What Your Child Can Learn About Alcohol Use From Watching How You Drink
Parents who drink can influence their children’s attitudes and behaviors towards alcohol. Discover how here:
Children whose parents drink are five times more likely to use alcohol themselves—often before legal drinking age. And children of alcoholics have a four-times-greater-than-average risk of becoming alcoholics themselves. Children learn by example, and parents who take a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude are inevitably disappointed—at best, their kids see drinking as an adult privilege to look forward to.
One way or another, you influence your children every day—and if they see you drinking irresponsibly, they are at risk for typical characteristics of children of alcoholics:
- Low self-esteem
- High sensitivity to stress
- Difficulty forming close relationships
- Limited impulse control—and/or an obsessive fear of losing control
- Constant approval seeking
- And, of course, substance-abuse issues of their own
This article looks at what your child can learn about alcohol use from watching how you drink—or don’t drink. There are at least four categories of people who use or have used alcohol: the nonalcoholic or “social” drinker, the “high-functioning” alcoholic, the “low-functioning” alcoholic and the recovering alcoholic who no longer drinks but is vulnerable to temptation.
THE “SOCIAL DRINKER’S” CHILD
Even where parents drink responsibly, children get the message that alcohol is a normal, enjoyable part of life. If parents speak, however casually, of “needing a drink to relax,” kids learn that alcohol is helpful and necessary in relieving stress. If adults tell hilarious stories about acquaintances who took one too many, kids learn that getting drunk is no big deal.
Talk with your children about the dangers of alcohol misuse and how subtly alcoholism can develop. Make it clear that minimum-age and other drinking laws are to be respected. Never, under any circumstance, offer “just a sip” to your underage child or anyone else’s—and tell your kids to inform you immediately if anyone else offers them a drink.
The safest bet, of course, is to avoid all drinking yourself.
THE “HIGH-FUNCTIONING” ALCOHOLIC’S CHILD
“High-functioning” alcoholics are often not recognized as alcoholics, because they typically perform their jobs acceptably, rarely show up drunk in public, and lead lives that seem normal enough.
Yet in some ways, high-functioning alcoholism is the most dangerous kind—it can go unrecognized until accumulated “small” problems explode into tragedy. Such a drinker is likely to be perfectionistic and to live in denial that part of his or her life has become uncontrollable.
Signs that the drinker has lost control include:
- Regularly having more than two drinks a day. (Women, who metabolize alcohol differently than men, are at risk with more than one.)
- Setting personal limits to when, how or what they will drink—then making frequent exceptions to those rules.
- Asking family and friends to help cover up “bad days.”
- Getting short-tempered and defensive if anyone questions their drinking habits.
- Becoming withdrawn and spending spare time alone.
Children of high-functioning alcoholics are less likely to endure obvious abuse and neglect. Yet they learn they are less important than the bottle. They learn that zoning out is the normal way of coping with stress. They learn that you earn the right to drink by being a driven worker.
They also learn that secrecy and dishonesty are part of family dynamics: most parents in alcoholic families either try to hide what’s going on from the children (which rarely works), or involve the children in enablement (often imposing unreasonable responsibilities). And since high-functioning alcoholics are masters of blame-shifting, the kids may also learn that the miserable home life is their fault.
If you recognize yourself in any of the “high-functioning” symptoms above, get help now for your children’s sake.
Hints for the other parent:
- Be candid with your children about the problem, and emphasize that it’s no fault of theirs.
- Teach your children by example how not to “enable” the problem.
- Show your partner how alcoholism is hurting the children. Broach the topic in an empathetic and non-accusatory manner, at a time when your partner is sober and reasonable.
THE “LOW-FUNCTIONING” ALCOHOLIC’S CHILD
At the “low-functioning” stage, alcoholics are beyond caring about a respectable front. Covering up the problem is left to other family members, while the alcoholic becomes bitter and withdrawn as a way of life. While not every low functioner is the stereotypical homeless drunk or wife-beating brute, few maintain jobs or outside relationships. They ignore others most of the time and exhibit unreasonable anger if their self-medicated world is disturbed.
Children of low-functioning alcoholics live in an atmosphere that has lost all security and predictability. They learn to stay constantly on guard and that authority figures and loved ones can’t be counted on. The unspoken rules of the house are “don’t trust, don’t feel, don’t talk.” Often, the kids vow never to drink themselves—only to break that vow because they know of no other coping mechanism. Unless they and their parent receive help, shame and anger may become a permanent way of life.
Hints for the other parent:
- Introduce your children to Alateen or another support organization for minor children of alcoholics. Kids need encouragement from same-age peers.
- Be the point of stability they lack in their alcoholic parent. Spend time with your children. Make sure their material needs are supplied. Most important, listen to them and encourage them to believe in themselves.
- Enlist the help of friends and other relatives. If you’re considering a formal “intervention,” get professional advice—poorly managed interventions can do more harm than good.
- If home life is violent, be brave enough to take the kids and get out. Don’t return without outside support and your partner’s strong commitment (not verbal promise) to change.
THE RECOVERING ALCOHOLIC’S CHILD
The child whose parent has finally detoxed feels strong relief and hope—but strong negative emotions as well. Children have heard empty promises before and doubt this improvement will stick. Long-suppressed anger and pain pour out. If the kids are old enough to have assumed some personal control of their lives, they may even resent seeing their parent accept new responsibility—and thus impose new restrictions.
Remember that change—even change for the better—is stressful. If you want your kids, watching you in your newly sober life, to learn by example that change is worth the effort:
- Involve the whole family in therapy. Commit yourself to helping everyone heal, however long it takes.
- Have a stress-management and relapse-prevention plan, and stick with it.
- Don’t overindulge the kids because you feel guilty about all you’ve put them through. Making amends to those you’ve wronged includes considering their long-term good.
- Schedule regular time with your kids, both for serious talk and for just enjoying one another’s company.
Hints for the other parent:
- Stand by your partner. Never let your children hear you complain about what you don’t like about the new order.
- Give up all drinking yourself.
- Discourage “what if he relapses” talk. Keep conversations focused on the positive. Feed everyone’s confidence that the whole family is journeying toward a better future.
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