Living With an Alcoholic Parent
Growing up, drinking was a big part of how adults socialized. Those I knew carried little boxes of their favorite liquor when they visited other people’s homes. That alone is not an issue, but when social drinking turns into an everyday activity, it can become a problem.
The question is this: how do the children of alcoholics figure out how to function with an unpredictable parent? As a child of an alcoholic mother, I understand how life can change and have experienced the ups and downs that occur. I know that it can affect how you feel and how you act. This may include being embarrassed, worrying about your parents, siblings, and yourself. It becomes difficult to trust others and causes depression, frustration, anxiety, and more.
How the Drinking Started and How It Affected Me
When I was 10-years-old my parents separated—their marriage was over. Although both my parents drank, neither of them overdid it. They drank socially, but they didn't drink much at home.
That all changed after they split up. My mother began to drink, and used it as a coping method. As time passed, she slowly turned into a “party” mom. She loved to go out with her friends or have them over for drinks.
It seemed many of her activities were now those that involved alcohol. When at home she often had a beer or drink in her hand. The first year was not too bad, but after that things took a turn. Alcoholism is progressive and becomes an addiction over time.
By the time, I was 13 years old, my mother was a different person. She worked as a waitress in the early afternoons and then again on a night shift. At first, she would come home between shifts, but that became rarer as she began to spend that time at the bar with her friends (other alcoholics) during that time.
That can be one of the problems teens experience—their parents are not home because they have chosen to go out and drink instead. In my case, I was the oldest and my dad had moved out, so I had to take care of my younger siblings while my mother was gone.
It Got Worse
My mother would do things to hide her drinking. For instance, she would say she was drinking orange juice in the morning, but it really had vodka in it. And she would put liquor into her diet soda can so no one would know.
This is not unusual behavior for alcoholics. People in this situation often hide bottles around their house or workplace to continue drinking without others knowing. This is especially true if they want people to think they have quit. An alcoholic parent can bring a roller coaster of emotions into the household. They can be happy and fun, or they can fly into a fiery rage.
While you might want it to end, the truth is, there isn't much children of alcoholic parents can do to stop the behavior. Many alcoholics become what is called “High functioning”. They can appear quite normal most of the time and learn how to hide their problem from most people. This is a problem because those who could help do not realize there is even an issue.
The other complication is that a high functioning alcoholic often truly believes they do not have a problem. So, what can you do?
Tips for Coping
1. Talk to Your Parent
If you feel safe, it’s okay to bring up the subject with your parent—just be sure to bring it up lovingly. Tell them you are worried about them and you would like them to think about not drinking. It is best not to do this when your parent is obviously quite drunk, but when they seem like they are willing to chat.
Once you bring it up, if he or she wants to talk about it, great, but if they get agitated or refuse to admit it’s a problem, it is best to let it go. You cannot make a person change, but you can let them know you are aware of the drinking and bothered by it.
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2. Look for Someone to Talk to About How You Feel
A drunk parent can put a lot of stress on a teen and having a close friend or someone who understands to talk to is important. This may be a relative, friend, or pastor.
As teens, we often want to keep it a secret because we do not want to expose our family to scrutiny or ruin our mother or father’s reputation. But holding stress, fear, or emotional pain inside can cause some serious mental and health issues.
3. Do Not Blame Yourself
Sometimes, alcoholics say things they do not really mean. They may in anger blame their spouse or the children for their drinking. Do not believe it. Nothing you have done or will do can make someone else choose to drink. They have chosen to drink and in the process, became addicted to it. You cannot control or cause it.
4. Understand There Is Little You Can Do to Stop It
While you may lash out to your mother or father about the drinking, he or she must be the one to choose to stop on their own. Sometimes, that does not happen until they are faced with a crisis or something else that allows them to view themselves as others do. My mother did not stop until her boss (an ex-drinker) told her to stop and that she would support my mother.
5. Do Not Become a “Helper”
My mother was high functioning and covered most of her drinking well. When I was a teen I would make excuses for my mother’s actions. By covering up their drinking or making excuses, we become enablers, helping them to continue in denial of their problem.
This may mean dragging them off the lawn or out of the car when they did not make it to the door. Undressing them and putting them to bed when they become unable to do so. Taking care of financial business, etc. Know that often when a helper stops enabling a drinker they get to the point of finally reaching out for help. My mother did not quit until all her children had moved out.
6. Be safe!
Seek help if a parent becomes abusive due to drinking. I am not talking about when you are punished for legitimate reasons, but abuse that is shown merely because the parent is out of control. Remove yourself from the situation immediately and find somewhere safe to be. Contact your other parent or someone close if you can so they can help control the situation or just get out. If it is a very dangerous situation call the police.
7. Find Support
It is not a bad idea to join a group such as Al-Anon which has family groups you can visit. Another is nacoa.org which is expressly for teens with alcoholic parents. These places allow you to meet others who are in the same situation and understand your dilemma. They can answer questions, and help you realize you are not alone. As stated above, having someone to talk to is important.
8. Do Not Join in
Too often, teens emulate their parent’s drinking. Sometimes the drinking parent even asks the teen to join them in a drink. This can seem like a “cool” and adult thing to do, but understand this is just another way the alcoholic becomes comfortable in what they are doing. The last thing you want is to end up with your own drinking problem.
My mother used to allow me to have drinking parties and she would supply the alcohol for my friends and me even though we were underage.
Take Care of Yourself
It can be difficult to know how to act while living with a parent who is an alcoholic. You may try hard not to get your mom or dad upset or try to stay out of their way.
I remember trying to appear asleep when my mom got home late at night just so she would not talk to me. You may argue with your parent over the drinking, plead with them, or act like you do not care. Constantly feeling on edge or worried is a problem. It is not a healthy way to live for anyone. You may be having a tough time but you are not alone.
Make sure to reach out, stay safe, and look for the support you need. I am a faithful person, and I believe having God in my life helped me. I had a silent partner who helped me cope when things were rough.
Thankfully, my mother eventually quit drinking but by that time, my siblings and I were adults. It was a very hard road for her, but she did it with God’s help. She never went back to drinking and her life was better for it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Lorelei Nettles