Children of Alcoholics and Shame

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Common sense dictates that children of alcoholics will experience psychological difficulties as a result of their parent’s substance abuse. Understandably, social scientists started out with this same assumption, partially based on experience with clinical patients with alcoholic parents. Part of this assumption has been challenged, and even debunked or modified, but there are still many possible negative consequences of alcoholic parentage that require examination.

Early theory surmised that adult children of alcoholics (ACAs or ACOAs) would experience a variety of psychological symptoms, and these symptoms were labeled “codependency” by an emerging “ACOA” movement. The codependent person was described as “overly-controlled, hypervigilant, untrusting individual who tends to deny feelings while experiencing chronic guilt” ((Jarmas & Kazak, 1992)). However, a study by (George, et al 1999) examined a nonclinical sample and found that students self-reporting alcoholic parentage did not differ from controls on the key traits of the codependent personality. This same study also found that, contrary to popular belief, alcoholic parentage did not seem to raise the likelihood of substance abuse. Along with another study by (Wright & Heppner 1991)) that found that ACAs did not differ from controls in substance abuse, coping, problem solving, interpersonal relationships, general shame, or suicidal ideation, and a similar study by (Judith Hadley et al 1993), the George study created the appearance that there were not actually any substantial negative consequences of parental drinking.

However, a 2003 study shed light on the past failures to empirically observe the effects of alcoholic parentage: (El-Sheikh & Buckhalt 2003) found that parental alcoholism did seem to have some negative effects, but they did not show up in the previous comparisons because they were mediated and moderated by parental attachment and family functioning. That is, a well-attached and functional family acted as a buffer that protected children from the negative effects of alcoholism, while negative attachments and a dysfunctional family were pathways to problems as a result of being a child of an acloholic. Therefore, though the negative effects of parental alcoholism are not clearly defined, there is still reason to believe that they exist.

Despite the findings of Wright & Heppner and Hadley et al, it would seem to the casual observer that a child of an alcoholic would in some sense feel more shame than a similar child of a non-alcoholic. One of the factors examined in both of these studies was shame, but neither group of researchers found a link between parental alcoholism and shame. However, these researchers were searching only for very general feelings of shame or rates of internalized shame. In effect, they measured constructs that were very different from specific feelings of shame about the parental alcoholism itself and the vicarious sense of shame that may accompany it. Since they were not looking for this specific shame, they naturally did not find it. We think, based on theory and research on the phenomenon of stigmatization, that children of alcoholics will exhibit symptoms of and experience negative effects from shame and guilt that is specifically related to their parent’s alcoholism and the associated stigma, even though they do not appear to feel unusually high levels of general or internalized shame.

“Stigma” is derived from the word “stigmata”, which literally means “mark,” and can be defined as a fundamental way in which one is discredited or even dehumanized. Though it has not been empirically observed, it is easy to imagine how a child of an alcoholic would suffer from a certain degree of such discrediting and dehumanization due to his or her alcoholic parentage. In fact, the symptoms of a stigmatization would be especially hard to identify in a general comparison (like the studies cited above) between children of alcoholics and children of non-alcoholics because research has found that, rather than stigmatization resulting in inevitable deep-seated negative psychological consequences, it instead simply presents its victims with a specific set of psychological predicaments, which they then cope with using the same strategies as those used by non-stigmatized individuals when they are confronted with psychological challenges such as threats to self-esteem.

Understanding of the degree to which stigmatization and vicarious shame and guilt affect the children of alcoholics would lead to a better overall understanding of the consequences of alcoholic parentage, and thus open the door to improved methods of treating those suffering from such consequences.

Also see...

(Owen, Rosenberg, & Barkley, 1985) Bottled-up children: A group treatment for children of alcoholics Volume: 9 Issue: 3 Page: 31 Date: 1985 - Group

Adult children of alcoholics "Heirs of shame", 92nd APA Toronto

Title: (Healing shame in adult children of alcholics ACOAs 1991) Author(s): Upcraft, Kathleen M.

(Children of Alcoholics: A School-Based Comparative Study 1999) - Connie K. Morey , Seattle University Journal of drug education [0047-2379] Morey yr:1999 vol:29 iss:1 pg:63 -75

Article: Coping among Nonclinical College-Age Children of Alcoholics. Author: Wright, DM Journal: Journal of counseling psychology ISSN: 0022-0167 Volume: 38 Issue: 4 Page: 565 Date: 1991


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