Interviewer: According to the substance abuse and mental health services, 1 in 4 children in the US lives in a family with a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs. How does living in this type of household environment effect children and teenagers?
Sis Wenger, President/CEO of NACoA: Well, that’s a one‑hour lecture minimum. It’s – children who live in this kind of environment, are basically living every day is an adverse childhood experiences environment. They are going through fear of what people are going to hear, fear that when they get home something will be wrong – mom may be passed out on the couch and the baby may be crawling on the floor. Afraid that their friends are going to find out what goes on in their house, therefore they don’t ever invite them home. They’re afraid to go out with their buddies after school until they go home and see if everything’s stable enough. In other words, when they get home they can find out if they’re a child who can do what children do after school, or if they have to be the adult – to clean up the house, and take care of things, and protect the children. It’s totally unpredictable, dad will say he’s going out to pick up something and not come home until the next day. After a while, they’re not sure the dad is going out to do what he says, so they live in this environment where they are trying to cover everything. It is always unpredictable, which is very hard for children, they see parents as making decisions about drinking or dealing with drinking or drugging is more important than they are. They feel forgotten and lost and they feel like maybe they could do something to fix it, which then puts an enormous burden on them no matter what age they are. And that burden is highly stressful and they still fail at fixing the problem because they can pour the booze out, they can clean up the house so that dad won’t get mad when he gets home, they can cover for mom at PTA meetings, but eventually no matter what they do they can’t fix the problem it continues to get worse, and they feel like they’re failures, and they begin to wonder if it’s their fault. And if they believe it’s their fault, they will only try harder or become depressed. It’s a terrible environment for children to grow up – the constant chaos, and criticism, and unpredictability. And then there are those glorious, wonderful moments where everything is fine, which makes them believe that things are getting better. And then once again the hopes get dashed. So, the chaos and the unpredictability is very, very difficult for such young children for children right into the teen years. But in addition to that, they have – really, they have such a stress, it’s really chronic emotional stress that they’re living in. And chronic emotional stress, we now know, changes the way the young brain develops; and this is something that we learned in the adverse childhood experiences study at CDC and Kaiser Permanente. That at the earliest possible age, any chronic emotional stress in a family system is impacting the brain development of the child, whether it’s a newborn infant, actually even in‑utero if the mother’s under stress constantly, and that can affect their behavior, that can affect their success, that can affect the family system.
Interviewer: Following up on what you shared about kids growing up in the alcoholic, drug‑addicted home, what are some things that people can do to help these children heal from that family disease of alcoholism/addiction?
Sis Wenger, President/CEO of NACoA: If their family goes to church, most of the time, the pastors will tend to talk to the grown‑ups and just be slightly patronizing to the children but make a point of calling the children by name – specifically who they are, let them know that you know who they are, and invite them to come participate in things in church. Tell them that you didn’t see them, you missed them, and you hope that they can come, do they need a ride? In other words, the clergy, and other faith‑community people should do things to welcome these children, to tell them that they are needed and missed, so that they can feel important and also make connections with people with good values. Instead of some of the connections that they might be drawn to, feeling depressed at school. Same thing for teachers, pay attention to what teachers say and if you think that the teacher is understanding about what goes on in your family, tell your teacher the truth about why you couldn’t get your homework done. Teachers need to – need to make it possible for children to speak up, we don’t go and look for children of alcoholics, but what we need to do, is to make it possible for every child of an alcoholic, who is sitting in front of us, to understand that we know something about addiction, we know something about drinking too much. And they can do that by the way they teach, by the way they tell stories that are educational, and those stories and those lessons are important for all the children in the class. Because if a child is lucky enough not to live in a family who abuses alcohol or drugs, then that child knows others who do, and can be a special friend; but they won’t say anything, children are just like the rest of society, they keep the secrets.