The impact of parental alcoholism on children: Pastoral concepts in Kerala (India) and Switzerland

Von Thomson Thannikappilly, MA

Alcohol addiction is an age-old and universal problem. Today it has been recognized as a progressive, chronic and potentially fatal disease, if unrecognized and untreated. Accordingly, there is also a concerted effort to address the issue. However, more often than not, there is little awareness and organized help for children who are greatly impaired by the negative impacts of parental alcoholism.

Addiction is not an individual problem. Even as it affects a person, it affects the individual, the community and the society as a whole. Family members, especially children are particularly vulnerable. Addiction degrades and corrupts the “family atmosphere”, which is supposed to provide a healthy environment for the growth of the total person, and the effects are devastating and far-reaching. Researches in this area are steadily increasing, but inadequate.  

Children living in families where a parent is alcoholic face a traumatic situation that has implications on their physical, social, educational, psychological and spiritual growth. Parents have little time for the children and have an unsteady relationship with the child. Extreme instability in terms of reward-punishment and frequently broken promises leads to emotional instability and loss of trust. They are very often witnesses, and not rarely, victims of verbal and physical violence including sexual abuse. Even when overwhelmed with their own problems, many of them are forced to take up parental responsibilities such as, looking after the household and taking care of the younger siblings. The stigma associated with addiction causes another problem. Stigma leads to shame, shame to withdrawal and isolation and isolation to more drinking. Children are forced to cover-up the situation, live a life of lie, shame and even guilt (many children blame themselves for the behavior of the parent). They develop low self-esteem, are confused about their emotions and have difficulty expressing them. The insecure, confused and broken person, into which the child grows into, is an easy victim to the lure of rebellion, addiction and even crime. Studies show that, 30% of the children of alcoholics take to drinks themselves, and often very early in their lives. Studies also show that, the children of alcoholics are at high risk for psychic disorders (depression, anxiety disorder, personality disorder etc…)

The damage done to the soul is as critical as it is to the body and psyche of a person. It is a cause of great concern to the church. Addiction affected families are no more the domestic churches as envisaged by the church, and they fail in their duty to provide the foundation of faith formation and a healthy value system. The child cannot understand the beauty and significance of the experience of God as a loving father or mother. The situation poses a real pastoral challenge and calls for a coordinated pastoral intervention. The aim of this intervention is to identify and reach out children of alcohol-addicted parents (which is a challenge), build up a relationship of trust and confidence and provide them a healing and nourishing environment. In this environment, the children should be able to experience love and security, which in turn will help them to confront themselves, identify their problems and speak them out without fear, shame or guilt. They should be able to find good role models, good companionship and finally a God who loves and cares.

Creating such an environment requires of the pastor/pastors, great commitment and specific pastoral skills. As mentioned before, a coordinated effort form all the available agents such as parish, school, hospital, other concerned relatives, religious communities, law enforcement and judicial systems etc. is called for.

Identifying the extent and gravity and consequences of the situation (children growing up in families with alcohol-addicted parents) in the context of Switzerland and Kerala (India) and looking into the importance of a pastoral intervention is the purpose of this study.

* This study focuses on “alcohol” because, compared to other substances alcohol is widely available and not prohibitively expensive. Its use is not only condoned by most communities, but also regarded as an important feature of family and social life.