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Alcoholism in the Family

June 19, 2018 11:32 am Published by Comments Off on Alcoholism in the Family

This post was written by Aiden Choi, a senior at the Davidson Academy in Reno, Nevada.

Undeniably, alcohol has had a profound effect on human history. In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” regarded as one of the earliest forms of known literature, the drinking of alcohol is equated to the participation of civilization. During their journey aboard the Mayflower, beer served as the pilgrims’ main source of hydration. Today, alcoholic beverages are associated with fun and leisure; however, this is only the case in moderation. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), “approximately 21% of Americans experienced at least one alcohol-related problem in the prior year, and roughly 1 in 3 Americans engaged in risky drinking patterns.3” Currently, “15% of Americans are problem drinkers,” and “30% of Americans report having an alcohol disorder at some time in their lives.4” These problems with alcohol can cover a broad range of severities. One may have an alcoholic dependence whereby he or she displays increased levels of tolerance, signs of withdrawal, and a chronic drinking pattern, or one may engage in alcoholic abuse, whereby, despite a number of obvious alcohol-related problems, a person continues to drink to the point of severe illness or distress3. Any alcoholic problem can have detrimental effects on a person; however, the effects they can have on romantic partners, children, and other members of the family are perhaps just as severe. 


The primary issues with risky alcohol consumption are the effects that it can have on the alcoholics themselves. There is an exceptionally wide variety of health problems that have been linked to problems with drinking. In fact, men who drink over 22 “units” of alcohol a day, the government-recommended maximum being 20 per day, “have a 20% higher rate of admissions into acute care hospitals than non-drinkers.4” Additionally, it was discovered in a study conducted by the University of Illinois that “healthy young adults who regularly binge drink may have a higher risk of heart disease later in life. 4” This may be the result of a number of different factors. Peer drinking, depression, low self-esteem, stress, age, media depictions of alcohol, and even genetics can make a person prone to alcoholism. For example, one person may feel that in order to avoid the weight of their problems, they can use alcohol as an escape, while another person may start drinking earlier due to the pressure of peers and the “coolness” that the media seems to correlate with alcohol. Starting at a young age can cause the problem to become worse at a faster rate, resulting a dependency. 


This can, in turn, cause a number of other issues. Alcoholics may lose the ability to limit the alcohol they consume, they may require larger amounts of alcohol to feel its effects, and they may lose interests in other hobbies because of the attention needed for drinking. 4 Unfortunately, the problems can get more severe. When not drinking, a dependent alcoholic may experience nausea, start sweating, or even begin shaking. Such a person may feel irritated and brash as drinking times draw nearer, the feelings worsening if alcohol seems unavailable. Then, upon drinking, one could black out, “not being able to remember chunks of time.4” To make things worse, despite whatever work, relationship, or monetary problems that may be caused by these things, these people may feel the urge to make it harder for themselves and others to help them out of these situations. For example, they may drink alone, in secret, or they may even hide alcohol stashes in unlikely places. 4 They may even experience denial, arguing that they can stop drinking at any time. Not only does this make it difficult to address a problem that is negatively affecting the lives of the alcoholic, it also prevents a change from being made that could potentially stop such a problem from affecting his or her family members. 


A problem with alcohol can have a number of negative consequences for a married couple. Among married couples who engage in physical quarrels, around 60-70 percent abuse alcohol5. Not all marital relationships with alcoholic problems involve physical fighting or abuse, but they can develop a number of issues that result in stress between partners. Alcohol impairs cognitive function, which results in “neglect of responsibilities5,” it requires time to sustain the addiction and to nurse hangovers, and it can increase the likelihood of partners “becoming involved in domestic disputes or violence5.”According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “92 percent of victims of domestic violence reported that the assailant had used alcohol or other drugs on the day of the assault5.” Therefore, not only do these alcoholic problems turn romantic partners into victims of physical pain, but they also lose their presence in a relationship. Maintaining a problem with alcohol not only takes a lot of time, but it also becomes a priority for an individual, causing them to lose sight of important responsibilities and significant people in their lives. Even when they recognize that their drinking is causing harm, they often experience intense stress and internal conflict. On the one hand, they want to experience the effects of the beverage, but on the other hand, they don’t want to have to deal with the problems that follow. This stress often causes them to “blame others when things go wrong1.” Even if a partner of spouse is not to blame for these issues, they may also blame themselves as well. “Unfortunately, many partners then work all the more strenuously, taking on extra responsibilities, trying to cover up the mess …fighting a losing battle1.” Whether or not the “mess” can be cleaned, this stress can sometimes end in separation. 50 percent of marriages where one spouse drinks heavily results in divorce1. It is very clear that problems with alcohol result in more problems between partners. Whether or not the people in the relationship wish for things to improve, they often end up in a downward spiral of stress, pain, and ultimately loneliness. 

Sadly, however, adults are not the only ones affected by these problems. The list of consequences that come with alcoholic issues extends to children of these families as well. In fact, even before birth, “small amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy or in combined with certain medications may result in significant adverse consequences and therefore constitute risky drinking3.” Children have no control over the actions of their family members and the terribly unfortunate results of risky drinking. According to the National Council on Child Abuse and Family violence, “children of parents who abuse alcohol or other drugs are three times more likely to suffer abuse and four times more likely to be neglected…5” This is a terrible thing for any child to have to experience, no matter the extent of the problem. However unintentional, if a parent experiences a drinking problem, they may be causing their children lots of unexplained distress. Unfortunately, many children have to deal with alcoholism around them. A fifth of adult Americans report having grown up around an alcoholic relative. These children are at major risk of a variety of emotional problems because they, firstly, have suffering parents and because they, secondly, have likely had to deal with neglect or abuse2. They may experience guilt and see themselves as the cause of their parent’s problems, they may develop anxiety and constantly worry about their home situation, they may feel embarrassment and try to keep their problems a secret, they may experience anger towards their parents for allowing them to deal with so many problems on their own, they may feel mistrustful of friends and close ones since the problem likely revolves around close family members, and they may experience confusion due to the seemingly unpredictable behavior of an alcoholic parent2. Additionally, children whose parents have problems with alcohol tend to have a lack of friends, to participate in illegal behavior like petty theft, to complain about physical pains, to take unnecessary risks, to experience suicidal thoughts, and to take drugs2. Moreover, “teenage children of alcohol dependents are at a higher risk of becoming alcoholics themselves1.” In fact, they are four times more likely than children whose parents are not alcoholics2. The list of consequences continues. By engaging in risky drinking behavior, parents are inadvertently causing their children a variety of issues. 


To deal with the consequences and emotional problems that are caused by parental alcoholism, children may find a number of ways to cope, often taking on different roles in the family. For example, “the family hero,” is a role usually taken up by the oldest child of the family. This person works hard to achieve success and to gain approval from perhaps otherwise neglectful parents. Although they may appear collected, they can often feel anxious about themselves, constantly worried about things going wrong or not working out properly1. “The scapegoat” is a very unfortunate role to be assigned in a family. This person is constantly blamed for whatever problems a family may have. Their faults are constantly pointed out, which makes them appear more rebellious and troublesome. However, they are often unfairly blamed in order to provide family members with a distraction from the real problem in a family, alcohol1. “The lost child” is a role taken up by children who seek to remove themselves from the problems that they face within their own family. They may appear to drift away from the family during times of struggle, often hiding quiet feelings of pain and lonliness1. “The mascot” or “clown” is a member of the family who attempts to hide his or her pain with humor and jokes. Although they may appear energized and happy, they are often easily hurt and have fragile self-esteem1. Each of these roles provides children or other members of the family with ways to cope with the emotional difficulty of dealing with risky consumption of alcohol. However, none of these actually address the root problem. Rather, they still leave members of the family hurt or unhappy. 


The consequences of risky drinking behavior are not good. Not only do they cause a number of health concerns for the alcoholic, but they also affect other members of the family in potentially dreadful ways as well, perhaps even inadvertently causing them to later develop drinking problems of their own. Luckily, these issues are not unstoppable and people can recover from alcoholic dependencies. Research studies show a significant correlation between attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and remaining sober for extended periods of time.3 If risky drinkers are unable to accept their own problems and to admit a dependency, clinicians can be extremely helpful in helping them recover, especially if they are capable of empathizing with their patients. They are more likely to help alcoholics speak about their drinking, admit the problems related to their behavior, and to make positive changes.3 Despite the list of costs and issues related to problems with alcohol, alcoholics are still capable of altering their behavior. With the right amount of help and support, these people can work to improve their health, their relationships, and the lives of their children.



Works Cited

“Children affected by a parent’s drinking.” Children affected by a parent’s drinking – Drug and Alcohol Information and Support in Ireland – Drugs.ie. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Facts for Families; Children of Alcoholics.” AACAP. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dec. 2011. Web. 14 Jan. 2017. <https://www.aacap.org/App_Themes/AACAP/docs/facts_for_families/17_children_of_alcoholics.pdf>.

National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Nordqvist, Christian. “What an Alcoholic Is.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 8 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2017. 

“What Are the Problems & Effects of Alcoholism on Families & Marriages.” American Addiction Centers. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.