A common mistake when working with an alcoholic family is to assume that once the drinking stops things will get better. Yet when the alcoholic stops drinking the family again faces a crisis and time of transition. Such crises can lead to growth and positive changes, but not automatically or inevitably. In the alcoholic family there has been a long period of storing up anger, of mistrust and miscommunication. This may have been the children’s only experience of family life. At times children who previously were well behaved may begin acting out when a parent becomes sober. Children may feel that earlier their father loved alcohol more than them, and that now he loves AA more. He may have stopped drinking, but in the children’s eyes they’re still in second place.
Recovering families have a number of tasks to accomplish before they return to healthy functioning. They must strengthen generational boundaries. They must reassume age- and sex-appropriate roles in the family. They must learn to communicate in direct and honest ways with one another. They must learn to trust one another. And finally they must learn to express both anger and love appropriately.
It might be expected, if one considers the family as a unit, that there are stages or patterns of a family’s recovery from alcoholism. This has not yet been adequately studied. No one has developed a “valley chart” that plots family disintegration and recovery. Counselors who have had considerable involvement with families of recovering alcoholics have noticed and are now beginning to discuss some common themes of the family’s recovery.
One observation suggests that the family unit may experience growth pains that parallel those facing the alcoholic. It has long been a part of the folk wisdom that the alcoholic’s psychological and emotional growth ceases when the heavy drinking begins. So when sobriety comes, the alcoholic is going to have to face some growing-up issues that the drinking prevented him from attending to. In the family system, what may be the equivalent of this Rip Van Winkle experience? Consider an example of a family in which the father is an alcoholic, whose heavy drinking occurred during his children’s adolescence, and who begins recovery just as the children are entering adulthood. If he was basically “out of it” during their teenage years, they grew up as best they could, without very much fathering from him. When he “comes to,” they are no longer children but adults. In effect, he was deprived of an important chunk of family life. There may be regrets. There may be unrealistic expectations on the father’s part about his present relationship with his children. There may be inappropriate attempts by him to “make it up,” regain the missing part. Depending on the situation, the counselor may need to help him grieve. There may be the need to help him recognize that his expectations are not in keeping with his children’s adult status. He may be able to find other outlets to experience a parenting role or reestablish and enjoy appropriate contacts with his children.