What happens to kids of alcoholics who grow up and become parents themselves? A look at one woman whose world unraveled and how, with help, she put it all back together.
“Is she going to be OK, Daddy?” Mollie Kline recalls pleading as her father led her disoriented mother down the stairs and into bed.
The answer would come the next morning when the young girl woke up to her mother placating her with desolate eyes that betrayed crushing guilt. Only she really wasn’t OK. Tonight would be the same – more wine to numb the pain (from her broken childhood) and shame (of hurting her own family).
Kline’s mother was an alcoholic. And even though the family knew it, they kept it a secret.
Kline – not her real name – describes growing up in a loving nuclear family buoyed by the typical trappings of a comfortable life: nice house and new cars, two smart and active children shepherded by a dedicated stay-at-home mom and successful dad.
Early on Kline recalls her parents drinking socially with friends, but by Kline’s late elementary years, her mom began to drink more frequently, and devastatingly, on the sly. One day while driving to an after-school activity, Kline realized her mom was intoxicated. “I screamed my first cuss word and told her to stop the car. I got out and walked,” she says.
Most of the time, however, Kline tiptoed on eggshells. She stopped asking her friends to sleep over in order to cover for her mom. “She wanted to keep up appearances that we were a sweet, all-American family,” Kline says.
It’s not to say that there weren’t moments of love and calm. Kline says her mom had a passion for volunteering and wanted to do things for people, especially her two daughters. “But she put alcohol in front of everything else,” Kline says of her mother’s disease. “It [an alcoholic] wasn’t who she wanted to be in her heart.”
One day, Kline’s mom didn’t show up for carpool. The preteen found a ride home and started calling her mom’s name. When she didn’t answer, Kline knew she’d have to search the closets – “and I didn’t want to do that,” she says, the agony still raw. Sure enough, she found her mom balled up in a closet with a bottle in a paper bag. “I told her, ‘You’re not having any more,’” Kline says.
She began to feel “if I could just make things right, everything would be fine.” In essence, Kline took on the role of parent, pleaser, fixer – common traits for the codependent of an alcoholic.
She felt fearful and alone, but she isn’t.
“Holes in their souls”
Almost one in four children in America lives in a home where addiction to alcohol and other drugs produces a strong negative impact on their childhood development, according to the Betty Ford Institute. They literally develop “holes in their souls,” creating an environment that all too often gets passed on through the generations, says Jerry Moe, vice president and national director of the Betty Ford Center Children’s Program.
The consequences for children living with an alcoholic parent can include anxiety and depression, mental, physical and behavioral problems and poor academic performance, according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). It’s not the alcoholism itself causing the issues but the resulting social and psychological dysfunction in the family.
Cole Adams, a North Texas psychotherapist and licensed social worker who specializes in codependency and addictions, says children of alcoholics (COAs) are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. They are also prone to develop codependency, which Adams describes as a “psychological state leading one person to become hyper-focused on fixing, controlling or rescuing another person to the detriment of their own physical, mental and spiritual well-being.”
These are kids living in high-risk situations, says Kelly Wierzbinski, director of Children, Youth and Family Services Family Connection at Rainbow Days, Inc., a nonprofit curriculum-based support and intervention program for disadvantaged youths ages 4–15. COAs, like other high-risk groups (such as the homeless or victims of domestic violence), are the “least likely to possess essential coping and social skills or the emotional and social support necessary to overcome traumatic stress and succeed in spite of adversity,” Wierzbinski says.
COAs especially are “taught to hide their family problems and to pretend that everything is ‘normal,’” explains Wierzbinski, who knows first-hand: She also grew up in an alcoholic home and lost a sister to a drunk driving accident.
Since its inception, the Betty Ford Center has regarded addiction to alcohol and other drugs as a family disease. Besides the patient, an average of eight other people are unwittingly affected. While many programs target loved ones of alcoholics ages 13 and up, such as Al-Anon and Alateen, Betty Ford’s Moe and Cathey Brown, founder and CEO of Rainbow Days, Inc., wondered what the result would be if little ones got help sooner – before they even thought about taking a drink or drugs.
Brown started the first support group in Dallas for young COAs nearly 30 years ago. Today the organization has expanded to serve more than 14,200 youth and 1,000 parents a year who are living in a wide variety of adverse family situations. Through free activities and supportive services, children learn how to set and achieve goals, deal with problems and emotions effectively and identify ways to live a healthy and substance-free life.
Moe has been working with COAs since 1977. The author, lecturer and trainer on issues for young children from addicted families leads the Betty Ford Center Children’s Program, a unique prevention and education catalyst to address the special needs of children ages 7–12 who love someone who suffers from addiction to alcohol and/or other drugs, whether in recovery or living with an active addiction. The program was launched in Las Colinas in 1998 after success in California and has been offered throughout the area at the center, community settings and schools.
Betty Ford Five Star Kids for Texas uses art, games, role-playing, journaling and recreation during a three-day retreat to empower children with the necessary skills to grow, learn and heal. “It offers the child the gift of recovery too, as little ones are often left out of the recovery process,” says Lance Hughes, program manager of Five Star Kids.
The first day is all about teaching children the family’s big secret – addiction – in an age-appropriate way. “Children are often confused about what’s going on, but they know something is wrong,” says Moe, who is an advisory board member of NACoA. “They might not ever see the drinking, but they see the consequences. Oftentimes they try to make it better themselves by taking on adult responsibilities like preparing meals, taking care of siblings and giving emotional support to parents. It’s role reversal.”
From the outside, COAs might seem fine, and even display unusual leadership skills, but inside they harbor a tremendous amount of guilt and a sense that no matter what they do it’s never enough, Moe explains. They can become obsessed with perfectionism and have difficulty just being a kid.
The Children’s Program strives to reclaim childhood. “We let them know, ‘The good news is, it’s not your fault. The tough news is, no matter what we do, we can’t make it better,’” Moe says. “It’s not our problem to fix.”
By day two, children are beginning to talk and release their feelings in a room filled with other kids who’ve been through the same traumatic home life. “It normalizes their experience,” Moe says.
Day three focuses on building resilience with tools and strategies children can employ going forward, no matter what happens.
Sessions are also held in the Dallas and Irving school districts. “We go where the children are, otherwise they might not ever get help,” Hughes says.
Five Star Kids requires a parent or guardian to enroll the child and then attend an orientation and the final day of the workshop – an act Moe defines as “courageous.” Even for families in recovery, parents might be burdened with shame and guilt in admitting they’ve hurt their children. It’s the biggest obstacle the facilitators face in getting kids into the program, where no one is ever turned away because of finances.
Rainbow Days faces many similar challenges in reaching children. “We still haven’t come around that far in terms of overcoming the stigma,” Wierzbinski says. The organization provides transportation and administers its award-winning curricula directly in schools, homeless shelters and community centers.
Both programs have undergone studies that show children benefit from intervention. For instance, more than 90 percent of Rainbow Days participants increased their understanding and commitment to a healthy lifestyle, including a non-use attitude toward alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
“If one person in the family is sick, everyone is sick”
Mollie Kline looks back and wishes she could have tapped into counseling much sooner. She grew up to become an adult child of an alcoholic; her mom finally got sober during Kline’s 20s.
Her own relationship to alcohol is sensitive. Though Kline doesn’t have the urge to drink excessively, she admits to overindulging a handful of times. “I’m checking myself all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder if people see me with a glass of wine and think, ‘Oh, geez, she’s going to be just like her mom.’”
Kline did, however, develop a pattern of passive behavior. Early in her marriage she put all of her efforts into keeping her husband happy, eschewing her opinions for his, “because I didn’t feel like I had the right to be assertive,” she says. And, when she did disagree, she would bottle it up and divert her attention to something else in order to avoid confrontation.
Many treatment plans approach codependency as an addiction to control or caretaking – putting someone else’s needs before your own. Codependents, in fact, follow the same Twelve-Step program as recovering addicts, Adams says.
Kline’s codependent tendencies began to unravel after she gave birth to her first child. “Having a baby stripped me of any security,” she says, referring to her anxiety and need to control situations. “I could no longer rely on my unhealthy coping mechanisms [such as conflict avoidance].”
Kline and her husband turned to couple’s counseling, and eventually she went to Celebrate Recovery, a program designed to address hurts, habits and hang-ups – not just addiction – through Biblical understanding.
“It was a painful process … to see yourself for all the ugliness inside,” acknowledges Kline. “But it also gave me peace and confidence in who I am. It changed my entire view of things.”
According to Lisa Neumann, author of the recently penned Sober Identity: Tools for Reprogramming the Addictive Mind, “It’s not a matter of if the child [of an alcoholic] needs help, it’s they do need help and direction from a safe third party – no matter what their age. If one person in the family is sick, everyone is sick.”
Moe grants that for little ones, the Children’s Program – now available to agencies nationwide through a Betty Ford training academy – is just the first, but important, step in a long journey toward emotional healing. Families leave with referrals for additional assistance, and the center uses a variety of creative methods to stay in touch with alumni. Children can also return later to Five Star Kids 2, a deeper exploration that is especially helpful in the event of a parent relapse.
Wierzbinski says Rainbow Days participants can repeat the program as needed, something she recommends. “When children are living in trauma, it helps to hear the message over and over so it becomes a part of who they are,” she says.
“I had been checking out of my life”
Moe says it is common for a child of an alcoholic to grow up without a sense of how to relax. And how do they unwind? They often turn to alcohol.
Neumann also grew up in an alcoholic home and, like Kline, didn’t want the same fate to happen to her. She didn’t realize at first that her drinking had gotten out of hand, because she could sip a certain amount and stop. “I wasn’t that far gone,” she notes wryly.
But she was always thinking about her next cocktail and organizing her social life around alcohol. “When I was pregnant, it killed me to not drink,” she says. “Not even that was a clue for me.”
Like many moms, Neumann would pour a glass of wine at 5pm to help her cope with the demands of mothering small children. One led to two or three glasses, and sometimes a black-out. She didn’t imbibe during the day, though. And she had plenty of mom friends who drank. “If they don’t have a problem, neither do I,” she’d tell herself. She assumed she could stop altogether at any time.
In the morning, after a rough evening, she’d vow not to have a drink. By 2pm she’d loosen her resolve and say, maybe just one more night. And, by 3pm she was on the way to the market to buy more wine. This went on for three years. “I just thought I had a little wine problem,” she says. “How wrong I was.”
One day while at the park with her kids, ages 3 and 1, Neumann spiked her soda with vodka. Her daughter fell and hurt herself, and the first thing Neumann worried about was how to take her to the hospital with breath smelling like alcohol. “It was a turning point for me,” she says. “I had been checking out of my life, and my children were entitled to a mom who was here and present.”
In addition to the Twelve-Step program, Neumann credits a regimen of life coaching, spiritual healing and therapy for saving her and giving her a new purpose in life. After four years of sobriety, at age 44, Neumann now coaches recovered addicts. “That great feeling I chased with alcohol? I get to feel that way all day long,” says a jubilant Neumann. “It comes from living in accordance with your principles and standards. It requires discipline and training of your mind, but it’s doable.”
Recovery is possible: Despite sordid news about the latest celebrity succumbing to drugs and alcohol, a survey released last month by The Partnership at Drugfree.org and The New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) shows that 10 percent of all American adults, ages 18 and older, consider themselves to be in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse problems. These groundbreaking findings serve as a reminder that addiction is a treatable disease, and recovery can be a reality.
There is hope for codependents as well. Adams says often the codependent person finds an inner strength and becomes far stronger than someone who hasn’t faced the same adversity. “It’s very freeing for them,” he says.
It’s also something that requires diligence and patience. “It took a long time to create the damage,” says Neumann, who recently put her 12-year-old son into counseling. “Process is not an event on the calendar.”
One of the tenets of Twelve Steps is that both addicts and codependents make amends. Kline says she hasn’t had a problem in that department. “The pain I went through is nothing compared to the pain my mom has been through,” she says. “As a child I was always seeking her approval, and now I have it. She’s my best friend.”
Neumann notes that “We don’t forgive for the other person; we do it for ourselves so our hearts are clean.”
The new author and life coach has been able to take her childhood perspective of an alcoholic dad, who was sober the last 15 years of his life, and reframe that time as an adult: “Now I see his alcoholism as a gift that I am going to hand my children as a sober mom.”