The Bottle Family: Alcoholic Families and Alcohol Rehab

The Bottle Family: Alcoholic Families and Alcohol Rehab

A study done in 2000 by the American Journal of Public Health reported that 1 in 4 children are exposed to some type of family alcoholism, alcohol abuse or both. Alcoholism is a family disease infecting all members individually and collectively. Specific roles develop in this family dynamic such as enabler, hero, scapegoat, clown and the lost child. Unfortunately, alcoholism is a historically repetitive pattern and, unless the cycle of addiction is broken, it will continue.  Alcohol addiction treatment at an alcohol rehab facility should include a family component to help all members heal from the disease.

How Alcoholism Impacts the Family

An alcoholic home environment is characterized by chaos, unpredictability, hostility, fear, and loneliness. Chemical dependency in the home has a devastating impact on all members of the family, not just the alcoholic. Alcohol becomes the central source of focus in the family. Children, fueled by embarrassment, shame or desire to protect the alcoholic parent from being hurt, will learn to protect the family secret.

The spouse and children of an alcoholic struggle with indirect or direct messages that they receive from the alcoholic, each of which has a psychologically negative impact. The damage done by an alcoholic parent is vast. Alcoholics tend to have high expectations of others, including their own children. When these expectations are not met, the alcoholic will become angry or withhold love and affection. This indirectly communicates to the child that he or she is bad and unlovable. Children are constantly seeking the approval of their parents, especially in their early years, and alcoholics have trouble giving this to their kids.

Alcoholics struggle with expressing accurate emotions. They may have emotional outbursts, crying, rage and/or excitement; however, their emotions are usually impacted by intoxication. They have a “black or white” thinking style and are unable to maneuver in gray areas. This thinking style is either all bad or all good as it relates to situations, with no room for flexibility.   For children, flexibility is key in understanding that mistakes are part of the learning process and do not equal failure. For example, an alcoholic will directly communicate frustration through name calling or shaming the child in public, which also communicates that they are bad and unacceptable.

Alcoholic Family Roles and Feelings

Each member of the alcoholic family participates in different roles in alcohol addiction. All roles in this dynamic serve a purpose to continue family chaos.  Without help, children will feel obligated to fill certain roles, continuing unhealthy patterns into adulthood because of a lack of healthy family boundaries. Some specific alcoholic family roles include:

  • Alcoholic – The individual in the family with the addiction. Alcoholism does not happen overnight, it is a gradual process that begins socially. Once the alcoholic figures out that he or she can avoid uncomfortable feelings using alcohol, consumption increases. Soon, alcohol becomes part of the alcoholic’s daily functioning and he or she cannot function without it.
  • Enabler – The enabler helps the addict continue the addiction. For example, he or she will purchase beer and bring it home for the alcoholic. The motivation is to keep the alcoholic at home instead of at the bar. The enabler will also cover up for the alcoholic’s behaviors. For example, he or she will call the alcoholic’s boss to make excuses for the alcoholic missing work. He or she will also excuse the alcoholics’ behavior. Limited protection will be offered to the children, but the enabler’s loyalty is towards the alcoholic before the children. The enabler believes that he/she is in control of his/her drinking and behavior.
  • Hero – This person, usually the oldest child, switches places with the enabler when the enabler is not available. He or she is performance oriented and a high achiever. The family looks to this child as the one that will be successful and get out of the family dynamic. This child will look for ways to escape from the household through achievement and academia. Heroes are hard to love because they appear tough, strong and like they need no one. The unhealthy cycle continues because heroes are emotionally detached like their alcoholic parent.
  • Scapegoat – This child will most identify with the alcoholic, although his or her hatred for his or her parent will be regularly voiced. He/she will be the child to experiment with drugs and/or alcohol, stating that he will never be like his alcoholic parent. Alcoholic parents will use this child as a distraction from their own issues with their spouses. This will send the direct message that the alcoholic parent dislikes this child. This child is the most likely to repeat the alcoholic parent’s pattern.
  • Clown – This child will learn to use humor as a defense mechanism to diffuse conflict. He learns to distract his parents from arguments by causing a nuisance or funny antics in the middle of hostile situations. In school, he/she is referred to as the class clown and is extremely likeable. Unfortunately, he/she will continue this defense mechanism through adulthood. This individual will never seem serious as he/she is always hiding behind the mask of humor.
  • Lost Child – This child, sometimes the youngest and the quietest, is always left alone within the chaotic family dynamic. This child doesn’t create as much noise as his or her siblings and demands very little attention. Parents will assume that everything is ok with this child since he or she is not acting like the other children. As this child grows up, feelings of emptiness develop from the lack of interaction/attention.

Although these roles have been documented as distinct children, it is possible for one child to experience different roles in their lifetime. For example, the hero in childhood can quickly become the scapegoat as a young adult once he or she fails out of school, experiments with drugs or alcohol or displeases his or her parents in any way.

Alcohol Rehab Helps the Family

The alcoholic must enter an alcohol rehabilitation facility that includes an alcohol detox facility and inpatient residential treatment, to begin the recovery process for the family. Returning home after alcoholism treatment is more difficult than the time in alcohol rehab. The alcoholic will be faced with family triggers. The family dynamic will want to shift back to the old way of operating which will increase the risk of relapse into old patterns for all family members. The alcoholic should also be prepared to be tested by family members who will not trust the change in the alcoholic’s behavior at first. Because alcoholism is a family disease, all members need some form of treatment.

Children of alcoholics should attend specific Al-anon/Alateen group meetings for their age group. These individuals would benefit from individual counseling in addition to group meetings. The enabler should attend support groups and individual counseling too. Couples counseling and family counseling is suggested to help with the family’s adjustment to change.