Help: My Children's Father Has A Drinking Problem

Family, Self

How do you tell your children their parent abuses alcohol?

It may be wise at the beginning of this article to say that I am not a family therapist. I am, however, a therapist with a family who lived with a problem drinker for 29 years.                                                                   

If you are reading this, it is highly likely that you are struggling to address issues that are very distressing and not easily sorted. I want you to know that my maternal heart goes out to you for dealing with very real dilemmas. I also need to be clear at the outset that these are, of course, only suggestions. You alone are the final authority on what would be useful and appropriate for the dynamics of your situation. You, not I, are ultimately the real expert.

You are, perhaps, a partner of someone with an increasingly serious drinking problem, which is beginning to spill out dangerously into your family life. Our first advice in our website Bottled Up is always to remove yourself from the drunken behaviour as much as you can, whether that is going into another room or possibly leaving the house altogether for a while. This is easier in some circumstances than others, but my main point here is to leave the drinker to themselves and try and carry on with your family life as normally as you can. 

Obviously, with very young children, it can be easier to scoop them off and take them out of harm's way. If your drinker deteriorates as the night goes on, it is likely your little ones will be in bed, protecting them from the worst of the situation. If your drinker goes on binges, then some appropriate "Exit Strategies" could be put in place, e.g. a walk in the park, swimming at the local Leisure Centre, or maybe a trip to Grandma's.

For me, the real dilemma began as the children grew older and became both more observant and more vocal. Moreover, I eas perceptive enough to know that kids can sense things going on around them; I could not go on pretending that there were no tensions and stresses, and that the kids were unconscious to them. It would merely increase both anxiety levels and a sense of confusion.

And so the journey of disclosure began. I started with euphemisms: "Your dad is tired and feeling bad tempered." Then there were a few white lies such as "Your dad has had a stressful day at work" and a bit of what we Brits call "stating the bleedin' obvious" with "Your dad is feeling bad-tempered and it's making your mum bad-tempered too." It didn't take them long to figure out that this started happening when there was a drink on the table, so I soon had to progress to more of the actual truth: "When your dad is drinking, it makes him bad-tempered and Mummy gets upset, too."

To introduce something positive here, this is an ideal time to talk to your children generally about alcohol and its affects; furtheremore, you should discuss what is wise drinking behaviour and what isn't, as well as simple clues about how to handle drunken behaviour, such as backing away and avoiding confrontation.

Figuring out how to approach this situation is a balancing act between giving them enough information to not insult their emotional intelligence but minimising possible anxiety. I would urge you to avoid bringing them into your deeper inner distress and increasingly negative feelings if you possibly can. They will struggle enough to cope with their reactions to the drinking behaviour without being a regular audience to your ongoing struggle as well. However, be patient with yourself on this one.

The situations you face would try the patience of a saint and will push you to the brink at times, so you may very well "lose it" in front of your family. Though not ideal, it is totally understandable. This is where we would strongly suggest you find people you can offload to on a regular basis. At Bottled Up, we encourage our members to share anxieties and huge frustrations on our forum. We cover all time zones, so there is highly likely to be someone to come back and hear and sympathise with your pain at all hours.

As your children enter their teenage years, they will inevitably become more and more aware of the dynamics of the situation. For me, it was utterly heartrending to see them go through the same distressing circle of pleading and remonstration with a dad they knew loved them very much, and grow disillusioned and finally cynical of his apologies and broken promises. I always found my partner much easier to forgive as a husband than as a father. His inability to sacrifice his own gratification for the safety and well-being of his children was, to me, perhaps the very worst aspect of his addiction.

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