Children of alcoholics can face serious problems as adults

Q: I have learned over this last little while to admire my 13-year-old nephew.

His mother, my sister, is a committed alcoholic. Her relationship to the bottle is more important to her than are her responsibilities to her family.

Fortunately for her, her son, my nephew, picks up on a number of chores around the house and is instrumental in keeping the family together.

He makes sure that his two younger sisters get off to school in the morning and that they have lunches to take with them. He cleans up the messes around the house, even those his mom makes when she is intoxicated.

I know that he has cooked some meals for everyone. Often as not, they are most likely Kraft dinners but without even terrible meals the kids would go hungry waiting for Mom to get back home from the bar.

I am not sure what he has done, but I understand that he has staved off the occasional eviction notice until my sister was able to catch up on the rent. And there is more.

This is one remarkable boy. Wouldn’t it be great if all of our children were as responsible as this boy?

I think that I should be helping my nephew but of course my sister pops a gasket every time I try to help out, so I am not sure what to do.

Any ideas for what I can do to help this boy and his family?

A: I am glad that you admire and appreciate all that your nephew is doing around the house. Obviously, without him your sister’s family would be a lot worse off than it is.

But don’t get fooled by your nephew’s inclination toward responsibilities. That does not necessarily make him a super hero. In fact it may be indicative of serious problems with which your nephew is struggling as he tries to make some sense out of all that is going on in his young life.

He may well mature into what is recognized as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic. One of the characteristics of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic is a heightened sense of responsibility. That fits with him.

But there is more. Remember, he has learned from his mother to trust no one. If he doesn’t do it for himself or for his younger siblings, no one else is going to do it. He has to be sensitive to the erratic behaviour of his mother, to the needs of his younger brothers and sisters, and to what is going on with landlords, grocers and teachers if he is to survive. So much of his time is so heavily geared toward the needs of other people that he has little or no time to focus on his own personal development.

As an adult he is likely to be subservient to the demands of other people, not standing up for what is important for him. He is probably going to subject himself to the harshest of self criticism and spend more time feeling guilty for that which he fails than he will feeling satisfied for that which he has successfully completed. And of course he is going to frequently tread the path laid out by a fear of being abandoned by those for whom he cares the most. He could be in for a tough road.

For what it is worth, your nephew is not alone. In the United States, studies suggest that as many as 28.6 million children are caught up in alcoholic homes. A great many of these will be, as your nephew is likely to be, adult children of alcoholics.

You can best help your nephew by sharing with him your unconditional love. Remember, he has likely not had any from either of his parents. You can also help him by encouraging him to nurture his own unique and wonderful identity.

He is more than a responsible kid around the house. But you do not know what he is. Neither does he. Listen to him as much as possible, share with him some tears of distress, celebrate with him the miracle of his own well being and maybe, just maybe, he will come through this whole thing as a more complete person.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

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