Dear Dr. Jann: My ex has a severe drinking problem but is in complete denial. He blames the drinking on the fact that I left him—but I left him because of the drinking. Yesterday our daughter told me that her dad told her not to tell me he was drinking when she was with him because “they” will take her away from him. I don’t want to take my child away from her father, but he passes out when she’s there and she gets scared. What can I do?
Dr. Jann: Even if dad wasn’t an “alcoholic” kids don’t’ like to see their parents drink to excess because they seem out of control, and if a parent is out of control, who is going to take care of them?
That said, I often remind parents who like to party that joint custody can be the best of both worlds. It allows you to be an attentive parent when the kids are around, and have a social life. The caveat is that if you get yourself in trouble—a DUI, for example–even though the kids were not around, that can impact your parenting time. That means, even if the kids are not witness to your partying, parents must be mindful that any decision they make impacts their children.
There is a dynamic that children of alcoholics adopt in the name of survival. They can have difficulty feeling close to people and have trouble Interacting with and trusting authority figures. They learn to give in to others too quickly to “keep the peace,” not wanting to upset the alcoholic parent for fear he or she may lash out and possibly hurt them or another family member. But, perhaps one of the most debilitating characteristics is that they learn to feel overly responsible for caring for others.
For example, if there is a younger child, an older child may take on the parent role because the alcoholic parent is just too drunk to make good decisions. Children of alcoholics can become codependent and make excuses to cover up the alcoholic parent’s behavior. That feeling follows them all the way through their life with every relationship they have, and it would not be uncommon for them to end up with an addict as a partner because the feeling is so familiar.
What can you do? Don’t judge. Support father’s efforts to get sober. Join Ala-non and find an Ala-Teen group for your daughter. Support groups can take the stigma out of being the child of an alcoholic and offer positive tools to cope.
Finally, even though your child loves her dad, it may not be in her best interest to be alone with him if he passes out on a regular basis. You may have to step in, particularly if he is emotionally blackmailing her into keeping his secrets. Abusers tell kids to keep secrets. Document what is being told to you and don’t be afraid to ask the police or CPS to do a surprise “well-check.” If Dad has been drinking to excess or is passed out in the presence of your daughter, it will be taken out of your hands. The authorities will step in.