Q.We have a 16-month-old son and we don't know how to tell him about his grandfather when he gets older.
My husband is estranged from his father, who lives out of the area, and they have no contact at all.
I'm sure that our son will ask about his grandfather one day. Do we tell him that he has a history of alcoholism? Do we say that this is the main reason his father and his grandfather never see each other?
We want to be honest with our son but we don't want him to think that his father would ever disappear, the way his grandfather did.
A.Tell the truth to your son, because honesty is the bedrock of every family, but don't wait for him to bring up the subject. Young children seldom ask about people they've never seen before.
But when you do tell him, just give as much information as he can handle. At 2 or 3, simply say that his grandfather "lives far away," and at 4 or 5, tell him that his dad and his grandfather don't get along, so they decided not to see each other for a while. By 6 or 7, you can tell your little boy that alcohol becomes more important to some people than anything else, even their families, and that unfortunately his grandfather is one of those people.
By his preteens your son should also know that alcoholism can be inherited and that he is four times as likely to develop the disease as someone who isn't closely related to an alcoholic. Studies show that this information often encourages young adults to drink more carefully, or not at all, just as they eat more carefully if they know that heart disease runs in their family.
As important as it is to talk with your son about his grandfather's alcoholism, it's even more important to help your husband deal with its effects. Any one who has grown up with an alcoholic parent will always be somewhat damaged unless he works through his loss and pain.
You'll know your husband is still suffering if he needs approval so much that his own identity gets shaky sometimes; if he finds it hard to talk -- or even think -- about his feelings; if he judges himself harshly and has low self-esteem -- even though he may act superior and controlling at times -- and if he is compulsive about working or drinking or anything else or is addicted to excitement.
The child of an alcoholic is also sending up distress signals if he is isolated and yet dependent on others; if he is attracted by people who need to be rescued or feels so responsible for others that he forgets about his own needs; if he gives in to others because he feels guilty when he stands up for himself; or if he is afraid of authority figures, of anger and criticism, and especially of abandonment -- even now.
If your husband has only half of these characteristics, encourage him to join Adult Children of Alcoholics. To find meetings near you, go to www.AdultChildren.org.
Here other members will remind your husband, again and again, that alcoholism is a disease, not a choice, and that it is probably caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, or possibly by a metabolic problem or a hormonal or nutritional deficit or even an allergy, but it is never, ever caused by something his child did or didn't do.
Your husband also needs to hear that he couldn't help his father, because only the alcoholic can help himself, and then only with great courage and self-discipline and the humility to seek help from others. Some alcoholics become sober by joining a fellowship group, like Alcoholics Anonymous, or by turning themselves over to God or to a therapist or by making major lifestyle changes, but the road to success is never easy and the craving is never far away, especially in the first two or three years of sobriety. The alcoholic who seems so self-indulgent may really be doing the best he can.
Most of all, your husband needs to hear other ACOA members talk about their sorrows so he can get rid of his own. Only then will he be able to accept his father, for all his flaws, and perhaps introduce him to his son.
Questions? Send to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003, or to email@example.com