Educational Support Groups for COAs
By Jerry Moe, M.A.
Jessie, nine, is quiet and shy. She struggles to make eye contact with others. Her constant companion is a blue fleece jacket that never comes off, regardless of the temperature. At the mention of her dad, Jessie's eyes well up with tears and shift automatically downward in a frozen stare.
Over the past ten years, in community groups and schools, greater efforts have been made to assist youngsters and adolescents from alcoholic and other drug addicted families.
Often as few as six weekly educational support groups of just twenty-five minutes each can make a critical difference. Youngsters learn about addiction, that it runs in families, and that it's not their fault.
Children are relieved to know that confusion and silence at home is not their responsibility. Peer support provides encouragement to talk and show feelings. Children see they are not alone. Group sessions help youngsters build resiliency by empowering them to share their feelings and to make safe choices in response to problem situations. They also develop self-care strategies, learn about safe people, and come to appreciate their own special gifts.
Perhaps most significantly, small groups provide children of alcoholics the opportunity to be kids, as many have been forced to "grow up" much too fast. Through play and other enjoyable activities youngsters gain information and learn healthy coping skills as described above.
With the love and support of their facilitators, youngsters feel safe enough to try out their newly developed skills. Often a facilitator's nurturing presence is the critical factor to help them gain a new sense of purpose and direction from someone who consistently listens, cares, and leads by example. Stephen Glenn lovingly refers to these individuals as "Cookie People". Many children of alcoholics have been blessed to have "Cookie People", such as neighbors, counselors, coaches, teachers, recovering parents, ministers, or other caring adults, come into their lives. Now, for countless youngsters, their group facilitators can be such people.
Although still very quiet in group, Jessie listened intently to every word others shared. Over several weeks she realized that "it" was not her fault. An occasional nod of her head signaled she knew all too well what the others had experienced.
Support groups can help youngsters become balanced, healthy kids who can rise above family adversity. More programs -- in schools, churches, youth shelters, child care settings, and community centers -- are desperately needed to reach youngsters who still suffer. Today there is real hope as children, with love and guidance, create that new legacy.
Jessie, now eleven, talks openly about her father's alcoholism in the safety of the group. "I hate his sickness but I love him. I wish I could make it better but now I know I can't." When Jessie sees her father each month, she carries the phone numbers of safe people. If he gets drunk, she calls Grandpa, Mom, or Uncle Louis to come pick her up. "I just want to be a kid," she told the group as a thin smile lit up her face.
Jerry Moe, MA is the director of the Children's Program at the Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, CA. and a member of NACoA's Board of Advisors.