Talking To Children About Alcoholism

By Carolyn Hannan Bell, M.S., L.P.C.

father talking with daughter about alcoholism

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t talk to our children about alcoholism. We don’t want to upset the drinker and make things worse. We don’t want to bring attention to the drama and dysfunction. We don’t want to be accountable. We want it to go away. We don’t want our children to think badly of their parents.

We don’t know what to say or which words to use. There are a lot of reasons why we don’t talk to our children about alcoholism, but none of them are good.

Talking to children about alcoholism isn’t hard. NOT talking to children about alcoholism is hard. Maybe not in the moment when it feels easier and kinder to cover things up, but in the future when a child’s issues born from misunderstanding, misinterpretation and lack of communication take flight.

We talk to our kids about hard things all the time. “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do we go when we die?” “Why does Sally have two mommies?” etc. We answer these questions in the moment with the knowledge we have or from information we glean from “googling”.

We do it all the time. So, why do we hide from explaining to our kids what is going on in their own home? Because we think it’s hard and they won’t be able to handle, or understand the truth. Because we think we don’t know the words. But, we do!

Children want to know things. Knowing makes them feel safe, stable and secure in the world. Not knowing makes them have to figure things out on their own and come up with their own answers for what is going on around them. Helping children to think about and understand their life in emotionally healthy ways can prevent so much future distress, dysfunction and pain.

Kids are very self- centered, and they’re supposed to be. They’re figuring out how they fit into the world, and how that world works.

So, when Mommy or Daddy are acting “funny”, or behaving badly and the child has no explanation other than what they come up with themselves, the child will often assume that his parent’s behavior is his fault. Once we assume another person’s behavior is our fault we begin a life long journey of believing that we can control other people’s behavior with our behavior… enter co-dependency!

Another important reason to talk to children about alcoholism is so they will understand more clearly what their parent is struggling with. There may be whispers and rumors about a parent’s drinking that a child may hear and he will be better able to deal with it if he has some understanding of his own.

These are the reasons that I wrote “Daddy’s Disease” and “Mommy’s Disease”–to provide parents with a tool to help them talk to their children about a father’s or mother’s alcoholism, to help children to see that behaviors born from drinking are not to be taken personally, and that how much a child is loved and how much a parent drinks have nothing to do with each other.

The initial prompting to write these books came from one of my clients, a recovering alcoholic, with a young daughter. He wanted to be able to talk to his daughter about his alcoholism but was unsure of how to do that. He searched for a children’s book that would help him to do the job in a way he was comfortable with but was unhappy with the results. So, based on our discussions about his alcoholism, he asked me to write the book. “Daddy’s Disease” was the result.

The books help children understand the disease of alcoholism by comparing experiences in their lives (eating too much Halloween candy, sickness, arguing with a playmate) to some of the aspects of alcoholism. In this way, a child can more easily grasp some of the difficult concepts of addiction, control and healthy communication.

The books are a great way for parents and kids to begin talking about this disease and how it affects the entire family. They can be read all at once, or in small parts depending on the child and the child’s age.

There are three main points children really need to understand about alcoholism. The first is that their parent’s disease is not their fault–that their parent’s actions are not due, in any way, to how he or she feels about their child. The second is that other people’s behavior is not their fault. They cannot control anyone’s behavior except for their own. It doesn’t matter how smart, pretty, handsome, perfect, funny, etc. they are- people behave the way they do because of who THEY are, not because of who the child is. The third is that alcoholism is a disease and there are treatments for this disease. Their parent is not a bad person because he/she is an alcoholic. Their parent is someone with an illness, and a choice. It’s very difficult of course, if that parent chooses to keep drinking, but that still doesn’t make them a bad person, and it still has nothing to do with who their child is, or how they feel about them.

It is also important to help our children understand that their only control and the only control they’ll ever need, is in controlling their own behavior and the choices they make in who they want to be and how they want to live their life. We also need to teach a child that he/she should stay away from a parent who is under the influence, to never get into a car with a parent under the influence, and to seek the comfort of someone they trust in such situations.

Empowering a child in this way teaches them that they do not have to be victims of bad behavior.

By talking about our feelings we encourage 0ur children to talk about their feelings. If we talk in a healthy way about how we feel, share our observations in a constructive way and explain things as they are happening so that a child can understand a situation in the moment, then we are modeling healthy communication and openness for our kids. If we say, “I am angry because Daddy is drinking or I am sad because Mommy is drinking” we are teaching our children that it’s okay to express our feelings; it’s okay to be upset and it’s okay to ask for help.

There are many resources available for children suffering the effects of parental alcoholism. Alateen and Alatot are wonderful organizations where a child can learn that he/she is not the only one who is suffering from alcoholism. Isolation and feeling different are very damaging for kids. Groups of kids together all dealing with similar situations, can be very healing. Counseling can also be extremely helpful and can encourage communication and dialogue as well as clarifying misinterpretation, misunderstanding and misinformation that the child may be experiencing.

Our children deserve to live their lives without the burden of their parent’s demons. We can help remove that burden with the power of words.

Carolyn Hannan Bell is the Author of “Daddy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism” and “Mommy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism”. Both books are both available on in paperback and eBook