by Stephanie Abbott
"When you are a young child, your heart is very tender, and a harsh word can pierce the heart and stay there forever," wrote Garrison Keillor. He could have been writing about young children of alcoholics, who are often targets of harsh words or worse.
Over fifty percent of today's alcoholics are the children of alcoholics. Their own children are not only more apt to develop alcoholism than their peers, but are at a higher risk to use other drugs and to marry into alcoholic families.
The Joint Commission of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine recently developed this definition stressing the heterogeneous nature of alcoholism:
Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations.This definition highlights the psychological maneuvers of denial, which decrease awareness of alcohol as the cause of a person's problems. Denial is not just an individual defense mechanism. Our society is in massive denial about the destructive effects of alcoholism, including the impact that parental alcoholism has on children. The media frequently reinforces this blindness by writing of the "whining" of adult children of alcoholics.
Often progressive and fatal, the disease is characterized by impaired control over drinking, by preoccupation with this drug, by its use despite adverse consequences, and by distortions in thinking, most notably denial.
Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic.
Ideally, each member of a family is respected, cherished, and allowed normal differences in feelings and behavior. Addiction makes this impossible. Because the alcoholic parent is frequently out of control, the family develops a variety of reactive tactics to survive.
The codependent parent teaches by example that survival entails suppressing personal feelings and not talking about the drinking. These are attempts to deny and contain the addiction and to keep the family stabilized as symptoms escalate. Even in "polite," financially stable families, alcoholism creates a destructive climate of anxiety and stress in children. Overwhelmed by coping with the addiction of a spouse, the sober parent blocks out what is happening to the children.
Just as Alcoholics Anonymous was begun by alcoholics, adult children of alcoholics began a grassroots movement in the early 1980s to become advocates for children of alcoholics. Many professionals who were not children of alcoholics themselves also have added their expertise to the early identification, education, and treatment of these children.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), founded in 1983, is the only national, non-profit, membership organization working on behalf of this population. The mission of the organization is to raise public awareness, to provide leadership in public policy, and to inform and educate academic and other community systems.
One of the major activities of NACoA is to produce educational materials to enable adults to help these children. Resources available through NACoA include a variety of curricular packages, including videos, posters, comic books, and guides for teachers and other professionals who work with children.
Regional and national conferences have provided another on-going and effective way to train teachers, therapists, and other professionals. NACoA's goal is nothing less than to reach everyone in the fields of education, human services, mental health, medicine, religion, and law enforcement.
Not all COAs become alcoholic or even dysfunctional in other ways. In fact, many of them function well in the world as adults. There is growing evidence that there are environmental and individual resiliency factors that protect some of them from serious problems. We need a better understanding of how to enhance the development of strength and health in these children. Tracking the research that underlies effective programs developed to help youth is of particular interest to NACoA members.
Alcoholism is a primary and chronic disease that families are ashamed about and deny. The children are frequently victims of this denial and do not receive the help and support they need and deserve. And that is why NACoA!
Stephanie Abbott, MA, writer, lecturer and family counselor, is editor of NETWORK. Call us at NACoA anytime: 1-888-55-4COAS (2627)or click here for membership information or here for newsletter subscription information.