They may never drink a drop of alcohol, but the psychological hangover can last a lifetime.

Families of alcoholics, too, are caught in a web of addiction. For each alcoholic, four or five other people -- mostly family members -- are affected. As the saying goes in alcohol treatment circles, the alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, the nondrinking spouse is addicted to the alcoholic, and the children are left to fend for themselves.

Alcohol experts caution against labeling a family in which one person has a drinking problem as "sick," but in the alcoholic family culture, "the beliefs, the values, the family rules all have to be twisted a little bit in order to be adapted to the drinking," says Dr. Genevieve Ames, a medical anthropologist and study director at the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, Calif.

Over time, these patterns become engrained and begin to take a toll. "The hallmark of the alcoholic family is isolation," says Tarpley Richards Long, a Washington social worker whose practice specializes in helping families struggling with alcoholism. "There is isolation from feelings, isolation from family members who don't talk about the problem -- and then there is isolation from the world at large."

As the drinking worsens, the alcoholic family may gradually drop out of society. Fearful of being embarrassed, the children and the couple "stop inviting friends over," says Richards, who serves on the board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA). "The non-alcoholic spouse becomes totally cut off from family and friends" -- a pattern of behavior that inadvertently establishes the perfect environment for the alcoholic to continue drinking. "The family does not do this in a conscious way," Long says. "The family's motivation is to conceal their embarrassment, their shame, their humiliation and their anger {about the alcoholic}. It's to keep those kinds of feelings at bay."

Denial is another way alcoholic families help enable the alcoholic to keep drinking. When a wife covers for her hung-over husband by calling his job and reporting that he is "sick" and can't work, her behavior enables him to keep drinking. When a son says, "My mother is busy and can't come to the phone right now" when she is passed out on the couch, he, too, helps her keep drinking.

In the process, family members learn to deny their feelings about the alcoholic's binges, because "it becomes too painful and overwhelming," Long says.

In a two-year, intensive study of eight women who were alcoholics and their husbands and children, the Prevention Center's Ames found that families went through distinct stages in dealing with the alcoholic. "At first, the family members were busy hiding bottles," Ames says. "Then they tried to talk her out of drinking. Then they punished her by treating her like a child." The final stage was marked by ignoring the alcoholic mother.

In each of these families, the husbands and children took "such great efforts to protect the mother from the outside world that they also inhibited her from getting help."

But in "protecting" the alcoholic, the family also runs the risk of setting in motion a cycle of addictive behavior that may continue for generations.

These patterns are so strong that even when the parent stops drinking, children may still feel confused, ashamed -- and alone. "Many children think that their parents have joined a cult," says social worker Philip Oliver-Diaz, director of Children-at-Risk Parent's Support Project in New York's Rockland and Orange counties. "Their parents go into a rehab program and come out talking in slogans. They go to AA {Alcoholics Anonymous} and nobody has a last name."

The alcoholic parent is little more available to the child than before because of all the AA meetings, and now even the nondrinking parent is out a lot at Al-Anon meetings. "For the children, it's like the invasion of the body snatchers," says Oliver-Diaz.

Children also harbor anger against the non-alcoholic parent. "Children are usually more angry at the non-alcoholic parent because of the neglect," says Long. "But there is a reluctance for them to show their anger at the nonalcoholic parent because they fear they will be left with no one." ::

Aristotle recognized the alcoholic link between generations as did the Greek philosopher Plutarch. But in this century, only the past decade has brought about an awareness of the unwelcome legacy faced by children of alcoholics. There are an estimated 28 million children of alcoholics in the United States today who must often survive on denial, cope with inconsistency and with family trauma long before they truly understand the meaning of the word alcoholism.

Children of alcoholics span the social strata from the White House to the welfare rolls. They help populate the nation's prisons. But more often they are also the superachievers striving to overcome their family problems by excelling as honor students, varsity team players or members of the student council.

The goal today is to identify children of alcoholics and help them understand that they are not alone and that they do not have to repeat the destructive patterns of their parents. "There's a chance to break the legacy," says Washington stockbroker Frank Rothgeb, 40, who has three generations of alcoholism in his family and has successfully battled his own addictions to alcohol and drugs. "I promise you that I don't feel like my father {who was also an alcoholic}. But when I catch myself doing the same things that I saw my father do, then I know that I need other people around me to help."

Whether their parents are rich or poor, children of alcoholics share feelings of shame, anger, self-blame and insecurity. Outwardly, the children of alcoholics play the masquerade of denial with expertise. Inwardly, they often question their sanity.

"When these children wake up after a night of their parent's drinking, they say, 'It was really terrible last night,' but they are told, 'No, it really wasn't as bad as you think,' " says Oliver-Diaz.

As these children grow up, they stumble over poor self-images and blame themselves for their parents' drinking.

"You're sure that whatever happened in your home was your fault," says Cathleen Brooks, head of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) and author of "The Secret Everyone Knows" -- a book for young children of alcoholics.

Yet rarely does the outside world learn of the tormenting problems children of alcoholics face. Children of alcoholics understand at a very young age that they are co-conspirators, bent on shielding their family secret from the rest of the world.

"The message that I got all the time, is, 'Don't tell anyone what's going on,' " says Rothgeb. "I can remember when we were going over to relatives' houses, the message was, 'Please don't let them know what's going on. We want to appear strong and good and whole.' That really had an effect on me. It demolished me, so that I wouldn't talk to anybody about the shame and the guilt and the anger I was feeling."

Many children of alcoholics develop skills to make it through childhood and adolescence, although sometimes their self-styled coping methods backfire and set them up for future trouble.

In many alcoholic families a child will assume adult responsibilities at an early age. These youngsters balance checkbooks, pay bills, shop, cook, clean and care for younger siblings while their peers play Little League or attend Girl Scouts.

"The child is often caught in the whole web and has learned enabling behaviors and can protect the adult for a long time," says Dr. Mary Ann Eells, a family therapist, who practices in Columbia, Md., and teaches at the University of Maryland's School of Nursing in Baltimore. "They cook meals and even collect paychecks. These children become parents of their own parents."

Family therapist Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse of Onsite Training and Consulting in Rapid City, S.D., describes how children in families where one member has a disabling problem such as alcoholism may fall into four general categories: family hero, scapegoat, lost child and mascot.

In the Wegscheider-Cruse model, the family hero is the most predominant role and is frequently assumed by the oldest child. These children are the overachievers. The flip side is that as adults, they may run a higher risk of workaholism, marital difficulties, depression and substance abuse.

For the scapegoat in an alcoholic family, "acting bad" means getting attention. These are the youngsters who may experiment early with cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol and maybe even crack. In their own way, these children offer a quick fix for the alcoholic family: by being arrested, getting pregnant, struggling with their own drug or alcohol problems or running away from home, they take pressure off the drinking parent and unite the family against another problem.

"These behaviors are all just coping mechanisms," says NACOA's Brooks, the daughter of two alcoholics, who fought and won her own battle with alcoholism before age 23 and who now counsels others at Next Step in San Diego, Calif.

Lost children, meanwhile, survive by distancing themselves from family problems. These children seem independent, detached, able to take the family's turmoil as it comes. In fact, these youngsters learn to cut family ties so well that they may have trouble ever forming close relationships.

Youngest children in substance-abusing families often take on the role of mascot. "This is the child that tries to hold the family together through teasing or being cute," Wegscheider-Cruse says.

These categories are useful as a guide to different types of behavior -- not as stereotypes to describe individual children, says Wegscheider-Cruse. ::

Family counselors find that the pain of parental alcoholism can be eased very effectively with education about the addiction and self-help. Most important, children can be helped whether or not the alcoholic parent stops drinking.

"We provide children with information about things that they do not yet understand, such as an {alcoholic} blackout," says social worker Moorehouse. "Many kids feel that mom doesn't love me because she always breaks promises. In fact, mom has a blackout and doesn't really remember what she promised. We teach them that it's not that mom is going crazy, that she is experiencing a blackout, and that she loves them but has a chronic, progressive disease."

Instructing children about alcoholism also "tells them that they are not alone and they are not crazy," Moorehouse says.

Yet despite the stresses, members in many alcoholic families are able to provide emotional warmth and strength to each other. These survivor families tend to be "those that are able to keep their rituals intact," says Dr. Linda Bennett, an anthropologist who studies alcoholic families at Memphis State University in Tenn and co-author of "The Alcoholic Family." "By that, we mean those that can keep the holidays and dinners and vacations and the other things that the family values intact over the course of the alcoholic's drinking."