Professional Perspectives
Children of Alcoholics Series

Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel – how the stigma of alcohol addiction affects children

According to the 2018 Al‑Anon Family Groups Membership Survey, seven in 10 members have been affected by alcoholism spanning two or more generations. Unfortunately, the effects of living in a home affected by alcohol addiction or alcohol misuse linger long after the child has grown to adulthood. Al‑Anon, and Alateen for teens, offer a safe place for the children of alcoholics to recover.

Help us raise awareness about the support and understanding that is found in every Al‑Anon and Alateen family group. During the month of February, please share our content and mention us in your online conversations about how we can break the stigma that children feel because of a parent’s drinking problem.

If you have been affected by someone else’s drinking, past or present, an Al‑Anon or Alateen meeting may be helpful.

Disclaimer:

Al‑Anon cooperates with therapists, counselors, and other professionals, but does not endorse, oppose, or affiliate with any professional, organization, or entity. The opinions expressed in the video were strictly those of the individual who expressed them. Their comments reflect their professional expertise and use of Al‑Anon as a resource for their clients and patients who are or have been affected by an individual’s addiction to alcohol.

Video Transcript

Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel – how the stigma of alcohol addiction affects children

Interviewer: Much is still said about the stigma surrounding addiction. Can you comment on how that stigma impacts children and offer suggestions as to how to help the youth combat that?

Sis Wenger, President/CEO of NACoA: So, children who hear other adults talking over what’s going on in their family, they see friends of their parents patronizing them when they’re drunk. They see people complimenting their parents trying to make them feel good. And all of that is extremely confusing to them because they don’t see anything good about the drinking and they wonder what they are missing. And they begin to realize, “Oh, we can’t talk about the truth around here.” And so, if somebody mentions something and then another adult will say “Well, you know, but he’s just really a great guy that was just one instance.” But the children hear that this is unusual, that their family is different. They don’t hear any validation of their reality from the other adults around them and now that then makes them feel like, “This is such a bad thing, I could never tell anybody.” They go to school, and parents come to a parent teacher meeting and they’re clearly under the influence, they know it, and yet the teacher is very kind, and gentle, and acts like there was nothing – “Oh, I met your mother last night, what a lovely lady.” It completely contradicts their reality so that only increases their confusion. Same thing wherever they go if they go to church and dad’s got old alcohol on his breath and is acting bizarre, they’re embarrassed. But nobody says anything, and so their embarrassment keeps them quiet because they think there isn’t anybody else who’s got a dad like they have. And it goes on and on so that what we do in our society – well first of all in our families, we keep Claudia Black’s three rules: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. But what we do in the greater society is we carry those rules out to the neighborhood, we carry them to the school, we carry them to church. Don’t say anything because it’ll embarrass somebody, and so when you think about it, most people try to be polite. They do not want to make someone uncomfortable, so people will continually minimize the seriousness of the problem and children see that and they feel like they have to do the same thing, that that’s their job. And so it forces them to do more covering, to feel uneasy, and to feel alone. And what does that do to them – that sends them into isolation. They pull away from their peer groups, at least the healthy ones, and they are often attracted to the unhealthy groups because it’s better than having no friends at all. And so the stigma really is very powerful on the children. And the way we adults can break that is continually talk about it. When we talk about the – even the epidemic that’s going on right now that – when we talk about that we need to say, “But what about the children?” Children are so hurt when this happened, children need to hear adults expressing concern for children. And being honest about what alcoholism and other drug dependencies do to the children. It’s a real dilemma because we want to be nice, we want to be polite, and the more friends, and the more resources that a person who’s alcoholic has the less likely that they are to be intervened on by the people who are trying to remain nice and appreciate the jobs that they do when they’re sober. It’s a real catch‑22, but it is very prevalent, I don’t think we will ever get rid of the stigma by just announcing how many people are in recovery and helping them to tell their story. I think we must stop treating it like it’s a secret in every level of society.