Different Families, Different Dances: Helping Children of Substance Abusers

I was sitting in my office when I heard the distant sounds of crying. I found the source in the girls’ bathroom. Kesha, the president of the student council, was collapsed on the ground, sobbing. I got her to her feet and headed to my office.

Her crisis? She wanted to go to the after-school sock hop, but couldn’t because she had to take care of her brothers and sisters after school. She was charged with getting their snacks, overseeing homework, making dinner and feeding them, starting the laundry, cleaning the kitchen, getting them bathed and ready for bed, getting her father’s dinner, doing her own homework, and preparing for the next day when she got her brothers and sisters up and ready for school.

When I asked about her mom, she was evasive and responded with “Mom is always sick in her room.”

A red flag went up immediately. I had been a student assistance counselor at a middle school for seven years and had worked with children of alcoholics and substance abusers. This sounded all too familiar.

After she and I built a rapport, Kesha confirmed my suspicions. She just wanted to be a kid for an afternoon, but she couldn’t. Instead, she had to play mother because her mom couldn’t—she was an alcoholic.

I have worked with many students who were children of alcoholics and addicts (COAs) and know just how resilient and committed these children are to their families. They are not deficient, just different. They are shaped by special circumstances because at least one family member is preoccupied by a substance and not focused on being a parent.

Perhaps by looking at some of the coping “dances” COAs develop to get their needs met and to meet the needs of the family, educators might gain insight into why some students behave the way they do—and how they can approach that behavior more effectively.

Family Dynamics

Parents’ primary role is to meet the needs of their children: food, shelter, clothing, and love. They teach their children how to communicate, how to fight, how to love, and what it means to be a man and a woman. When a parent is unable to take on the role of protector and provider due to alcoholism or substance abuse, the children must make meaning of why that parent is not fulfilling that vital role in their lives.

Many variables determine how the presence of an alcoholic or drug dependent parent affects a child, and in some ways it is limiting to try to generalize the behaviors of COAs; however, research shows some consistent patterns.

COAs often take the blame for their parent’s drinking. “If I didn’t talk back … if I just cleaned my room … did my homework … maybe my dad wouldn’t drink.”

Young adolescents are beginning to compare their own families with others and realize the different dynamics. Middle grades students often feel ashamed of their parent’s alcohol or drug abuse. A common slogan with COAs is Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel. They don’t talk about what goes on in the family; they don’t trust people because of the inconsistent behaviors of their parent; and they find it easier to disassociate from feelings rather than to feel the pain associated with a parent who is not parenting.

There is little consistency in adult behavior. One minute the adolescent’s needs are met and the next minute the child is left to cope alone. COAs never know if they are going to walk into a calm home or a home in crisis. They never know when it is okay to bring friends home. They try to control their environment as much as possible.

The Roles Children Develop

COAs develop coping strategies and take on roles at home that can spill over into the classroom. Here are the common roles. You may recognize some of your students.

The Hero or Perfect Child
These children try to fix the family by doing good works. They are driven to do their best, are dedicated, can be overly responsible, and often emerge as leaders. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to take on many roles and are often overachievers. They can be perfectionists and have a difficult time working with their peers who don’t have the same drive.

These are the students in your class who seem mature for their age, work hard, and turn in perfect work. The parents point to these “stars” as proof their family can’t be that bad.

The Scapegoat or Rebel
Where the heroes try to fix the family through good works, the rebels take the attention off the alcohol or substance abuse by creating crises and keeping the focus on themselves. They are the truth tellers in the family. Other members may not address the situation, but the rebels will confront the abuser directly. They challenge authority, may experiment with drugs and sex at an early age, and often do poorly in school. Other students admire their independence and leadership abilities, but rebels often do not connect with others.

These are the students in your class who trigger bedlam or challenge you eye to eye.

The Loner or Lost Child
The gift the lost children bring to their dysfunctional families is one fewer child to worry about. They are attuned to their surroundings and know when a crisis is about to happen. They know how to be scarce emotionally and physically so none of the conflict is directed toward them. These loners don’t make friends, preferring to keep to themselves. They may be artists or they may lose themselves in fantasy games. They can be shy and withdrawn and are often daydreamers.

These are the students in your class whom you forget about because they are quiet, undemanding, and fade into the background.

The Mascot or Clown
The mascots are the comic relief in the family. Just when the alcoholic parent and rebel are about to get into an argument, the mascot will say something to make the family burst into laughter, thereby reducing the tension. Mascots are always “on.” Often immature, they are rarely taken seriously. They know how to entertain people, but don’t know when it is time to stop.

These are the students in your classroom who misbehave and take their antics right to the edge, but rarely get written up because of their charm.

Compassionate Discipline

These students’ home lives can be full of inconsistencies and contradictions. They never know whether they are going home to a fight or an empty house.

Teachers sometimes believe they are helping these students by giving them a break with an assignment. Actually, one of the best gifts you can give a COA is clear, consistent boundaries and routines, especially during adolescence when so many things are changing in their lives. They need consistency and should be able to count on you to be the constant in their lives. Let your classroom be the safe haven they need. Maintain your expectations and rules.

COAs are often at the mercy of tumultuous emotions. If something stressful happened at home and COAs have been trained to mask their feelings about it, they are walking around with all that unexpressed energy, which is a discipline issue waiting to ignite.

If you can help students identify their feelings in a stressful situation, you give them a legitimate expression of the energy behind the emotion. To do this you need to become “emotion detectives.” When a student talks about any situation, try to ascertain the emotions behind the story. Develop a feeling vocabulary.

I was working with one young man who was full of anger and often blew up in class with no provocation. I tried to help him understand his feelings, but the only feeling he could readily access was anger.

One morning the boy came into my office full of rage. When he packed his lunch that morning, he took some Oreo cookies. His alcoholic father complained that his son had not left enough cookies for him. “We got into a physical fight over some stupid cookies,” the boy explained. I said, “How sad” and he burst into tears. When he left my office, his day was more productive because he was no longer holding in his rage.

Your being an “emotions detective” actually benefits all young adolescents, but it is especially helpful for COAs. I do not advocate that you counsel the students—that is the role of guidance counselors—but you can establish a rapport that helps students recognize the unexpressed feelings they have.

Finally, even after building a safe, consistent environment where you are helping students develop the skills to identify their emotions, you may realize that student behavior is getting worse. You then begin to wonder, “What did I do to deserve this?”

What you did was become the safe strong adult model these students needed to give themselves permission to express themselves. The issues they wish they could address and the feelings of anger and resentment they wish they could express to their parents are projected onto your relationship. Yes, you still need to address any inappropriate behavior, but realize it is not about you.

Children of alcoholics and drug dependent parents have strengths and limitations like any other adolescent. They are unique only in that their family experiences required them to learn a different dance to get their needs met.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010

Ann Mary Roberts is a professor of middle level education at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, and a member of AMLE. E-mail: aroberts@radford.edu