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HEALTH Sins of the Fathers

Chidren of alcoholics inherit a legacy of anger, confusion, and denial.
By Rachel V. |

“The drinking in my house started by the time I was about eight. That’s when the twins were born and we moved to a new house. It took me a while to put it together, but I began to notice that whenever there was a fight, there was a bottle around. She’d drink and then there’d be a fight.

“I noticed different pieces of furniture missing. Later I would run across them in the garage, broken. Sometimes when my mother drank she would just go to her room, but other times she would just start throwing stuff: dishes, lamps, furniture, whatever she could get her hands on. She and my brother had physical fights. Once he even pulled a knife on her. Mind you, this is a middle-class Jewish home.

“My father did nothing. His idea of being a man was going to work. That was it. I couldn’t stand what was going on. Had a hard time in school. I knew my mother drank. When I was a little older I was at a wedding and somebody came up and said how sorry they were to hear that mother had the ’flu.’ I told them that she didn’t have the flu, she was at home, drunk. I got in a lot of trouble for saying that.”

-Jack, thirty-seven

Jack is one of twenty-eight million Americans who have been raised in alcoholic homes. Nearly seven million of these people are children under eighteen. A 1985 Gallup poll indicated that one-fifth of America’s families report a drinking problem. A Time magazine cover story noted that while drug abuse is a growing problem, it’s not the only one: “the number of people who are addicted to booze has increased by 8 percent (since 1980) to twelve million, according to the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism]. More than any other ailment, alcoholism breeds absenteeism, high medical bills, and reduced work quality.” Now that the American economy is beginning to total up its losses in the workplace-Sin billion in 1983 from alcoholism and $60 billion that same year from drug abuse-we’re beginning to hear about the problem.

But we have no way of measuring the human loss that is the most destructive result of addiction, regardless of the substance involved. For every alcoholic, it is estimated that at least four other people are deeply affected by their disease. With a conservative estimate of twelve million alcoholics, that means at least forty-eight million people are directly affected by alcoholism today. Alcoholism is a disease that infects everyone within close range-spouse, child, parent, sibling, and co-worker.

Alcoholism tends to run in families and, like the family heirloom, is frequently, though not always, handed down from one generation to the next. Often it parallels what we know about incest and family violence: those who are abused as children are at high risk for becoming the abusers of the next generation. Alcohol is estimated to be involved in anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of the cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse; children of alcoholics have a 30 percent to 70 percent chance of becoming alcoholics themselves or falling prey to other forms of compulsive behavior. (Different researchers in the field give different statistics, so the range of statistics most commonly cited is used.) Many will marry alcoholics as well.

We now know that there are biochemical components to this disease; scientists have shown that there is a biochemical predisposition toward alcoholism that is transmitted genetically. But because this complicated illness affects people psychologically as well as physically, biology alone does not determine who will become an alcoholic. There is no simple answer to this runaway epidemic in our society.

One thing seems certain: it takes more than one person to drink. That means that by the time a person develops an addiction to alcohol or drugs, others have participated unknowingly in this development. A whole system of denial supported by family, friends, and co-workers grows around an alcoholic. Intervention at any point in the system can open the road to recovery for the alcoholic. But those closest to the alcoholic, especially family members, often become sick as well in the course of the disease.

That’s why most reputable treatment programs include a family week as a component in a twenty-eight-day program. Family members are included largely to support the recovery of the alcoholic, the primary focus of treatment, but they may need a program of recovery just as the alcoholic does- whether or not the alcoholic stops drinking. And there are particular problems that beset members of an alcoholic family.

Researchers have identified specific problems that affect the children of alcoholics. They are at higher risk for birth defects, including fetal alcohol syndrome, and a disproportionate number of them suffer from hyperactivity, stuttering, and various stress-related illnesses, according to Dr. Timmen L. Cermak, chairman of the National Association of Children of Alcoholics.

But the legacy of an alcoholic parent may go beyond the physical. The basic rules in an alcoholic home are “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel,” says Claudia Black, whose 1981 book It Will Never Happen to Me is a landmark in the field. The sons and daughters of alcoholics can also suffer emotional and psychological damage.

Among other problems, adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) may fear losing control of their emotions because they have grown up with role models who were often out of control. It is difficult for ACAs to trust others, creating problems in relationships. Often the ACA feels a burdensome sense of responsibility for other people’s feelings and may fail to recognize what one can and can’t be responsible for. Spontaneity is hard to allow. Low self-esteem is also characteristic of ACAs, who seek a sense of self-worth through the approval of others. Cermak, in his Primer on Adult Children of Alcoholics, likens the effects of growing up in an alcoholic home to the post-traumatic stress syndrome of war veterans.

Experts in the treatment of alcoholism have begun to outline the symbiotic dynamics of the alcoholic family. They’re telling us that such families will go through incredible distortions of behavior to survive as a unit: if one part gets out of balance, other parts will shift position to compensate. The coping strategies are myriad: one alcoholic’s spouse, for example, may suffer deeply, nag, do everything he or she can think of to get the alcoholic to stop drinking. Another may drink with the alcoholic and suffer no ill effects, unaware that alcohol may be affecting the spouse quite differently. Still others are suffering from the disease themselves, so they may be the last to notice or call attention to a spouse’s drinking. They make excuses for the alcoholic’s behavior or never question it in the first place.

Deceptions and delusions are rife in the alcoholic family. Children are told that Dad’s just “had a bad day at the office,” or that Mom’s “depressed.” Hangovers are disguised as “the flu.” Sally’s school play is “forgotten,” or Mom has to “work late” again. With all the pressure on him, Dad just needs to “relax.”

Children develop their own predictable roles in response to the constant denial and distortion of reality that goes on around them. They are often contending with a parent who is tender and loving when sober and completely different when drunk. One of the few “constants” in the alcoholic home is the unpredictability and inconsistency of the alcoholic. While some alcoholics maintain a pleasant facade, others can’t, and undergo mood swings. Pleasant one moment, full of anger and bitterness the next, alternately remorseful, apologetic, and emotional, the adult is very difficult to understand. In response, children develop sophisticated coping mechanisms to survive.

The typical roles played by children in alcoholic homes are described by therapists as the “family hero,” the “scapegoat,” the “lost child,” and the “mascot.” Needless to say, a child may play different roles as the parent’s pathology evolves.

The family hero is often the oldest child, a high achiever who helps maintain the family veneer of respectability and sense of self-esteem. Family heroes may end up serving as surrogate parents for younger children or taking over household responsibilities that the alcoholic can no longer fulfill. These children are often at the top of their classes in school. They know how to look good on the outside. They are successful.

Sarah I was one such example. Both of her parents were alcoholics; her father abandoned the family at her birth. By the time she was four, Sarah recalls coming into the house and finding her mother “dead,” she thought, passed out on the hardwood floor. “I would push her and shake her, even pull her hair to try to get her to come back. Finally she came to, and she started crying and held me. She said she was so sorry, that this would never happen again. But it did. Once I started in school, sometimes she’d forget about me, and I’d get home and be locked out. She was at the corner bar. I knew it, but I was just too ashamed. I didn’t want to go up there and get her. The humiliating part was that sometimes I’d just be waiting there on the back porch, and I’d pee in my pants because I couldn’t get in the house. Then I’d be cold and ashamed of myself as well.

“There was a neighbor who would look in on me once in a while. She was a nice person, but I never wanted to go over there even when I was locked out. That was part of my denial. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was covering up for my mother. I remember one summer, I was cleaning the house and we heard a knock at the door. It was my grandparents who lived out in the country. They didn’t have a phone, so every once in a great while they would just show up without warning. It was them. But mother had been drinking and she wouldn’t answer the door for anyone. She grabbed me and we hid in a closet so they’d think that no one was home. That day she had left one of the doors unlocked. I think they knew something. They came around to the back door and found it open and walked right in, calling for us. I remember when they’d call out my name, I felt so strange, like a sneak, as if I’d done something bad. I really wanted to see them. There I was trapped in the dark closet with my mother, hiding out.

“I became her accomplice. I helped cover up her drinking. Often I stayed in to take care of her instead of being out with my friends. I was the one who kept the house clean, did the shopping, made sure that everything looked all right. I was an excellent student throughout school, was popular and won lots of awards. Nobody knew what I went through at home.”

Sarah, now in her forties with grown children, underwent therapy for years, trying to understand her problems. She has been working with an ACA therapist for about a year now. She attends Al-Anon’s ACA meetings, but she realizes there will be no quick victories. “Self-esteem, trust, these things I never had don’t grow in a day,” she says.

Jack, quoted earlier, was the scapegoat of his family. Because of the denial necessary for alcoholism to exist, the focus must be kept on someone other than the alcoholic. This child typically acts out the family’s pain, and in the course of it, takes a tremendous amount of blame for whatever problems exist in the family.

“By the time I was eleven, they sent me to a Jewish community agency for testing because I was a problem kid. I was scared to death. I was belligerent and refused to cooperate with the testing. The process dragged on and finally they ended up putting me in the state mental hospital for evaluation. I was only supposed to be there for two weeks for observation, but it turned out to be nine months before I was released.”

Typically it is the scapegoat who runs afoul of the law. Juvenile halls are full of kids who fulfilled this role for their families. “Estimates begin at 65 percent of the adjudicated adolescents as being from alcoholic homes,” says Claudia Black. Ironically, the scapegoats may be the most honest members of the family. Their behavior is a loud signal that something is wrong in the family. They are also the most likely to become chemically dependent themselves.

The lost child is the one who fades into the woodwork, like Beverly. “Both my parents were alcoholics,” she says. “I understand that now, but as a child I had never heard of alcoholism, My father was a very prominent lawyer, a local hero who everybody knew from his football days in college. I didn’t understand that the drinks my parents had after my father came home from work had anything to do with the way things were in our house, My parents were never physically abusive. The connection with alcohol was not obvious, as it can be in some homes. It was just always tense; there was always a terrible tension in the air. I just thought my parents didn’t get along. They argued a lot. It made me nervous. I was always afraid someone was going to get hurt, but I never saw anything happen and so I could never understand why I felt that way.

’I remember once when I was about ten. They had been arguing all evening. I was upstairs trying to do my homework, but there was no way not to hear them. Mother must have called the police and then taken the car and left. My father had gone to his room and I was left to answer the door. The policeman was very nice, asked me if there was anything wrong and I just said no, everything was okay. I knew it wasn’t okay, but I didn’t know how to tell him it wasn’t okay. I didn’t have any words for it. I was frightened, so 1 went to my brother’s room and asked him to let me in. He wouldn’t do it. He always kept his door locked. That’s how he coped. My sister had already left home. I felt really alone.

“My father and I never talked. I stayed away from him. I was petrified of him. If he was sitting up at night in the living room watching television, I would just tiptoe around so that I couldn’t be seen or heard. I just tried to fade into the background. If I wanted to ask him if I could go somewhere over the weekend, I would write it out on a piece of paper and have boxes drawn on it that he could check, yes or no. and then I would slip it under his bedroom door. He would check off his reply and hand it to me the next morning on his way out the door.

“It’s only been in the last two years that I realized that it was the alcohol. I’m thirty-seven now. I always just thought there was something wrong with me. Not that I’m perfect, but it helps to realize that the craziness I experienced was not all of my own making. That’s one of the things I’ve realized now in ACA therapy.”

Another role that children of alcoholics assume is that of the mascot. When tension mounts, this child will deflect attention from the problem through humor, charm, or difficult behavior. The mascot. along with the scapegoat, runs a special risk of chemical dependency, as well as psychiatric problems and suicide.

It is crucial to understand that these roles amount to intelligent coping behavior for survival in an alcoholic family. Still, such labels only crudely convey the fluid complexity of the situation. A child in an alcoholic home is living with a reality that is abnormal, inconsistent, unpredictable, and traumatic. It’s not surprising that these children grow into adults with a desperate need for control. But too often, the behavior that helped a child to survive becomes self-defeating in adults.

Children of alcoholics face the danger of becoming addicted to the role they played in the alcoholic family. The consistent experience reported by adult children of alcoholics is that they unconsciously, and often against their will, re-create their family structure, either through their choice of a partner, a spouse, friends, or the people they work with. Though they may have left family and past thousands of miles behind, they find, usually between the ages of thirty and forty, that something doesn’t work in their lives. Many try therapy, psychiatry, religion. and all manner of traditional means for examining and changing an unhappy life, but nothing seems to work until they confront the essential problem: their childhood in an alcoholic home.

The road to recovery takes time. Conventional therapies can be of limited value, especially if the therapist has no background or training in alcoholic family systems. The person seeking treatment should know that in this new and controversial field, methods of treatment are in dispute and the dust won’t settle for some time. AA and Al-Anon, with their 12-Step programs, can offer crucial support. There are more treatment programs, workshops, retreats, seminars, therapy sessions, and classes available today than ever before. Some of them are excellent, but few are more successful than the 12-Step programs.

Jack, whom we met at the beginning of this story, found help in the end. He left home as early as he could and got a place of his own. He managed to hold a steady job until he was thirty, then lost it. Depression set in.

“I was suicidal, couldn’t find another job. I’d moved all the way across the country to be away from my family. I had no idea that what was going on with me today had anything to do with what happened when 1 was growing up. I’d seen what alcohol and all those prescription drugs did to my mother and I stayed away. Didn’t drink, didn’t use dope, and I didn’t hang out with people who did much of that either. No way.”

Jack thought he was going crazy. Driving across a bridge at night, he would get the car up to 125 miles per hour. Part of him wanted to die. but another part wanted to live.

“My mother called me. drunk again, to see if I’d found another job,” he recalls. “I thought I was going to explode inside. I just couldn’t handle it. My next-door neighbor suggested that I go to an Al-Anon meeting that night. I didn’t want to go. and I didn’t see what her being drunk had to do with me, but I was desperate and I went.”

The meeting, of an Al-Anon Adult Children of Alcoholics chapter, brought Jack together with people who had endured similar childhood traumas, “it was scary. I thought. ’How can these people know about me?’ I didn’t know that anybody else had been through what I’d been through. There I was in a room full of people who felt the same way as me. For the first time I knew that I was no longer alone.”



Twenty-four-hour number to talk about a drinking problem or find out times and locations of meetings in the area. No dues or fees.

AL-ANON (214) 363-0461

Twenty-four-hour number to call if you think your life is affected by someone’s drinking. Provides times and locations of Adult Children of Alcoholic meetings as well as regular Al-Anon and Alateen meetings. No dues or fees.

CHEMICAL AWARENESS COUNCIL/PARK CITIES 5600 West Lovers Lane, Suite 241 Dallas. Texas 75209 (214) 353-COPE

A nonprofit community service organization that provides education, information, assessment, and referrals for both families and individuals who are experiencing problems with drugs or alcohol. Most services are free, but there is a nominal charge for classes.


5415 Maple Ave., Suite 316 Dallas. Texas 75235 (214) 638-7090

Another nonprofit community organization providing information, classes in family education, and referrals. Will mail out list of ACA meetings, both Al-Anon and non-Al-Anon groups.


2783 Valwood Parkway Farmers Branch. Texas 75234 (214) 247-7702

Community ministry outreach program offers sliding scale or no-charge counseling, family education, and referrals. Support groups for children of alcoholics.


14800 Quorum Dr., Suite 200

Dallas, Texas 75240 (214) 446-0702

Focuses on providing support groups to Children of Alcoholics from age four to adults. Local contact for the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.


31706 Coast Highway, Suite 201 South Laguna. California 92677 (714)499-3889

National, nonprofit organization that functions as a clearinghouse and network tor children of alcoholics. Publishes a quarterly newsletter, holds regional and national conferences, publishes books and pamphlets on children of alcoholics, and serves as an advocacy group. Membership fees are $35 per year; $1 for students and the disabled; and $100 for businesses and organizations.