NUMBER 1212 • 20 AUGUST • FAMILIES AND ALCOHOL
The role of parents in families with alcohol problems
In families with alcohol problems, the roles of parents are often inconsistent. A problem drinker behaves as if he or she were several different people. On good days he or she will give the children help, support, and both realistic and unrealistic promises, while on other days the children may be ignored. This causes stressful internal ambivalence among the children. The children find that they love a person who drinks, but hate his or her drinking.
The spouse, in turn, may have to expend so much energy in trying to cope with a problem drinker that there is little left to look after the children. The behaviour of the problem drinker alternates between periods of abstinence and sentimentality, and the spouse reacts accordingly. The spouse of the problem drinker may be just as likely to be overprotective of the children at times, and ignore them at other times. The children in families with alcohol problems find that they are forced to take sides with one or the other parent.
Small children generally support the mother, but the choice for older children is not at all as simple.
Even so, the biggest problem facing such children is not acceptance of their parents' drinking problem, but understanding what this is all about. It is difficult for then to understand why their parents are constantly fighting, or why they seem to have so little to do with one another. At other times, it is difficult for the children to understand in general why the parents stay together. On the other hand, following a divorce, the children lose what little sense of security they may previously have had (Ackerman 1987 1990).
The role of children in families with alcohol problems
In families with alcohol problems, the children must assume responsibility and unusual roles. They must plan their own behaviour in accordance with what their parents are doing, and they must give up much that is part of the normal lifestyle of children. This could be called "hypermature" behaviour. The young person has a heightened sense of responsibility and takes a leadership position; he or she is able to take control of the situation and gives the impression of competent behaviour.
All of this is valued by adults and therefore hyperadulthood is rarely regarded as a negative feature in development. The increased pace of development, however, may lead to strong role conflicts among the children in families with alcohol problems, as such children must assume adult responsibility. In many cases the eldest child must take over responsibility for the other children, which not only leads to role pressure but also places him or her in competition with the parent whom he or she must replace. At school, the child must return to his or her original role as a child and pupil, even if such a child has partial responsibility at home for raising the other children.
A second type of unfavourable situation arises if the eldest child becomes a constant outlet and support for one of the parents (Ackerman 1987, 1990). Wegscheider (1979) describes the four basic roles of a child in a family with alcohol problems. The family hero is the eldest child, who is regarded as capable and behaves like an adult.
The scapegoat is the traditional butt of the frustrations and conflicts in the family; such a scapegoat may express his or her true feelings through disruptive behaviour. The lost child, who is neither the eldest nor the youngest, suffers the most from role conflicts, because his or her identity is completely ambiguous. The mascot is generally the youngest of the children. The mascot may be overprotected from family problems to the extent that he or she may completely lack independence.
Peltoniemi, T. (1994). "Fragile Childhood": A Finnish prevention project onchildren in a;cohol abusing familes. 255-258