Effects on children and families

   Effects on family life

A likely consequence of problem drinking is that the drinker's behaviour becomes unpredictable, and naturally this makes it very difficult for the family as a whole to plan anything in advance or to stick to familiar routines. Will he or she be in a fit state to collect the child from school? What time will he or she come home, and in what state? Should meals be served up or not? Clearly, this sort of constant uncertainty can be highly disruptive, and it helps to explain a commonly found paradox in the families of problem drinkers: that while the problem drinker may be withdrawing from the family by no longer playing the role within it that he or she did previously, he or she nonetheless appears to dominate it.

Alcohol misuse tends to change the roles played by family members in relation to one another, and to the outside world. Most families operate some form of division of labour - one person managing the family's finances, the other supervising the children, one doing the gardening, the other doing the cooking, and so on. But as one member of the family develops more of a drink problem, the other members are likely to find themselves having to take over his or her role themselves. Eventually, one member may be performing all the roles - finances, disciplining, shopping, cleaning, household management, and so on.

Rituals define an occasion or day as being special, and different from other days and occasions. Often these occasions are especially important precisely because of being designed or expected to cement family relationships. Obvious examples are Christmas celebrations, birthdays, weddings and so forth. Alcohol, whilst playing an important part in special occasions within the families of many groups within the UK, can also disrupt these occasions. The occasion may be overlooked or forgotten - a child’s birthday for example - or plans and preparations are made at the last minute and are minimal. Other family occasions may be avoided, as one parent seeks to hide a situation from the rest of the family, or the occasions may be spoilt as a problem drinker seizes the opportunity to drink more freely as it is a ‘special occasion’. At family gatherings children may become tense and nervous, keeping a watchful eye over the parents or simply be upset and embarrassed by an incident that will inevitably happen – arguments breaking out etc.

Another area of family functioning which is often affected by alcohol and alcohol misuse relates to the kind of communications that takes place between family members. It may be that the partner with the problem refuses to talk about it, even though it is clearly beginning to dominate his or her, and the family's, life. Alternatively, alcohol may loosen the tongue and things might be said which would not have been said in a sober state. Or again, alcohol can itself become the main topic of conversation - has he/she been drinking again, if so how much and with what effect, who is going to telephone the boss to say that he won't be in because he's got flu yet again?

Social life
Most people who have a parent or partner with a drinking problem find talking about it to others to be extraordinarily difficult. The problem is often simply seen as being too shameful to admit. Yet a result of the difficulty of explaining the situation to other people is that the family tends to withdraw into itself. The high degree of social embarrassment involved, and the unpredictability so often associated with drinking problems, makes it very awkward to extend invitations to others to visit the family home, or to accept invitations to visit their’s or to attend other social gatherings. The family thus tends to become increasingly socially isolated.


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