What to tell kids about an alcoholic relative

January 31, 2012

Q. We have two children, ages 3 and 5, with another on the way, and we are faced with a very difficult situation. Many of my husband’s relatives are severely addicted to alcohol, and some are addicted to drugs as well.

Currently we are struggling with his mother’s alcoholism, and it isn’t going well. While we are doing the best we can, I have two big concerns for the future.

At some point, possibly soon, we will have to explain her condition to our kids because we won’t be able to hide it. I don’t want to push her away, however. She would surely be offended if she knew that we had told them about it, even if we didn’t call it a disease.

I just want my children to understand that Grandma does have some difficult problems but that we love her and that they really don’t have to protect her, even though the 5-year-old heard her father and her grandmother having an argument.

I also want to talk to them about alcohol when they reach an appropriate age so they will be aware of its effects and of the role it has played in their family history. How can I get them to take my concerns seriously without scaring them silly?


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

A. Alcoholism won’t scare your children as long as you continue to be as kind and loving to their grandmother as you are right now.

You can do this best if you and your husband consider her behavior in the past so you’ll know when and where to visit with her in the future:

Which venue brings out the best in her? The worst? What sets her off?

When does she take her first drink of the day? Her last?

Can the four of you meet her for lunch at a food court or some other place where alcohol isn’t served, such as story hour at the library? Should you see her at her house or yours, but for a shorter length of time? Perhaps you can ask her to come over for cake and coffee instead of dinner.

These suggestions may seem stingy to you, but they will probably be a relief to your mother-in-law. Alcoholics don’t want to be embarrassed by their behavior any more than you want to be around it.

But the time may come, if it hasn’t already, when your mother-in-law won’t be able to hide her need for a drink, even when she’s around her grandchildren. At that point you’ll have to explain her addiction to them, not at your age level, but at theirs.

Tell them that nobody ever wants to be an alcoholic; that alcoholism flowers in some people but not in others; and that Grandma just drew the wrong straw. And then add this reassuring fact: It won’t happen to them, because you’re going to teach them how to avoid the problem, no matter what straw they draw.

As your children get older, you’ll need to repeat this information occasionally, adding more and more data to the mix so they learn about alcohol long before they’re tempted to drink anything stronger than a milkshake.

Your children need to grow up knowing that a single shot of 86 proof whiskey, a five-ounce glass of wine and a 12-ounce beer all contain the same amount of alcohol. You’ll tell them that a fourth of all alcoholics develop the problem before their 25th birthday and that the rest of them usually succumb to it in midlife or after they’ve retired. Your kids should also know that they’ll have to be extra careful if they decide to drink one day because anyone whose grandparent, parent, aunt or uncle is an alcoholic is four times as likely to become one, too.

These facts may seem scary to you, but your children should know them before someone offers them their first drink, which often happens in a child’s 13th or 14th year. Above all, they should know that alcoholism is a terminal disease, which is the scariest fact of all, but, one hopes, also a sobering one.

When the drinking age went up from 18 to 21, the drinking on college campuses went way up, too. You can’t count on it, but a little information, and a little fear, might make the drinking rate go down again. Maybe.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent online Q&A hosted by Marguerite Kelly. Her next live chat is scheduled for Feb. 23.

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