Focus on Children of Alcoholics

  • Background on the Issue
  • Questions for Your Community
  • Programming Ideas
  • Public Service Announcements

A Publication of the National Association of Broadcasters

About This Publication

Focus on Children of Alcoholics was produced by the National Association of Broadcasters with the assistance of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. The goal of the publication is to help radio and television stations across the country play a part in helping children from alcoholic families find the support they need. The publication is part of STAR (Stations Target Alcohol Abuse Reduction), NAB's comprehensive alcohol abuse education campaign.

For more information about STAR, contact:

NAB, 1771 N St., NW, Washington, DC 20036.
Phone: 202-429-5447.

Often, the people hurt most by alcohol abuse don't even drink. They are the children of alcoholics, and they desperately need our help and attention.

The Issue

Today, there are an estimated 28.6 million Americans who are children of alcoholics; nearly 11 million are under age 20. Many of these children and young people are exposed to chaotic family environments that offer little stability or emotional support. And many will develop serious behavioral and emotional problems that will keep them from living happy and normal lives.

It doesn't have to be this way. Effective prevention measures exist to help children of alcoholics cope with life's many challenges. By providing these youths with the support they need, family members, friends, doctors and entire communities can be a steadying force, bringing hope to young lives where it is sorely lacking and preventing more problems down the road.

A Tough Environment

All too often, the alcoholic homefront is armored by denial, delusion and steadfast adherence to a strict "no talk" rule. Consequently, children of alcoholics don't always understand what is happening in their families and, not too surprisingly, some believe it is all their fault. The predominant feeling for many children isn't sadness, anger or hurt; it is overwhelming confusion.

Tasha, age seven, put it this way: "Mom says Dad is drinking again. Dad says he isn't. ... I am confused. I'll just try hard to figure it out."

Growing up in such an environment can lead to real problems later in life. According to Dr. Hoover Adger, Associate Director of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, children and adolescents living in families where a parent or another caretaker abuses alcohol often develop "unhealthy living patterns."

"They may not learn to trust themselves or others, how to handle uncomfortable feelings, or how to build positive relationships," according to Adger, who also serves as Program Vice President of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). The result, he says, is that these youths are at higher risk for school failure, depression, increased anxiety and problems of their own with alcohol. And not only that, but children of alcoholics are at increased risk of accidental injury, verbal, physical or sexual abuse, and neglect associated with their parent's excessive drinking.

Making Things Better

No child of an alcoholic should have to grow up in isolation or without support. The key to helping these youths is to provide them, first, with basic information about alcohol and alcoholism and, second, with skills they can use to cope.

Information. Children of Alcoholics need accurate information so they can understand that alcoholism is a disease and has nothing to do with them. By learning about such things as denial, blackouts, relapse and recovery, youngsters can make better sense of what's happening at home. Accurate information about alcohol and alcoholism also helps children of alcoholics come to terms with the fact that they are not to blame and they can't make it all better.

According to the experts, it's critically important to provide these types of information in "age-appropriate" ways so youngsters don't become overwhelmed or even more confused. Important messages for children of alcoholics to hear include the following:

  • Alcoholism is a sickness.
  • You can't make it better.
  • You deserve help for yourself.
  • You are not alone
  • There are people and places that can help.

But most of all, children of alcoholics should remember this: you can get help and feel better even if your parent doesn't stop drinking.

Where can we reach children of alcoholics with the right messages and information? The answer is anywhere in PSAs, presentations at youth group meetings, classroom discussions, a poster at the pediatricians' office or a brochure posted at the local community center. And often, providing children of alcoholics with the information they need means simply sitting down with them, one on one, and talking it through.

Empowering children of alcoholics with life skills helps them cope with the inevitable challenges they confront from day to day. For example, children of alcoholics who face difficult situations with family violence, neglect and other problems can learn a variety of coping and "self-care" strategies to stay safe. Others may allow their feelings to build up until they are ready to explode many children of alcoholics, in fact, complain of frequent headaches and stomach aches associated with stress. For these youngsters, learning how to identify and express their feelings in healthy ways is key.

Generally, the experts say that children of alcoholics need to learn to love and respect themselves through experiences where they have opportunities to succeed and thrive. They need help developing strong social skills, coping strategies and a positive vision of life. And, more often than not, this help must come from outside the family.

Many prevention and early intervention programs exist today to help youngsters develop these sorts of skills. Student assistance programs in many schools, for example, may offer education and support groups, face-to-face counseling, and other prevention strategies. In addition, many alcohol treatment centers offer children's programs, and church youth and community groups regularly provide children with lessons and skills they can draw on as they face life's challenges.

The key point is this: Trained professionals aren't the only ones qualified to help children of alcoholics. Anyone who can show they care and any program that brings youngsters together in constructive ways can make a difference. The most important thing, say the experts, is for children of alcoholics to develop healthy relationships with others. Broken promises, harsh words and the constant threat of abuse make "Don't trust" the rule for many of these youngsters.

As a result, simply caring about a child from an alcoholic family is often all that it takes to start.

Children of Alcoholics:
Important Facts

  • Alcoholics are more likely than non-alcoholics to have an alcoholic father, mother, sibling or other relative.
  • Studies suggest an increased prevalence of alcoholism among parents who abuse their children.
  • Children of alcoholics tend to score lower on tests that measure cognitive and verbal skills. They are also more likely to be truant, drop out of school, repeat grades or be referred to a school counselor or psychologist.
  • Hospital admission rates for children of alcoholics are substantially higher than rates for children from non-acholic families: for substance abuse, the inpatient admission rate is three times that of other children; for mental disorders, the rate is almost double.

Ideas for Stations

In this section, we offer lots of ideas for programming, community outreach and public service activities broadcasters can undertake to focus their communities' attention on helping children of alcoholics.


Get the Facts. In news reports and other programming, try to show the extent of the problem. To get a sense of how many children are living with alcoholic parents in your area, talk to teachers, social workers, school guidance counselors, doctors and others about how often they encounter children from alcoholic homes. Discuss the potential risks to these children behavioral and emotional problems, physical and sexual abuse and provide concerned adults with a local resource to call for information on how to help children they know who might be in trouble.

Ask the Experts. Contact local experts who know about and can help you convey to your audience the best strategies for helping children of alcoholics. These could include pediatrician, child psychologists, youth counselors, alcohol counseling and treatment professionals, and others. Ask your contacts for background information, invite them to appear on the air in talk shows and other forums, and interview them for news reports.

Profile Local Programs. Produce a news profile of a local program providing assistance to children of alcoholics. Maybe there is a student assistance program at a local school or a special youth-oriented program offered by an alcohol treatment center. Whatever the case, interview program coordinators about the problems facing children of alcoholics and about the strategies programs follow to help the children they serve. Be sure to provide your audience with information on how to sign up.

Note: If it appears there aren't many programs serving children of alcoholics in your community, try to find out why these children are not getting the attention they need.

Talk to Grown-up Children of Alcoholics. Contact local treatment centers and other area resources to ask for help in pulling together a group of two or more grown-up children of alcoholics who have been successful in coping and getting on with their lives. Be sensitive: many may wish to remain anonymous or to keep their backgrounds private. Interview them about their childhood and the challenges of living with an alcoholic parent. Find out what it took for them to turn the corner to a brighter future. Ask if they have any words of encouragement to share with children who are living with alcoholic parents today.

Produce Intervention Pointers. In a series of brief news segment or public service spots, offer easy-to-grasp pointers for adults who may know a child from an alcoholic family. Encourage them to try to talk to the child, to say it's not the child's fault, and to direct the child to activities and programs that can help.

Talk Directly to Youth. Produce public service spots for broadcast during children's programming highlighting key messages that children of alcoholics need to hear. You might even want to produce a special youth-oriented spot providing information on alcohol and alcoholism. Also, use PSA spots and other children's programming to highlight community programs and activities Boy and Girl Scouts, Little League, youth soccer that offer opportunities to develop important life skills. Be sure to provide youngsters with phone numbers and sign-up information for all programs and activities you cover.

List Local Resources. Make sure in all of your reporting on alcohol abuse and prevention topics that you include contact numbers and addresses for local resources people can call if they feel they have a problem. Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon family groups are always good places to start. Also contact city, county and state health departments, as well as area treatment programs, to see if they have hotlines and other services. Look in the Yellow Pages under "alcohol treatment." Al-Ateen (for teens affected by parents who drink) can be reached through Al-Anon or Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dramatize the Problem. Produce a dramatization of the challenges facing children in alcoholic families. Portray a child in need of help as a parent engages in excessive drinking, ignores the family and threatens to become violent or abusive. Show how the child finds help through a student assistance program at school, a youth group in the community or even a caring neighbor. Broadcast the program when children and families are watching, and be sure to tell your audience where to go for more information and assistance.

Community Outreach

Organize a Youth Hotline. Work with other organizations to create a community hotline for local children from alcoholic families who want to talk or need help. Contact youth service organizations, youth counselors and others who can staff the phones and direct the youngsters to community resources. Advertise the hotline in schools, during children's programming, in community centers and elsewhere. Seek out major advertisers as possible hotline sponsors.

Produce a Video for Schools. Package together an assortment of programming on alcohol and alcoholism for use by local teachers. Encourage teachers to use the video in the classroom to provide students with basic information about alcohol, and basic messages and coping strategies for children from alcoholic families.

Produce a Youth Calendar. Make it a continuing priority to report on upcoming activities for children in your community. Include all activities that bring kids together to socialize, learn and have fun! Broadcast the calendar during children's and family programming.

PSA Scripts

#1: All too often, it's the innocent children who suffer when their parents abuse alcohol. The worst part is they can't help themselves. But you can. Call the National Association for Children of Alcoholics for information about what you can do to help a child you know who may be at risk. The number is 1-888-554-COAS. Call today.

#2: You know, it's often the case that the people hurt most by alcohol don't even drink. That's right, it's the innocent children who suffer when their parents abuse alcohol. If you know a child who may be suffering, the most important thing you can do is show you care. Tell them it's not their fault, that they aren't alone, and that there are people and places that can help. Give them the information and the care they need to get on track to a brighter future.

For more on what you can do to help children of alcoholics, call the National Association for Children of Alcoholics at 1-888-554-COAS. That's 1-888-554-COAS.

#3 If your mom or dad drinks too much, you're not alone. Across the country there are millions of boys and girls just like you. The important thing to remember is it's not your fault. All you can do is live your life. And there are lots of folks who can help. Call the National Association for Children of Alcoholics at 1-888-554-COAS or (community resource) for more information You'll be glad you did.


For family members, neighbors, teachers and others in a position to talk to a child from an alcoholic family, it's important to know what to say. Here are some tips for youngsters from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics:

DO talk about how you feel. You can talk with the safe people in your lifemaybe a close friend, or relative, a school counselor, a teacher, a minister or others. Sharing your feelings is not being mean to your family. When you talk to someone, you might feel less alone.

DO try to get involved in doing enjoyable things at school or near where you livethe school band, softball, Boy or Girl Scouts, or others. Doing these types of activities can help you forget about the problems at home, and you could learn new things about yourself and about how other people live their lives.

DO remember that feeling afraid and alone is a normal way to feel when you live with alcoholic parents. It's confusing to hate the disease of alcoholism at the same time that you love you alcoholic parent. All people have confusing feelings. Having two different feelings at the same time is the way many kids feel about having alcoholic parents.

DO remember to have fun! Sometimes children from alcoholic families worry so much that they forget to be "just a kid." If things are bad at home, you might not have anyone who will help you have fun, but don't let that stop you. Find a way to let yourself have fun.

DON'T ride in a car when the driver has been drinking if you can avoid it. It is not safe. Walk or try to get a ride with an adult friend who has not been drinking. If your parents are going out to drink somewhere, try not to go with them. (If you must go with them, sit in the back seat, sit in the middle, buckle up and stay calm.)

DON'T think that because your parent is an alcoholic you will be one too. Most children of alcoholics do not become alcoholics themselves.

DON'T pour out or try to water down your parent's alcohol. The plain fact is that it won't work. You have no control over the drinking. You didn't make the problem start, and you can't make it stop. It is up to your parent to get help. What your parent does is not your responsibility or your fault.


The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) has a toll-free number and a World Wide Web site providing information and materials for parents, children, teachers and others.

The toll-free number is 1-888-55-4COAS (2627). On the Web Be sure to highlight this helpful resource in your reporting and public service spots on the problem.