Sunday, 23 February 2014

Should I expose my child to a family member who has an alcohol problem?

Concerned parents often ask my opinion about how they should they deal with a family member who they believe has alcohol problems, particularly in terms of exposure to their children. Should they stop their child from seeing this relative (if they are able) or should they be using the very obvious problem as a 'teaching moment', hopefully one that will ensure their child will have a more healthy attitude towards alcohol? Sadly, many of these parents are talking about their husbands or wives, some separated or divorced and no longer sharing the same home, but others still live together and really struggling with this extremely difficult issue.

The sheer number of parents who contact me about this particular issue just goes to show how many people in our society have significant problems with their drinking (whether you want to call them 'alcoholics' or whatever). Research suggests that about one in 10 people who drink alcohol will develop significant problems so when you consider the sheer number of drinkers it's no surprise that there are so many people affected.

When it comes to a partner who you are still living with, there are very specific issues that need to be considered and I will leave that particular situation for another time. For this posting I will be looking at issues around family members that do not live with you, and even though some of the information discussed will be appropriate for ex-partners, once again, there are some very specific issues in that situation that may be best looked at in detail at some other time.

Last week I received this email from a mother who had recently attended one of my presentations:

"I am a non-drinker and have always been that way. However I am the daughter of a full blown, full-on alcoholic, who is still married to my wonderful father. They are both in their 80s. Dad is very active and healthy and is her primary carer and I in turn am his primary carer. My two daughters, one in Year 9 and the other in Year 5 are fully aware of their grandmother's disease. They have seen her in action, from being passed out on the floor to a bit starry-eyed and vague to visiting her in intensive care after a particularly nasty incident. My question is, do you think it's good for my kids to see this? And continue to see it?"

"I have never hidden it from them in the past so they have really seen first-hand what alcohol does. But I now wonder if they (especially my Year 9 daughter) should be exposed to it. I've always thought that this would hopefully turn them right off drinking, like it did to me. But I don't think shock tactics work in this day and age."
Firstly and most importantly, if children are at any risk (physical, emotional or otherwise) around a relative, no matter who they are, then they shouldn't be exposed to them. However, if they are not at any immediate risk (and as a parent, you are going to need to assess whether this is the case or not) and they want to continue to see the relative (warts and all) I wouldn't advise you stop them doing so. Obviously then, one of the first things to do is to ask the child whether they want to continue to see whoever.

Young people start to pick up messages about almost everything, including alcohol, from a very early age from a range of sources - some of these you can control, others you can't. This woman's daughters have most probably already developed some fairly powerful attitudes towards alcohol by being in the presence of their grandmother when she has been intoxicated, but it is also important to remember that they have also learnt a lot by watching their mother's reaction to the problem. Always remember, that as a parent you are your child's biggest influence, how you as a parent respond to a relative's drinking behaviour is mighty powerful and how you communicate with them about what they are observing and how it affects those that love him or her, including you, is crucial.
I certainly wouldn't advise that a relative with a 'drinking problem' is used as a ‘teachable moment’ to lecture them about the dangers of alcohol and try to convince them that 'this could happen to you!'. This really is a 'scare tactic' and, although tempting for some parents as a way of trying to discourage teen drinking, is not likely to have much of an effect on an adolescent who may just be starting to become interested in partying and drinking alcohol. Think about it for a couple of seconds – is a 15 year old girl really going to relate to an adult relative who drinks too much? It's certainly not the alcohol experience she is likely to have at her age and as a result she will probably totally reject the notion that this could happen to her, as well as any other messages you're trying to convey.

If you want to 'use' what is happening, it would be much better to talk about your relative in a caring and loving way and discuss your concerns about her choices and how they have not only affected her but everyone around her … Topics such as "How do you think this started?", "This doesn’t happen to everyone who drinks so why did it happen to her?" and talking about the impact it has had on your drinking behaviour are all fairly safe discussion points that will hopefully start an open and honest dialogue around drinking and the potential harms … you're not telling them what to do but you're certainly getting them to think about the issues …
The other topic that you will need to discuss is the issue of a genetic predisposition to alcohol problems – recent research suggests that if you have an alcoholic (I hate that word!) parent you may be 'more vulnerable' to developing similar problems. For more information on the genetics of 'alcoholism' take a look at this easy-to-read summary of the evidence from the NIAA.

Having a family member with a drinking problem is difficult enough, but working out how to deal with the issue as far as your children are concerned can be incredibly tough, particularly in regards to keeping them as safe as possible. There are no easy answers but always remember that you are the most powerful influence in your child's life, particularly in the pre-adolescent years - your responses to the problem are likely to go towards shaping your child's attitudes towards alcohol and drinking, as well as have a major impact on how your child will react to similar situations in later life.

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