How Living with Alcoholic Parents Affects Children
How does living with an alcoholic parent impact children?
Writing the research paper related to the Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and including real life examples along with some relevant statistics.
How Living with Alcoholic Parents Affects Children
Many alcoholics think that their use of alcohol can only harm them, but not anyone else. However, this is only a misconception. Many research findings and anecdotal evidence have proven that everyone around an alcoholic is affected in one way or another. Such people include family members, friends, co-workers, and employers. The most affected group are the children of the alcoholics. This essay discusses how the children living with alcoholics as their parents are affected indicating examples from literary works of Jeanette Walls in her book “The Glass Castle.”
Overview: Contemporary Studies and Statistics
Conventionally, research has shown that children are perhaps the most vulnerable group to the alcoholism of their parents (Urbatsch 7). Furthermore, Jeanette Walls suggests that the alcoholism practiced by her father exposed them to a number of good and bad experiences. As such, children are sometimes affected so profoundly that they end up living their entire livelihoods with the effects. The children can be affected psychologically and emotionally. The characteristics of such children were first described in 1983 by Dr. Janet Woititz in her book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics” (Munafo 4). Subsequent research has proven her claims and has dug up deeper implications and meanings to the dilemma. The psychological traits have been linked to many developmental contexts (Urbatsch 7).
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 6.6 million of the children below 18 years in the United States live in families in which at least one parent is an alcoholic. These kids end up with emotional, behavioral, or cognitive problems. Genetic studies have also shown that children born to alcoholic parents tend to have a vulnerability to alcoholism (Lohmann 52).
Studies focussed on how alcoholism develops in children have shown that children who grow up with alcoholic parents have 2 to 10 fold increased risks of becoming alcoholic than children who do not have any parent with alcohol problems (Munafo 5). A recent survey of 43,000 adults in the United States revealed that the individuals who had histories of parental alcohol problems were more likely have gone through alcohol-dependence themselves. The study showed that 23.1% of the persons who had experienced alcohol-dependency had histories of parental alcohol problems while only 9.6% of them did not have any history of parental alcoholism (Munafo 4)
Effects of Alcoholism on Children with synthesis from “The Glass Castle”
Children who grow up with at least one alcoholic parent grow up to become adults who are always afraid they will lose control. They maintain control over their feelings and behavior and try to control those of other people around them. This is often so because they are afraid they may lose control and become like their parents. They depend on control to keep their lives from getting worse, and whenever they fail to control any given situation, they end up being very anxious (Gentry 14). After Jeannette’s dad had thrown the cat out of the car because it did not ‘like to travel,’ Jeannette burst into tears, but her mother told her, “Don’t be so sentimental” (Walls 18).
The strong desire to always be self-controlled and control situations may result from the fact that such children grow up being responsible for them, the way Jeannette was. The alcoholic parents often become preoccupied with their drinking behaviors that they do not notice the needs of their children and cannot take hold of their parental responsibilities. Such children may end up with poor health, eating habits and educational achievement. Unfortunately, many of the children grow with such traits into adulthood.
Because they grow up hiding their feelings and emotions like anger and hatred, the children of alcoholics end up becoming adults who fear emotions or feelings. They tend to keep their emotions hidden that they end up not being able to express them. As grown-ups, they end up fearing the expression of any powerful emotion, including the positive ones such as joy and fun (Gentry 14). Just like Jeannette Walls in “The Glass Castle” wished to keep her mother a secret from her colleagues who were going to a party by hiding in the car, many children who have alcoholic parents do not wish to be identified with their parents (Walls, 20). Furthermore, she had to accept what her parents are as her mother said so:
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”
“And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”
“Just tell the truth,” Mom said. “That’s simple enough.”(Walls 5)
The children of alcoholic parents also have to take on adult responsibilities when they are still very young, which exposes them to serious risks. For example, from “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette had to cook hot dogs for herself when she was only 3. She did this by climbing things so as to reach the pot since it was too heavy. This practice in itself was a precarious activity. It is through this that she got burned and had to be hospitalized, from which she came out scarred. It did not end there; she developed a dangerous fascination for fire, which could easily make her burn their home, and in the end, she burned her favorite doll, Tinkerbell. Also most surprisingly, Jeannette could quickly fire her father’s pistol, she said, “I could hit five out of six beer bottles at thirty paces.” To make matters worse, her dad encouraged her that her “…sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded…” them, a very careless compliment to a four-year-old child” (Walls 21)
Further, Jeannette’s father, being an alcoholic, did not follow the procedure of checking out from a hospital and discharged her “Rex Walls style” (Walls 15). He did not care that his daughter might not have healed properly. Her wounds could have gotten infected, posing more severe health risks. Jeannette’s parents even encouraged her, after being burned, to continue using and playing with fire, which was perilous. It is possible to say that the young girl was responsible for herself. Many other children across the globe, with such parents, end up in serious compromises and accidents as a result of their parents’ alcoholism. A similar case happened to Brian, Jeannette’s brother, who split his skull but was not taken to a hospital, which could have easily led to his death (Walls 135)
The children who live with alcoholic parents have the risk of losing their identities. They fear people in authority or those who are angry. If they are personally criticized, they do not take it well. Whenever someone becomes assertive with them, they think such people are mad at them. As a result, they continuously seek the approval of other people and lose any self-worth they may have. They criticize themselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem, regardless of their level of competency. Finally, they may end up isolating themselves and living in solitude and denial. In many cases, such individuals may attempt self-harm, suicide or drug addiction as easy ways out of the situation (Lohmann 2)
They become very sensitive to the needs of other people and draw their self-esteem from how other people judge them. As a consequence, they are persistently striving to be perfect and to be accepted. This may put a high burden on them, in which they feel they should always take responsibility and seek the approval of other people. Jeannette, for example, was overburdened with her mother’s condition, especially when she saw her scavenging through garbage. She said, “I could never enjoy … without worrying about Mom and Dad” (Walls 4)
As such, many of the adult children of alcoholics end up not being able to have fun or be relaxed. They think having a good time is stressful, which applies in particular when others are watching them. Within themselves, they are always frightened and always try to be perfect and maintain a high standard of self-control (Gentry 45)Additionally, Jeanette Walls suggests that his dad ruined the Christmas celebrations that they had took the time to plan for it. Arguably she narrates
“Let’s really light up this Christmas,’ Dad said and thrust the lighter into the Douglas fir. The dried-out needles caught fire immediately… We were able to put the fire out, but only by knocking down the tree, smashing most of the ornaments, and ruining all our presents”(Walls 115)
The children grow up to fear to be intimate with anyone because they are afraid they will lose control by being intimate. This places them with difficulty in the expression of their needs. As a consequence, they develop issues with their sexuality and have repeat relationship patterns (Gentry 25)Furthermore, Walls wants the reader to interpret that most children feel sad when they lose a parent who is alcoholic. As such, she narrates;
“I just stood there looking from one distorted face to another, listening to this babble of enraged squabbling as the members of the Walls family gave vent to all their years of hurt and anger, each unloading his or her own accumulated grievances and blaming the others for allowing the most fragile one of us to break into pieces” (Walls 276)
As children, they grow up knowing they are hated by one or all of their parents. They believe they are not up to the standards of their parents and can never be satisfactory (Lohmann 2)As a result, they always think all people judge them as such, and they always try to be good in the eyes of people. Many of them, especially those who grow up with both parents as alcoholics or drug addicts end up with difficulty in differentiating between love, hatred, and criticism. They can end up confusing love and pity, and become the lovers of those they can rescue. In many cases, they develop a victim mentality, in which they always feel they are the victims of the circumstances they find themselves in. Some of them may be passive or violent. In many cases, they get attracted to other people who are like them to become friends, career colleagues or lovers (Lohmann 5)
In a bid to always do things better, the adult children of alcoholics may end up developing compulsive behavior. They may become compulsive eaters or even workaholics. They may develop addictions and co-dependence in relationships. Their compulsiveness may lead them to become alcoholics just like their parents. They may not abuse alcohol because they want to but may get addicted during the process of trying to use alcohol to calm their nerves after a hard work of trying to be perfect (Middelton-Moz and Dwinell 54). To feel that they are in control, have power, and to fix their adrenaline, the children who grow up with alcoholic parents develop an addiction to drama and chaos. They may be violent people and may end up getting into violent crimes like robbery and rape. Some may see violence as a way of being in control of their lives and those of others (Lohmann 3)
Since intense uncomfortable feelings were not tolerated by their alcoholic families, the children of alcoholics grow up with a tendency to suffer from accumulated grief. As they grow up, they do not have the opportunity to grieve the losses they have as children. They grow up knowing that grief is an expression of weakness, which they can never accept. As a result, they can develop stress-related illnesses (Middelton-Moz and Dwinell 20).
Alcoholic parents are often very critical and judgmental. Therefore, the children grow up with a personality that is always vigilant and watchful. They grow up knowing that they cannot afford to make even small mistakes. They then grow up to become hyper vigilant. They always look around for any disaster waiting to happen (Middelton-Moz and Dwinell 12). In relation to Walls’s work, there are cases where his father who is referred to as “Mr. Know-It-All Smarty Pants” by her mother, was so judgemental that they exchanged bitter words before their children.
Once we were on the road, Dad and Mom got in a big fight over how many months she’d been pregnant. Mom said she was ten months pregnant. Dad, who had fixed someone’s transmission earlier that day and used the money he’d made to buy a bottle of tequila, said she probably lost track somewhere.
“I always carry children longer than most women,” Mom said. “Lori was in my womb for fourteen months.”
“Bullshit!” Dad said. “Unless Lori’s part elephant.”
“Don’t you make fun of my children or me!” Mom yelled. “Some babies are premature. Mine were all
postmature. That’s why they’re so smart. Their brains had longer to develop.”
Dad said (Walls 42)
Some of the children may end up hating their parents and consequently fear parenthood. They may decide that they will never have their children because they fear to subject them to the same pain that they went through themselves. Such a decision may in turn lead to hatred for the opposite sex, especially if the alcoholic parent was of the opposite sex. Another consequence may be a chain of irresponsible sexual behavior. One may decide to engage in sexual behaviors that are very harmful, knowing they have no responsibility to be emotionally attached to their partners, fearing that any emotional attachment may lead to them becoming parents (Lohmann 4)
Despite the existence of such qualities in many children and adults who grow up living with alcoholic parents, it has been discovered that there are large proportions of individuals who grow up with alcoholic parents but end up becoming normal people. Many of them are highly similar to the children who grow up with healthy parents, and sometimes become even more successful and sociable. Research has shown that, even though their cognitive abilities, which is essential to growth and development is often affected by the impulsive behavior of their parents, they sometimes outgrow the effects and just become like the normal children (Gentry 45)Some children who grow with alcoholic parents but became better adults helped their parents out of their addictions and became good parents themselves. In fact, there are some who grow up with compassion and pity for people who are alcoholic and may pursue careers that can enable them to help such people come out of their situations. As such, Walls did not develop negatively; she was felt bad after the death of her father. She narrates, “I just stood there looking from one distorted face to another, listening to this babble of enraged squabbling as the members of the Walls family gave vent to all their years of hurt and anger, each unloading his or her own accumulated grievances and blaming the others for allowing the most fragile one of us to break into pieces” (Walls 276)
As they grow up, they may have been subjected to thorough beating and criticism, and in the process, they may have learned how to be brilliant and handle mistakes. Some even grow up knowing how to manage both active and negative criticism. These are often the qualities that are necessary for anyone who wishes to be successful. Even though most of such children grow up fearing failure, some grow up knowing that it is the criticisms from people that can help them identify failure and rectify them. Evidently, Walls suggests that his dad was critical them in that he could judge that the “cop” would take them to jail. Walls say;
……”What the hell is going on?” he asked. He was furious. We tried to explain that it wasn’t our fault the doors blew open, but he was still angry. I knew that he was scared, too. Maybe even more scared than angry. “Was that a cop?” Brian asked.
“No,” Dad said. “And you’re sure as hell lucky it wasn’t, or he’d be hauling your asses off to jail.” (Walls 50)
Just like Jeannette in “The Glass Castle,” most
children who grow up with alcoholic parents experience emotional, physical and
psychological challenges. In some cases, these problems
may grow with them to adulthood, while in other cases, they may outgrow the
challenges and become competent and responsible
adults. Nevertheless, all children who live with alcoholic parents need particular attention since many of them have
even attempted to commit suicide because of the neglect and pain they undergo.
Gentry, S. “How can Having an Alcoholic Parent Affect Children and What Interventions are Available to Reduce the Impact?” Pediatric Oncall 10.11 (2013).
Lohmann, R. C. Broken Promises: How Alcoholism Affects Children. Behavioural Health, Living with Addiction. 2015. 8 January 2017. <http://www.rehabs.com/pro-talk-articles/broken-promises-how-alcoholism-can-affect-children/>.
Middelton-Moz, J and L Dwinell. After the tears: helping adult children of alcoholics heal their childhood trauma. Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, 2010.
Munafo, J. I. Making sense of alcohol dependence: exploring the beliefs of adult children of problem alcohol users. Cardiff University., 2009.
Urbatsch, R. What We Know About Families and Why We Should Know More. Families’ Values.
Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005. Print and E-Edition.