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When A Parent Drinks Too Much
by Jeannine Locke
of alcoholics can find help for their special problems in
an organization called Alateen.
eight teenagers assembling that Tuesday night in a Presbyterian
Church classroom were an attractive group, well dressed
and groomed, clear-eyed and apparently carefree. As they
arranged themselves around a study table, there was small
talk, teenage style. Ordinary, happy kids, you’d suppose,
with a happy excuse for being together.
from the moment their meeting began, there was no mistaking
its purpose for fun. At a sign from the senior member of
the group, they bowed their heads and prayed: “God
me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage
to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
was the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous that the
teenagers were repeating. None of them was an alcoholic;
their dilemma was that they were the sons and daughters
of alcoholics. They were Alateens, members of an international
organization of youngsters, aged 12 to 20, who are growing
up in families disturbed by compulsive drinking. They meet
not to agonize over their parents, but to exchange ideas
and experiences that will help them understand the nature
of alcoholism and how to minimize its damage to their own
Alateens talked freely. Theirs was a closed meeting, which
I was allowed to attend on condition that I respect the
participants anonymity. The only other adult present was
an attractive young mother who acted as moderator-counselor.
She, too, was an insider, the wife of an alcoholic and a
member of Al-Anon, the family group movement that has grown
out of AA. She and the youngsters had agreed to report on
their progress in coping with their common problems.
Alateen case histories were at once tragic and heartening.
The youngsters talked without self-pity about the tensions,
the squalor, and fear that alcoholism imposed on their families.
an early age, these children had learned that home was an
unsafe place to bring friends. One boy told about a formal
dinner that ended with his parents hurling plates and cutlery.
A girl would never forget the birthday party that was climaxed
by her father collapsing with his head in the cake.
Alateens all confessed to having used the unhappiness in
their homes as an excuse for their own weaknesses and misdemeanors
that ranged from laziness and disobedience at school to
a handsome, mop-haired 18-year-old, had served time in a
state training school for stealing a car. It was his way
of “paying back” his drunken father. Jacqueline,
a pretty 17-year-old, had reacted to her father’s
alcoholism by taking to drink herself. At 16 she would raid
his liquor stocks, then invite other teenagers to join her
for drinking and driving in the family car.
younger brother, Jay, had turned against their non-drinking
mother. He explained: “Mother was always raging and
having hysterics--I thought she was the sick one.
was nice. When he was drinking he’d give us money
and generally indulge us children.”
It was at weekly Alateen meetings, the same youngsters testified,
that they had gained insight not only into their parents’
problems but also their own. Jacqueline stopped drinking.
“When I understood about my father and how his drinking
was a disease, I didn’t get a charge any more out
of alcohol,” she said.
unconscious pathos, U-year-old Debbie, reporting her progress,
said: “I used to think that if my mother really loved
me, she wouldn’t drink. I’d hide her liquor
or throw it down the sink. But that just made things worse.
Then I joined Alateen and it was such a relief to learn
her Alateen handbook Debbie had learned that “the
sick alcoholic doesn’t want to make his family suffer.
He doesn’t want to get into debt, smash up cars, land
in hospitals and jails. But the craving for alcohol is too
strong. Even though he doesn’t admit he drinks too
much, he suffers from guilt, remorse, physical illness,
loneliness and despair.”
concluded: “But the main thing I learned from Alateen
is that we children aren’t responsible for our parents’
drinking, and we can’t make them stop.”
organization which answered these children’s urgent
needs came into being only ten years ago. Appropriately,
it was the brain child of a 17-year-old Pasadena, California,
boy whose father was a member of AA, his mother an Al-Anon.
Impressed with the way they had been helped, he got together
with five other boys whose parents had compulsive drinking
problems and proposed that they, too, form a fellowship.
His hope was that by pooling their experience and strength
they could learn to cope with the complications that an
alcoholic in the family added to their normal problems as
teenagers. The response to Bob’s idea was so enthusiastic
that Alateen was founded and named that very night. Today,
around 4,000 youngsters belong to 392 Alateen chapters in
a dozen countries. The greatest concentration is in the
United States, where there are 194 chapters; most of the
remainder are in Canada. Although its rate of growth now
surpasses that of Al-Anon, the sponsor and coordinator of
its work, Alateen is still a mite, by comparison with the
monumental need for its services.
to the National Council on Alcoholism, there are some 6.5
million alcoholics in the United States. Canada has upward
of a quarter of a million. But for every alcoholic, NCA
estimates, there are at least four others whom his or her
sickness directly affects. Explains Dr. Ruth Fox, a practicing
psychiatrist and NCA’s medical director:
is a family disease. Excessive drinking of alcohol by a
father or mother, or both, affects every member of the family--emotionally,
spiritually, and often economically, socially, and physically.”
result often is a recurrence of the drinking problem in
the next generation. As Dr. Fox points out: “Forty
to sixty per cent of all alcoholics come from the disturbed
background of an alcoholic family. The child of an alcoholic
pays an appalling price in bewilderment, humiliation, and
often in physical neglect and abuse. The security, love,
and warmth that are necessary for a child’s development
are rarely present in an alcoholic home. Where these do
exist, they are of such unpredictable quality that the child
has difficulty developing the trust and confidence in himself
that he will need for future successful living.”
desperation of that need is made plain in letters--about
thirty-five a week—that youngsters write to Alateen
world headquarters. Some of these letters ask for general
information about alcoholism; others want the address of
the nearest Alateen group, and all cry out for help.
15-year-old girl wrote from the Midwest about the distress
of her whole family. Her father is an alcoholic who had
tried AA briefly, then lapsed back into drinking. Her mother,
despairing, has begun to talk about a separation. An older
brother and sister, meanwhile, were “plotting to leave
home; they just want to get out of the house.” But
the 15-year-old still loves her father, and “can’t
bear the thought of just leaving him with nothing and no
one. He might fall asleep with a lighted cigarette and burn
youngster, also in his mid-teens, writes about how his family,
under strains imposed by the mother’s drinking, has
disintegrated for the second time. The boy’s own father
had divorced his mother “because of her drinking problem.”
Now his stepfather has had enough.
letter told a domestic horror story. My mother has been
an alcoholic since I was about three. Don’t get me
wrong--I love her very much.
I feel that if my stepfather had been a little more understanding
she could have overcome her problem. But one night when
she was drunk, he locked her out of the house. He is now
living with a woman who, I guess, he plans to marry when
the divorce goes through. My mother was pregnant when he
threw her out. I now have a baby sister who will never know
the boy had not abandoned hope. He was writing, he said,
“to find out how to combat my mother’s sickness.”
He ended: “I would greatly appreciate it if you sent
this information as soon as possible.” Mrs. Timmy
W., Alateen’s international secretary, reads such
tragic letters and realizes that “what these youngsters
hope for by return mail is some magic formula that will
make their parents stop drinking.” Instead, Mrs. Timmy
W. introduces them to a program concerned primarily with
saving them, only indirectly with helping the sick parents.
Alateen offers is much the same kind of treatment as AA
prescribes. Trust in God is one of the first “steps
of recovery” that both groups are encouraged to take.
Then, through group education, they are helped to face up
to their problems and to gain the strength and insight that
will allow them to live with their problems. For a start,
Alateens learn everything they can about alcoholism: that
it is a disease--an abnormal sensitivity to alcohol, plus
an emotional compulsion to drink—and that, to get
well, the desire must come from the alcoholic himself.
can do nothing directly,” their handbook, “Youth
and the Alcoholic Parent,” advises. “Persuasion,
reproaches, bitter silences and tears--all these will only
put your parent on the defensive and increase his guilt.
That leads to more drinking, more trouble.”
The Alateen can best help his parent by helping himself.
“Fear and dread are destructive emotions; put them
out of your mind. There is hope for every alcoholic, no
matter how black things look at the moment. Learn to live
one day at a time and live it so you will grow. Yours is
the only life over which you have any control.”
an Alateen whose family had been broken and impoverished
by alcohol, was sustained by the idea of living a day at
a time. She told her story at the Alateen meeting I attended.
father, a professional athlete, began drinking soon after
she was born. When she was seven, Pat was put in the care
of her paternal grandparents. Her father continued to drink
and drift from job to job.
was in high school when her father, by now ill and unemployable,
arrived at AA. He introduced her to Alateen.
first,” Pat remembered, “I couldn’t stop
talking. I had to tell everything about my terrible life.
I had no mother, my grandparents were old and sick, and
my dad was out of work. When my grandfather died and then
my grandmother--both in the same year--I came to Alateen
for comfort. The kids here were the first to understand.
But I got more than comfort from our meetings. I learned
to care about other people and their problems and I learned
to live one day at a time.”
17 and living with her father, who finds occasional work,
Pat manages housekeeping and a part-time job on top of school
I wake in the morning,” she says, “I -think:
How awful it would be to live this way all my life! But
I can stand it for 24 hours.”
youngsters all emphasize the healing effect of talking out
their troubles. Jacqueline put it: ‘The tension in
me has simmered down because I can discuss it. That, and
taking inventory of yourself, are what help most.”
was Jacqueline who a year earlier had taken to hiding her
problems in alcohol, just as her father was doing. Her arrival
home one night, floundering in drink, was the shock that
sent him to AA. Now, Jacqueline reports, her whole family
was “on the program.” Her father’s efforts
had encouraged her mother to seek help for herself at Al-Anon.
Jacqueline and her brother, Jay, go to Alateen.
wasn’t until we’d taken inventory of ourselves
at Alateen that Jackie and I began to see our own weaknesses
and how we’d been -using Dad’s drinking as a
crutch,” Jay confesses.
had become lazy, unruly kids and we blamed everything--our
bad grades at school and our own unpopularity--on the fact
we had an alcoholic at home.”
case histories such as this one, of a whole family working
to rehabilitate itself, are rare. One of the reasons is
that many parents, even those in AA or Al-Anon, still resist
the idea of their youngsters’ playing an active role
in Alateen. Attendance would be an admission that a member
of the family was an alcoholic. Moreover, parents all too
often underestimate their youngsters’ seriousness
of purpose, their earnest desire to live successfully in
an alcoholic situation.
is no doubting the earnestness of the Alateens whom I met.
Having faced up to serious problems far earlier than most
young people do, and having probed their own personalities
more deeply than most of us ever do, they have achieved
remarkable maturity and strength. At Alateen they have learned
not only to live with alcoholism but to lay the foundation
for a saner, sweeter, more productive life.
Parent’s Magazine, July 1967)