How to reach out to a child whose mother has a drinking problem.

The Teacher's Story

"Won't you join us for storytime, Taylor?" I asked gently. The other children had gathered on the floor, but Taylor was sitting at a table, doing nothing in particular. He's avoided group activities for two weeks now. Although he's pale, he doesn't seem to be ill. But I do plan to suggest a trip to the family doctor just to be sure.

It may be odd to say this, but it seems as if Taylor has forgotten how to play. He's become almost invisible in the classroom. And because he's gotten to be so passive, it was a double shock when he suddenly lashed out at another child at school yesterday. There was another aggressive outburst today, all of which is a big change for Taylor, who's always been such a gentle child.

He cries easily now too. When his mother was late in picking him up yesterday, Taylor stood weeping silent tears. I have a feeling that something is wrong at home, but I don't want to intrude on this family's privacy. Still, I am worried about the boy.

The Parent's Story

My four-and-a-half-year-old son seems so unhappy lately. He doesn't smile and can't seem to finish anything he starts, whether it's a snack, a Lego building, or even a video.

It may sound silly, but I often get the feeling he's hiding. I'll find him sitting in a dark corner of his room or some other room, doing nothing. He cries at the drop of a hat and acts like he's scared of something; I even hear him whimpering in his sleep. Taylor used to love to ice skate, but now I can't get him to come with me to the pond on weekends. I've even tried suggesting that we invite a friend to come along, with no success.

It feels disloyal to say this, but I'm afraid Taylor's sad mood may have something to do with problems my wife is having. She once was a pretty heavy drinker, but she gave up alcohol during her pregnancy with Taylor. I marveled at her will power. For a long while after Taylor's birth, her drinking was still under control. But now, sadly, my wife has slipped back, and her behavior is sometimes erratic. I'm not sure which came first, the loss of her job a month ago or her return to heavy drinking.

Now, some evenings when I get home, Taylor is hiding somewhere or doing something he knows he's not supposed to do, like trying to cook something on the stove. There was a message on our answering machine from the teacher today. She's probably noticed the change in Taylor too. But I'm not sure what to say to her. I don't feel I should talk about our problems with anyone outside our home.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Taylor's sad situation is all too common, I'm afraid. One out of five American children has a parent with an alcohol problem. Things are made even worse when family members are too embarrassed to seek help. Like Taylor's family, two out of three don't acknowledge there is trouble. So it's no wonder that the boy is wary. He doesn't know what to expect next. And like his dad, he's afraid of being disloyal.

What the Teacher Can Do

The teacher doesn't yet know what is happening at home. She should invite the father in and, if he confides in her, support an effort to get immediate help. She'll need to keep a record of her conversation and make her supervisor aware of the situation. If the father is receptive, she should ask the director or a school-recommended social worker to join them in a meeting. They can direct the family to local agencies or specialists who can help.

The teacher should let the father know she'll be making special efforts to help Taylor see the classroom as a reliable oasis. Someone who is both patient and nurturing - the teacher herself or a classroom aide or student teacher, if one is available might work closely with the boy, gradually winning his trust and encouraging him to begin expressing himself through creative play again.

Children of alcoholics often have problems letting themselves go. Changing this way of responding takes time and patience. The teacher should allow Taylor to take the lead. She might try reading brief, engaging stories to him or decide to use nature projects or the care of classroom pets to interest the boy. The teacher should be alert to any spark of interest and follow up on it.

She can be a calm, available presence for Taylor while the family members get help from the wider community. If one is offered nearby, they might be able to have Taylor participate in a program that includes art, dance, and poetry therapy provided by experts trained to work with inhibited children of parents with drinking problems. The right combination of support in school and the community can save the day.

What the Parent Can Do

Taylor's dad must get past his embarrassment to seek help. Confiding in the teacher would be a good place to begin.

First, though, he should have a talk with Taylor. It's best to bring the matter out in the open, making it clear that there are going to be no more secrets between the boy and his dad. He should tell Taylor that his mom has a kind of illness, yet she loves him very much. Dad can acknowledge how rough these recent weeks have been for Taylor and, at the same time, make it clear that from now on until Mom gets well, either Dad, Grandma, or someone else who cares about him will be there.

Then the father should bite the bullet and decide who in the extended family can be counted on for support. With help from the family, the teacher, a doctor, and perhaps a friend - along with the mother's will to change - things can begin to turn around. Once he sees that his dad is being more open, Taylor may feel less afraid to express his feelings too. The boy is likely to need counseling, though, even after his mother gets well. With the gradual return of his smile and spontaneity, his parents will sense that Taylor has weathered the storm.

Please note: Anytime a teacher has concerns about the safety and well-being of a child at home or suspects neglect for any reason, including substance abuse by a parent, the program director should be informed and take whatever steps are appropriate to protect the child.  

This article originally appeared in the March, 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.