Nothing is more important in shaping the life trajectory of a child than the values he or she learns at home. Children learn from the examples set by their parents, grandparents, siblings, and other caregivers.
But what if the family at home is broken? Far too many children in the United States are exposed to alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence in the family. Many others are affected by a family drug problem. Most will never receive the focused early intervention and support they need unless they attend a school with a student assistance program that addresses their issues. They suffer in silence as they attempt to navigate through the chaos fostered by alcoholism and drug abuse in families.
According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 90% of people who need treatment for alcohol or drug use disorders do not receive it. Consequently, only a small fraction of the children in our country who are adversely affected by their parents’ alcohol or drug use see their parents recover from these destructive disorders. Even when a parent recovers, it does not guarantee that the anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, or other hurts suffered by the child will be addressed. It does not have to be that way, and during Children of Alcoholics Week, February 12 – 18, we honor and celebrate both the children who are healing and those who have helped them.
We know what helps
Caring adults can change the trajectory of an affected child’s life. Religious leaders, neighbors, grandparents, relatives, teachers, coaches, counselors, and other trusted adults can provide needed support to affected youth, thereby breaking the silence that reinforces their sense of shame, stigma, and isolation, whether or not their parents find recovery. In other words, these potential influencers in a child’s life matter greatly. They have the power and opportunity to make the critical difference.
Alateen, the extraordinary 12-step program of peer support for adolescents and teens offered by Al-Anon, has brought the promise of recovery to young people with addicted parents for generations. The program is available across the country and is free (www.alateen.org). Local organizations can play a critical role in educating and advocating for appropriate preventive interventions in community systems that serve children and youth in healthcare settings, in their faith organizations, and especially in supportive education programs in schools.
As a caring society, we cannot and must not allow family alcohol and drug use problems to be transmitted to the next generation. The outlook for people in recovery has never been better than it is today, and now there is greater recognition of the need to engage family members for their own recovery work so that they too can heal from the impact addiction has had on them individually and on the family system. Working together, we can address parental alcohol and drug use problems and the adverse consequences they have for children and families.
More information can be found at the National Association for Children and Alcoholics web site (www.nacoa.org), to include a special video message from ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske.
Sis Wenger is the President and CEO of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics