Alcoholism and Parent Alienation: The Effects of Addiction on Parenting

Posted on July 15th, 2009

He was angry – angry enough to share his story with a stranger, and angry enough to talk about the effects of alcohol on his life in a half hour monologue. His ex-wife was alcoholic, and according to him, probably did drugs also. He kicked her out of the house, then divorced her, and became an overworked single dad to a four year old and a five year. He described his day, which began with night-shift work: pick the kids up from school and daycare, fix them a meal and do laundry and house-cleaning, then drop them off at the grandparents, then off to work all night, then race back to fix the kids breakfast and drop them off at school and daycare, then sleep for five or six hours, and start all over again. His ex-wife, still addicted to alcohol, had pretty much dropped out of the picture.

“I’d love for her to spend more time with them,” he complained, “but we are lucky if we see her once in three or four months. She blew off their birthdays, didn’t even remember to send them birthday cards. My daughter said to her little brother, ‘Mommy’s broken.’ I had to tell them their mom is not broken.”

Usually parent alienation syndrome is defined as one parent, often the custodial parent, deliberately alienating a child from the other parent through negative verbal and nonverbal communication. Sometimes the parent complains openly about the faults of the other parent. Sometimes a parent helps to alienate the child from the other parent through more subtle nonverbal cues such as rolling his eyes when the other parent calls, or using other impatient or disrespectful behaviors around the other parent. But in alcohol abuse situations that lead to a family separation or divorce, the sober parent often has genuine complaints which she or he must submerge in front of the children. Yet at the same time, this parent must acknowledge the all too painfully obvious reality of the other parent’s alcoholism to the children, especially when the other parent repeatedly lets the children down emotionally, or appears intoxicated in front of them.

In addition, joint parenting, or even visitation with the addicted parent, can present problems greater than the children can handle. Parental substance abuse is associated with child abuse and neglect, and for the child, behavior problems, anxiety, and occasionally, a drop in school performance. Children may feel uncomfortable or even unsafe with a parent who is abusing alcohol, but may not want to “tell” on them either to the other parent or to another adult. It is up to the custodial, sober parent to make wise decisions, while still encouraging a positive relationship between the addicted parent and his or her children.

The court system can sometimes help in such situations. A compassionate judge may order counseling and substance abuse testing and treatment if a parent presents evidence of a problem. For more serious neglect or abuse issues, the judge may order supervised visitation. For parents in denial about their alcoholism, however, alienation and withdrawal may be a more likely outcome. The sober parent must exercise extreme self-restraint and forbearance, as well as compassion for the ex-spouse, in order not to damage further the relationship between children and alcoholic parent. The risks of extensive damage to that relationship include risks of alcoholism in the children, risks of backlash toward the household and lifestyle of the sober parent, or at the other extreme, complete alienation from the alcoholic parent. In either case, the children lose a parent, and a parent loses his or her children. The family is broken apart, and the children may suffer long-term effects.

Al-Anon and other support programs can help sober parents to maintain healthier connections between their children and an alcoholic ex-spouse, while establishing boundaries that protect themselves and the children from exposure to substance abuse and related problems. A compassionate attitude and the ability to walk in the other’s shoes may help even more. The angry father who told his story finished by remarking in a much quieter tone, “You know, every alcoholic I’ve ever known has given up on something in his life or her life. Something happened in my wife’s family when she was growing up, that really changed things for her. She and her mom and her sister are alcoholic, and I think it all goes back to that time. It must have been terrible – they won’t talk about it, and it’s like they just gave up hope. I wish something could just shake her free of that memory.” His hard-won compassion, if he can eventually express it to his children, may help keep them from alcoholism of their own, and allow them to keep alive the possibility of reconnection to the parent they are missing.

Author Catherine Knott, Ph.D., teaches Anthropology and Sociology for the University of Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, Natural Resources, and Education from Cornell University and a B.A. from Yale University.

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