcoholic parent may seem, there are still actions that can be taken in order to help them achieve their long-term goal of sobriety.
CONFRONTING AN ALCOHOLIC PARENT
When confronting your parent about your concerns regarding their drinking, it is vital to never attempt a discussion when they are drinking or appear intoxicated. It will not be well received and will likely be perceived as an attack. It is also important to remember that we cannot make someone stop drinking or get the help they need, so the best approach is a loving one whereby you express your concerns about their drinking and the impact it has on you, which is the most productive way to avoid defensiveness on the part of the parent. Some suggestions for effectively talking to your parent include:
- Make sure to speak in a gentle, concerned, and sympathetic manner.
- Have information available that you have gathered about alcoholism, treatment programs, and possible support systems.
- Find a time to talk to your parent when you know that there will be no distractions or interruptions.
- Try using “I” statements when expressing how you feel about their drinking rather than “you” statements which will automatically put them on the defensive.
- If they are not receptive to treatment, don’t force the issue. You have initiated the discussion, which is the most difficult part, and can readdress it at a later date once they have had time to think about what was said.
- Don’t argue with them. Heated discussions can easily lead to physical altercations and/or verbal abuse.
- Don’t enable or make excuses for your parent. Learn to set firm boundaries with them.
- Never resort to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism when dealing with the situation— especially since having an alcoholic parent is a known trigger for later life substance abuse. Instead, reach out to friends, extended family members, or other forms of support in order to help process your feelings.
- Never remain stuck in an abusive situation. If you are experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual violence fueled by a parent’s alcoholism, seek professional help or leave the home after making plans to stay with friends or relatives.
HELPING A PARENT IN DENIAL
Alcoholism is frequently characterized by denial, avoidance, and secrecy— all negative behavioral traits symbolic of underlying dysfunction. Occasionally, an alcoholic parent may be receptive to hearing the expressed concerns of an affected child, but more often they will deeply resent hearing about their perceived failures, even if they know there is truth in the message. In some cases, adolescent children of an alcoholic parent may have the financial means or support of other family members necessary to hire a professional interventionist. Unlike concerned family members and friends, professional interventionists are trained in a variety of therapeutic techniques and highly skilled in the nuanced art of confrontation. More importantly, they are not emotionally invested in the relationship to the same extent, and have a far greater probability of success as a result.
TREATMENT OPTIONS AND AFTERCARE
For those children who are fortunate enough to experience a breakthrough in helping get their parent to the point of being willing to seek treatment, a methodical approach much be taken. Ours is a society in which alcoholism is rampant, and there are more treatment options available than ever before. Although it may be tempting to focus on the cheapest, most convenient treatment options, this is a mistake when it comes to achieving optimal long-term recovery outcomes.
For parents suffering from alcoholism, an ideal treatment plan begins with enrollment in a medically managed detox program during which time the harmful effects of alcohol are safely removed from the system. Detox is also critical in preventing unnecessary complications and helping clients regain physical and psychological stability.
Following successful detox, clients benefit most from the continued support of an inpatient treatment program, also known as residential treatment. Residential treatment programs usually last between 30 and 90 days and take place in a designated live-in facility. For the duration of treatment, clients receive 24/7 clinical supervision and premium medical care. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is considered the nucleus of residential treatment, and consists of Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved pharmaceutical interventions combined with ongoing individual and group psychotherapy.
Upon successful completion of a residential treatment program, clients are strongly recommended to enroll in further treatment on a less intensive basis. Intensive outpatient (IOP) and outpatient programs (OP) both represent excellent continuing care options that offer both flexibility and greater affordability to those who are further along the path to recovery. In addition to completing progressive levels of clinical care, clients will need to implement a comprehensive relapse prevention plan that includes the following elements:
- Ongoing involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- A working relationship with a sponsor
- Continuing medication management
- Life and jobs skills coaching (if necessary)
- Sober peer support and community involvement
- Healthy diet, physical activity, and responsible lifestyle decisions
- One-on-one and/or group therapy in addition to family therapy
- Conscious avoidance of social and environmental triggers
If your parent is suffering from alcoholism or displaying warning signs, call a substance abuse professional today, and begin the process of getting them the help they need in order to turn their life around.
For more about alcoholism and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “Alcohol or Drugs: The Shocking Answer to What’s Worse for You, From the Experts”
- “What Can I do If My Parent Is an Addict?”
- “What Your Child Can Learn About Alcohol Use From Watching How You Drink”
- “The Legal High: Why Alcohol is so Addictive”
- Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. The hidden harm: Alcohol’s impact on children and families. Feb, 2015.
- US National Library of Medicine National Health Institutes. The impact of family environment on the development of alcohol dependence. Sept, 2013.
- American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Families Affected by Parental Substance Use. August, 2016.
- PLOS ONE. Protective Mental Health Factors in children of parents with alcohol and drug use disorders: A systematic review. June, 2017.