“It must be my fault”

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, May 22, 2005
Originally titled “Too Many Children Suffer in Silence”

Although many people are aware of the effects of alcohol abuse on family and friends, missing from this equation is a child’s reaction to a parent who drinks too much.

Young children have a difficult time understanding why their mother or father’s behaviour and actions can be so hurtful to them. Their questions and concerns often go unanswered because often alcohol abuse remains a family secret that no one wants to talk about.

The child’s fears and worries grow when no answers are forthcoming or the information provided to them is incomplete. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), affiliated with the University of Toronto, cites research that shows children have many questions about their parents’ substance use or mental health but there is a lack of resources to help explain these problems to them.

A new storybook produced by CAMH entitled Wishes and Worries: A story to help children understand a parent who drinks too much alcohol, was released in April 2005 and written for five to ten year-old children.

Dr. Bruce Ballon, a psychiatrist in CAMH’s Youth and Addiction program and part of the writing team states that most children think that they cannot talk to anyone about their parent’s drinking problem. However, it is a subject that should be talked about and there is support available.

The storybook’s premise is to help children understand that they are not to blame for their parent’s drinking problem and behaviours. Children, for lack of information and understanding will usually blame themselves for the problem; they must be doing something wrong. They will come to the conclusion that somehow they must have upset their mother or father or that they are unlovable. If left to fester, it can affect their self-esteem and mood potentially leading to other problems later in life.

Indeed, Ballon points out that some may develop problems forging strong and healthy relationships or end up blaming themselves for other people’s actions because of the environment they grew up in. They also may be predisposed either genetically or due to their environment to use drugs or alcohol in response to stressful life events. Early intervention or prevention is the key to address these issues.

Wishes and Worries tells the story of Maggie, an eight year-old girl, who has experienced one disappointment and embarrassment after another because of her father’s drinking. With her ninth birthday coming up, she is worried that he will ruin her party as he did on her eight birthday. She feels quite sad and unsure of what is happening and blames herself for his behaviour. Throughout the story she learns that there are friends, family members and professionals who are available to help her understand her father’s alcohol abuse.

The book is beautifully illustrated and well written. Prior to the story’s introduction there is a page that contains information for parents about the book and they can use it to help their children understand alcoholism. The following page is designed for children and provides information about a parent who drinks and lists the different people they can talk to about their fears and concerns.

It will generate a good discussion between you and your child.

The storybook can be purchased from CAMH by calling 1-800-661-1111 or on-line at www.camh.net.

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2005

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