A teacher writes:

I've been concerned about Peter since the beginning of the school year, wondering whether he is a neglected child. He's so skinny and unusually disheveled, even for a fifth grade boy. Sometimes he acts like a tough guy, but more often he is wary and looks anxious. And I've noticed that Peter can't play or draw freely. It has taken months for me to establish a good enough relationship with him to persuade him to participate in class and do his homework. He does try, but still has a lot of trouble concentrating. I've never seen or heard from Peter's parents, even in response to notes and announcements that are sent home.

Then one day last week, Peter came in without his homework. As he approached my desk to tell me, he burst into tears. We went into the hallway to talk, and I finally learned what has been going on in his life. He told me that his father had come home drunk the night before, declaring he didn't have rent money, and accusing the mother of stealing it. She countered that the father had drunk it up. Peter's dad proceeded to pick up objects and throw them around the house. He shouted threats about moving out, which would force Peter and his mother to go to a shelter. Peter's biggest fear was that he would have to leave school as well as his home.

As the youngster talked, I began to realize that things like this must have been happening all along. Apparently, Peter's dad is an alcoholic. I sent the child to our crisis counselor who helped him to feel calmer, but he begged her not to contact his mother for permission to continue seeing the counselor. Peter was afraid that would make things worse at home. I think she will call the mother anyway, and I am giving him all the attention and support that I can offer, but I am worried about whether we are doing enough, and I wonder what will happen to Peter when he goes off to middle school.

Dr. Brodkin and Dr. Coleman respond:

Your concern about Peter's welfare is understandable, and, frankly, it's the best thing he has going for him right now. We wish we could tell you that his situation is unusual, but that is not the case. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics estimates that 28 million American kids have at least one alcoholic parent. That is one child out of five, which adds up to a major public health problem. But only one out of three of these families reports the alcohol abuse. So, just as it was in Peter's case, most of these situations are hidden from those who could provide help. Like Peter, many children of alcoholics have trouble concentrating and learning; they may have attention problems and a good deal of anxiety. They often lack spontaneity, are afraid to play, and show little emotion, although some are compulsive achievers.

Sadly, it is adaptive behavior for children of alcoholics to be wary and hide their feelings. They are, after all, living in a danger zone, with objects flying and sometimes fists as well. Since the alcoholic parent often picks on family members and attributes all of his or her troubles to a child, these children can be terribly hard on themselves; many become seriously depressed. In fact, alcoholism in a parent is associated with a higher risk for adolescent suicide. So, your concern about Peter's well-being as he grows older is well taken.

You certainly have taken the right steps, calling in the crisis counselor and being there for Peter. Perhaps the counselor or school social worker or special services director could initiate an even broader community effort on Peter's behalf. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) should be contacted. Their credo of providing understanding, information, and "an opportunity to break out of isolation and silence" would serve Peter well. He needs to learn first that he is not alone with his problem. The NACoA may be able to refer him to a local self-help group. He should continue to see the counselor or her equivalent on his own as well, and take advantage of whatever other guidance and support is available in your community. In some cities, there are fine programs for children of alcoholics, where they may gradually learn to trust enough to play and even do some remarkably creative work. Art, dance, and poetry therapists, as well as traditional group leaders and therapists, are there to work with them.

Organizations such as NACoA, Al-Anon, and Alateen can also direct the school personnel toward help for the family, including Peter's father. His mother's cooperation should be sought. It would be easiest, of course, if both parents were cooperative, but help can be available for Peter despite a resistance which is well-known to those who serve the families of alcoholics.

"Living With an Alcoholic Parent" is adapted from the March 1995 issue of Instructor magazine, and is written by Dr. Adele Brodkin and her colleague, Melba Coleman, Ed.D.