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I’ve started to understand why my father feels the way he does. My dad is a great person but he still shows the scars from when he was abused when he was growing up. Alcoholism is a big problem in this country and it effects many people other than the alcoholic – the children, the spouses and the friends are all sucked into the problem.



When my dad was drinking heavily he once threatened to blow my mother’s head off. Somehow he had gotten his gun and locked himself in the bathroom. Me and my sister were downstairs and heard everything.



I hated her for being the way she was. I did not think it was fair to have a mother who could not remember her own daughter’s name.



The problem is that when she’s not drinking she’s the best mother. When I see her drinking, I block it out and think of what she’s like when she’s not drunk.


Chapter 8.   Family Issues... why does it still hurt


Alcohol Use Disorders  affect more people than just the drinker. It has the potential to destroy the basic fabric of family life. And recent research indicates that many of your peers come from families that have experienced some difficulties with alcohol or other drug use. According to 2013, about 43% of US adults - 76 million people - have been exposed to alcoholism in the family. They grew up with or married an alcoholic or someone with an alcohol use disorder or had a blood relative with an alcohol use disorder.  Additionally an estimated 6.6 million children under 18 currently live in households with at least one alcoholic parent.42


Based on my interaction with college students, many of them are experiencing similar situations in their families.


Unspoken Rules


Shame, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, anger, hurt, disappointment...and on and on. I experienced it all.

Kevin W., Keene State College senior


There were so many secrets and difficulties with feelings. I never got to know my real SELF. You know what I mean?  All of these problems were in our family and here I am now trying to cope with them.


I was never told what to feel. I was told to stop feeling.  Instead of talking about our disagreements we would “forget”  about them.



My mother hit me but I went out on the date anyway. I had a black eye and bruises, and as an excuse I told my friends I  was in a football game with my brother.



I lied to my father about my mother’s drinking. I don’t know if I ever forgave myself for covering up for her. I wonder that maybe if  I told my father the truth he would have made her get help.

Christopher T., University of New Hampshire junior


The family of an alcoholic experiences many difficulties. In order to deal with these difficulties, many alcoholic families develop very similar behavior patterns, or unspoken rules. “Don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust.” These patterns are coping mechanisms for an impossible situation:


  • Don’t talk to anyone about our problem. Don’t embarrass the family. We are the only ones with this problem. Don’t tell your teacher, a counselor or even your friends. Later in life, adult children of alcoholics tend to have difficulty communicating within relationships.


  • Don’t feel, because your feelings will just get squashed. Why get excited over my birthday – Mom will just get drunk and ruin the party. If I cry, they tell me to stop crying and grow up.


  • Don’t trust Dad. He always says he’ll show up at the game but usually ends up in the bar. Serious mistrust of others can follow the child of an alcoholic into adulthood.

The pain associated with growing up in an alcoholic family can have serious deleterious effects on an individual even into adulthood. Many of your peers are arriving at college with more “baggage” than is apparent. They may have difficulty confiding in you even though you consider yourself a close friend. Maybe they will jump from one bed to another searching for a meaningful relationship through a variety of meaningless sexual encounters. Maybe they will drown their fears and pain in alcohol and other drugs. Maybe they will take the time and make the effort to grow while in college despite their past difficulties.





Intimate relationships have always been difficult for me. Even though my current boyfriend and I are somewhat successful,  there are problems with our intimacy and communication. Just about every person I have been involved with has some serious dysfunction in their family.

Jennifer N., St. Michael’s College senior


I never have any real fun like my friends.



I wonder if my father would be a more feeling person if he quit drinking. My house is very cold and I don’t mean the weather  kind of cold. Because of this coldness we are all that way even outside of our home. It is really kind of sad.


It was difficult for a long time to know who was actually my father – the man who was loving and caring or the man who  was so abusive and at times dangerous. Finally, he got a lot of help and went through therapy and now, with medication and counseling, he is the father I never knew. Sure it has caused me some problems but I’m working them out.


Yes, if you are the child of someone with a severe alcohol use disorder in particular alcoholism, your family life may have been difficult, perhaps excruciating. Yes, maybe those difficulties are still affecting you today. And yes, you can do something about it. Realize that you can turn the page on that part of your life. You can now take control of your life and cease being a victim. As a matter of fact, now may be a great time to confront these issues. Of course, this is easier said than done. Get help. Join a support group. Speak to a counselor. Talk to a friend. It’s never too late. Sure it takes courage, but what have you got to lose? Don’t have the time? Do you have time to continue being miserable? I think not! You have a whole life ahead of you, and you deserve the best.


Take the time to work on yourself. Don’t escape into the black hole of alcohol or other drugs. Don’t hide behind a beer mask, a fake smile, or an arrogant attitude. Find out who you are and be true to yourself. Sure life is difficult, but with a little help from a counselor, a support group and/or your friends, it can also be wonderful.




I have accepted my father for what he was. He probably did the best he could. I do not need to accept his behavior nor create any more pain for myself. I am now free of his influence.



My mom comes from an alcoholic family. It was tough for her but she turned out great! She’s successful and one of the best  moms I know. It can be a lot of heartache but it’s not hopeless.

Karla N., Keene State College first-year student


Lately I have been wondering how being the child of an alcoholic has affected me. I’ve been unhappy with myself for certain personality characteristics of mine that make my life complicated. I hope that some day I have the time and courage  to evaluate the situation and do something about it.






It’s odd how each of us reacted differently to my father’s drinking. My brother is an alcoholic. My sister never drinks.  My oldest sister had a serious problem with bed wetting. Right now I drink a lot but believe I have it under control.



The reason all this concerns me so much is that my father is an alcoholic, as is a good portion of his side of the family. I  wonder how that will affect me and my children.

Mary O., Notre Dame College senior

So, is alcoholism genetic? The jury is still out on that one. However, we do know that the child of an alcoholic is at greater risk for developing alcoholism – four times greater! This increased risk, sometimes described as a predisposition to alcoholism, is the result of a number of factors, including:


  • Biological risk level: Just as we inherit a certain likelihood of heart disease, we are all born with some biological level of risk for alcoholism. And for some of us, that risk is increased. Those of us with a biological history of alcoholism in our family are at greater biological risk for alcoholism.43


  • Biological response: Research on brain-wave patterns of children of alcoholics (COAs) following alcohol consumption indicates a greater relaxation effect from the alcohol. The startle reflex of the COA is slower after alcohol consumption. This seems to reflect a more pleasurable response from alcohol.44


  • Initial tolerance: COAs tend to have high initial tolerance to alcohol. This combined with a lower trigger level for alcoholism indicates that the COA does not have as many opportunities to drink to impairment before increasing the tolerance so much that it goes beyond the trigger level for alcoholism.45


  • Metabolism: A by-product of the metabolism of alcohol is acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is thought to be involved in some way with addiction. When COAs metabolize alcohol there are increased levels of acetaldehyde.46


Here’s the trap for children of alcoholics. They are born with a greater biological risk for alcoholism. They are usually born with a high tolerance, meaning they are getting a head start on the development of alcoholism. When they drink, it feels very pleasurable but they are also producing an increased level of a product, acetaldehyde, that is possibly linked to addiction. Children of alcoholics may think they have it under complete control – but do they? None of us can control our biological response to alcohol.




Personal Challenge: Family Health



To examine the role alcohol may or may not have had on your family.



For each of the following characteristics, circle TRUE or FALSE based on how well they describe your family.

(Electronic version is currently under construction.)


1.  All feelings are all right to express. True False

2.  All subjects are open to discussion. True False

3.  Individual differences are accepted. True False

4.  What you do is more important than who you are. True False

5.  Everyone must conform to the dominant person’s ideas. True False

6.  The atmosphere is generally tense. True False

7.  Each person is responsible for his/her actions. True False

8.  There are clear and flexible rules. True False

9.  People feel loved and loving. True False

10. There are lots of “shoulds.” True False

11. People feel tired and stressed. True False

12. Growth and change are discouraged. True False


Scoring for this exercise can be found in the Challenge Results section at the end of this book.



A healthy family environment provides for children’s needs in a way that promotes normal emotional, physical, and social development. High-risk alcohol use by family member(s) can have a negative impact on family health.


  • Is your family healthy/unhealthy, functional/dysfunctional? Why or why not?

  • What dysfunctional characteristics are present in your family? How do these affect YOUR personality? How might they be modified?

  • Children of dysfunctional families often become chemically dependent. Why do you think this happens?

  • What resources for students dealing with family problems are available on your campus? If you were having problems with your family, would you use these resources? Why or why not?


Adapted from Making Choices: A Personal Look at Alcohol & Drug Use (1992). McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Quinn/Scaffa.


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