Celebrating the Resiliency of Children of Alcoholics: Week of Feb 14th – 20th 

February 16, 2010 at 8:12 pm 4 comments

Last year an eighth grade boy in Oregon told researchers that he felt he could trust the adults and kids in his Boys Council and it helped him find the courage to go home and tell his mom that he wasn’t going to drink beers with her anymore.

One out of every four children in the U.S. has a parent with a drinking problem, or alcoholism. Kids and family members of alcoholics often hurt but their suffering isn’t apparent. They suffer silently and usually with explicit or implied instructions not to tell. It’s a family secret, and a family shame.

Annie was one such family member.  She was a 15 year old sophomore referred to a high school Girls Circle by a dean who noticed that she seemed burdened, but didn’t know why. One day after group she stayed behind until the others cleared out.  She asked if she could talk with me, and we scheduled a time.   Slowly she revealed her daily life to me, and in doing so, seemed to be as torn and distressed in telling as she was desperate and seeking for answers.

Annie left home every morning while her single mother was still asleep, usually checking  to see if she was breathing. By then she’d made her breakfast, packed lunch, taken something from the freezer to thaw for dinner, fed the cat, folded laundry, straightened up. Each day after school, she wanted to hang out with friends, but feared for her mother’s afternoon condition, so she’d get home instead.  “I could NEVER have my friends over to my house!” she stressed, with deep embarrassment all over her face.  “When I get home, the curtains are drawn, it’s all dark inside, and my mom is on the couch with the t.v. on. She might be asleep or anyway, she’s been drinking since she woke up. She would never eat if I didn’t bring her food, and she doesn’t do anything.  I don’t know if I’m relieved she’s alive and hasn’t burned the house down, or if I’m more upset because every day is so bad. If my mom knew I was speaking to you, I couldn’t deal with it.”

Annie was so brave to talk with me.  It took tremendous courage for her to come forward and ask for support. Thankfully, we were able to continue meeting for the semester, gradually working together to increase her resources, such as Ala-Teen for children of alcoholics, and to talk about how her mother’s illness is not her fault, nor does it reflect on her own value and love-ability as a young women. We spoke with CPS together to discuss the neglect and, of more concern to Annie, her mother’s safety. It took Annie a while before she wanted to share the situation in the circle, even though I knew she’d be accepted and not judged by the other girls.  When she did briefly talk about it, there was real kindness, prompting another girl to talk about her older brother’s addiction.  When we concluded our work, Annie had not been removed from her home. Her mother was undergoing assessment for treatment. I don’t know what the end result was, but I know that Annie had acted with courage to seek support and express herself – huge resiliency factors that increased her connection and reduced her isolation and internal stress level.

Alcoholism really sucks. Alcohol is the number one most abused drug in our country, and that impact has deep and profound influence on kids’ development. Children of alcoholics are at increased risk of developing substance abuse problems themselves, mental health problems, and physical illnesses. They can develop skewed relationship patterns as emotional caretakers who don’t stand up for their own needs and boundaries at risk of loss of relationship. Neglect, emotional abandonment, lack of structure and unpredictability, broken promises, secrets, chronic anxiety, shame, humiliation, poor communication skills, boundary violations… all these experiences influence children and teens’ development.  Kids tend to assume responsibility prematurely, to protect their alcoholic parents while relying on their own undeveloped minds and bodies for strategies and coping. Claudia Black, author of It Will Never Happen To Me and several other recovery books, emphasizes the rules that these kids suffer under: Don’t Talk (about it); Don’t Trust (anyone); and Don’t Feel (the pain). It was clear to me that Annie was in a real relational bind, having to break a family secrecy rule in order to find help. Yet, without seeking help, she knew that both she and her mother were at risk of even more harm.

Girls Circle, The Council for Boys and Young Men, and other youth groups are safe places for kids to find healthy voices, break isolation, and find strength.  Annie did, and so did the eighth grader in Oregon.

Let’s keep listening as much as we can to kids, and trust their capacity for resilience while also offering some important information and resources –

  • they are not at fault or responsible for their parents drinking
  • they are not alone- literally millions of kids every day are in this same situation
  • help is available to them

For a fact sheet about Children of Alcoholics, and other resources, see:

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics can offer further resources and support, call 1-888-55-COAS or go to: http://www.nacoa.org

Thanks! Stay well! And contrary to the old broken alcoholic rules, do let yourself and the kids in your circles to talk to others, trust your inner voice, and allow emotional pain to guide you toward healing whenever you need to.



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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sympatia  |  April 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I blog often and I really thank you for your content.

    This article has really peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your website
    and keep checking for new information about once per week.
    I opted in for your Feed as well.

  • 2. Tex  |  February 20, 2010 at 1:46 am

    HA! I didn’t realize I was using my blog name but this is Donna E with 4M Youth who co-sponsored a Girls Circle in Dallas.
    Keep up the great work on this blog! I love it!

  • 3. bethgc  |  February 17, 2010 at 2:20 am

    Hi Tex,
    YES, only one CAN make a difference!
    And YES, so many children and teens find their way into healthy lives. Thank you for this story!

  • 4. Tex  |  February 16, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks Beth for posting that! I have 2 friends who dealt with alcoholism in their families. I know both went on to become happy and mentally healthy. One of them I was quite aware of her home life…so there were no surprises. But the other girl I went to school with and had no clue until as a JPO I had her nephew on my caseload and she came in with him to report. I was shocked because I knew ‘the background’ of this family and when my probationer told me his aunt was coming in to see me, I had no idea who she was. I was stunned but then it opened so many doors for conversation for me to learn and understand kids more.

    It only takes one adult in a kids life to make a difference. Just One. Be The One.


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