Having a child who struggles with significant alcohol abuse can be a distressing and lonesome experience. Many resources regarding alcoholism focus on its effects on older persons well established in their communities while sources specific to young adults ages 17-25 are focused on binge partying or helping them navigate early adulthood. However, the neurological pathways and behaviors that constitute addiction have no age, therefore making it extremely possible that your child has developed a problem before even graduating high school. So what should you know about living with an alcoholic child?
Alcoholism: Signs, Stages, and Effects
What is Alcoholism?
According to the DSM-5, alcohol use disorder, colloquially known as alcoholism, is a condition where a person problematically uses alcohol in ways that lead to significant impairment or distress. The person in question must also meet two of the following criteria within a 12-month span:
- Using alcohol in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than originally intended
- Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control drinking
- Spending a lot of time and effort to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects
- Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol
- Failure to meet work, school, or home responsibilities due to alcohol use
- Continued drinking despite recurrent or persistent problems caused or made worse by the alcohol use and its effects
- Reducing or ending interpersonal activities such as hobbies, socializing, or working due to alcohol use
- Repeatedly using alcohol even when it is physically dangerous to do so
- Continued use of alcohol despite knowing that it causes physical or psychological problems in one’s life
- Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
- A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effect
- A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol
- Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
- Meets DSM-5 criteria for alcohol withdrawal (including shakes, tremors, vomiting, and anxiety)
- Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Mild alcohol use disorder is marked by 2 or 3 symptoms. Moderate use meets around 3-5 symptoms, but may or may not include physical dependence on alcohol. Severe alcohol use disorder involves more than 6 symptoms and will cause alcohol withdrawal symptoms to take place during an attempt to stop drinking, due to the body’s dependence upon it.
In teens and young adults, these symptoms may look like repeated driving under the influence, skipping school to drink or recover from a hangover, sneaking alcohol into the home, drinking alcohol already in the home and replacing it with water, or difficulty keeping a job.
It is important to note that while your child may enjoy socializing, going out to bars with friends, or having a few drinks with dinner when they are of age, these behaviors in isolation do not constitute a problem with alcohol.
The Stages of Alcoholism
Someone may quickly escalate from a first-time drinker to a physically-dependent alcoholic, which means that their loved ones should try to keep a sharp eye on how their family member is using alcohol. These stages are as follows:
The hallmark signs of this stage surround drinking and coping. Your loved one may use drinking to cope with uncomfortable emotions, to overcome social anxiety, or to de-stress.
Early-stage alcoholism is marked by regular blackouts, difficulty controlling alcohol intake, and unsuccessful attempts to cut back on binge drinking.
Middle alcoholism is usually when it becomes clear that the drinker is not just “going through a phase.” Problems tend to surface during this stage, including DUIs, drinking just to get through the day, and missing work or important events.
An end-stage alcoholic has centered their life around drinking. The physical effects of alcoholism are now evident, with the person becoming violently ill when attempting to detox. Many identify this period as “rock bottom” since work, relationships, and health have been sacrificed in service of drinking, and the physical reality has become evident.
The Effect of Alcohol on Other Family Members
As with any chronic and significant mental health problem, alcoholism’s effects radiate beyond the person who drinks. Many family members of alcoholics report anxiety and distress stemming from their concern for their loved one. There may also be an uptick in anger and frustration due to their family member’s behavior.
In some cases, the alcoholic child is merely the symptom-bearer of a larger, problematic dynamic within the home. The alcoholism helps the other family members rally around a cause, with the alcoholic unconsciously taking on the load of peacemaking through their substance abuse.
Addressing Alcoholism within the Home
How to Approach an Alcoholic About Their Addiction
It is never easy to have a difficult conversation with any person, let alone your own child regarding a sensitive topic such as substance and alcohol abuse. You may even be in denial for an extended period of time regarding your child’s behavior. It is critical, though, to try to intervene as early as possible after you’ve recognized your child’s problem with substances. This prevents deeper addiction, long-term physical deterioration, and further issues with family members, friends, or even the law.
Broaching the conversation regarding your child’s alcoholism should be thoughtfully considered. Wait until your child is sober, not drunk or hungover, before having the conversation with them. Try to express your concern and focus on your child’s health and wellness. Do not try to shame or embarrass them. Avoid harsh emotions or belittling your child. The conversation may naturally be heavy but be careful to not let it escalate into a conflict. Try to be as patient and empathetic with your child as you can.
Avoiding Enabling Behaviors and Codependency
As a parent, you may feel naturally inclined to want to support and protect your child. However, some behaviors that you may perceive as unconditional love may actually be reinforcing your child’s struggle with substances. It’s important to avoid enabling behaviors and enact appropriate boundary setting. A quick way to think about whether your interactions with your child are more harmful than helpful is to ask yourself if your behaviors are reinforcing the status quo of your child’s addiction or helping them avoid the natural consequences of their actions.
Getting Help for an Alcoholic Child
There are many options available for helping your struggling child. For those who may not have developed a physical dependence on alcohol, therapy, and meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous may help curb the behavior. Providing your child with a healthy, safe, substance-free environment can also help them maintain sobriety. However, if your child needs more significant help, some options include:
If your child’s alcohol dependence is severe, they may need to enter a medical detoxification program. During this time, your child will be supervised as their body removes the alcohol still in their system. Alcohol detox can be extremely dangerous, so it should not be attempted alone.
Rehab, or an inpatient/residential treatment center, provides a safe and secure environment for your child to access to education, medical treatment, and psychiatric services to help them completely focus on sobriety. This can be an excellent foundation for your child to recalibrate their lives after detoxing.
A sober living home, such as New Life House in Los Angeles, California, can provide your child with a supportive environment to transition back to day-to-day life from inpatient treatment. Sober living houses allow for independence but ensure accountability through random drug testing, a substance-free environment, and group support.
Early problems with alcohol are not a death sentence. Many young people come to sobriety and responsible consumption with a little bit of support and self-improvement. However, if your child needs additional resources, we can help.
Last Updated on September 12, 2023