Despite impressive gains in recent years, children of alcoholics are still forgotten.

Alcoholism is considered a family illness, and although some attention is given to the spouse, and possibly an adolescent child, most treatment programs focus on the alcoholic.

"Mostly," says Rokelle Lerner, cofounder and director of Children Are People Inc., St. Paul, Minn., "the rest of the family gets left out."

Lerner's program is part of a growing movement to treat the entire family -- especially young children -- touched by alcoholism and to continue treatment of the family beyond the time when the alcoholic begins recovery.

Young children, she says, may not even be told where the alcoholic parent and spouse are going when they leave home for a treatment program. What does that say to the child? she asks. That the child's recovery, the child's self-esteem, is going to have to wait so that the alcoholic can get better. "That replicates exactly what's going on in the alcoholic home."

Lerner acknowledges that the movement to intervene with young children of alcoholics is beginning to take off, but adds, "Something still is very, very wrong." On her visits to family treatment programs around the country Lerner says she is reminded of the "lovely old lady" in the Wendy's hamburger commercials who yells, "Where's the beef?"

"I walk in the door, look around and want to say, 'Where are the kids? Where's the family?' Because they're not there."

That children of alcoholics need help dealing with their feelings and individual situations is clear. This largely silent, troubled group of children often feels:

* Guilty and responsible for their parents' alcoholism.

* Unloved and basically invisible, since the attention of the entire household seems to revolve around the alcoholic.

* Insecure, anxious and fearful because of the unpredictable and inconsistent behavior on the part of the drinking parent.

* Anxiety that the drinking parent may become ill and die.

* Ashamed and isolated, incapable of seeking or accepting help from peers and adult outsiders because of the stigma of alcoholism.

Young children of alcohol abusers may:

* Have few friends, for fear of letting them in on the family "secret."

* Be truant or delinquent.

* Be prone to learning disorders, attempted and successful suicides, eating disorders -- bulemia and anorexia nervosa, for example -- and unhealthy overachievement, academically, athletically and in and around the home.

* Conversely, do poorly in school.

* Use drugs or alcohol themselves.

"The greatest sin of all," says Lerner, "may be the mutilation of the child's spirit." The child may learn that asking for what he needs brings disaster, so he learns, very early on, to act grown up and pretend he doesn't need anything. Or he may never grow up at all.

These children says Lerner, are the ones who "have to painfully label themselves 'adult children of alcoholics' later on in their lives."

The five most critical things she says these children need to know: Alcoholism is not "bad," but an illness; their parent's alcoholism is not their fault; Mom or Dad need special help and there is nothing they can do to fix Mom or Dad; they, the children, are affected and need to get some help for themselves, and fifth (and often forgotten), alcoholics can, and do, recover.

Children of alcoholics, the experts agree, need to learn how to forgive and how to let go. They need to learn that while they cannot help their alcoholic parents by themselves, they can do some things to help themselves.

Children, says Lerner, suffer what she calls developmental sabotage in alcoholic homes and a major goal in treating children is "to help them master their developmental tasks, to catch them up. The longer we wait to do that, the harder it becomes."

Another basic thing to remember, says Lerner: "We have all the data and statistics, and we don't have to fool around this issue any more, that there is most probably a biochemical and genetic propensity toward alcoholism." The most common reason for not helping the children of alcoholics is "denial" -- statements like "We don't have a problem here." "We can't afford a children's program." The point is, insists Lerner, the problem is soluble.

Al Dicken, coordinator of the Student Service Center of the West Bloomfield (Mich.) Schools, began working with Sis Wenger, of Sis Wenger and Associates, four years ago to develop an effective counseling program within his school system.

Starting at the top and working down, they spent about a year doing extensive preliminary education within the system. Ultimately, says Dicken, "We had every administrator, secretary, teacher, teacher's aide, bus driver, custodian. Everybody that has any contact with the kids.

"The problem starts with the family, then the community, then the school. The schools are at the top of the solution."

The counseling programs, say Dicken and Wenger, help the students understand the situation, "that while incurable, there is hope. They also can learn to live self-directed, constructive lives.

"We can't change what's going on at home," says Dicken, "but we sure can help them with some of the pain. We can help them with their basic survival skills. We can help those kids keep from falling into the same thing as their parents."

sw sk Wenger also is closely associated with counseling programs backed by the Junior Leagues of Detroit and Birmingham and is spreading the idea to Junior League branches across the country. She's also got the Elks involved in Michigan and has hopes that organization will go nationwide with their program.

"We're not scratching the surface yet," says Wenger. "The education program never stops, for the school people, the community people, clergy, parents, across the spectrum. You educate the educators, educate the advocators."

"Everyone can make a difference," says Claudia Black, chairman of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, which last month held its second annual conference in Crystal City.

* The children of alcoholics, she says, often grow up as survivors of childhood rather than having been nurtured by it. But with proper professional help, say Black and other experts, those children can overcome emotional hangovers from their childhood traumas and become functional, effective, content parents and adults.