Alcoholism in family systems refers to the conditions in families that enable alcoholism, and the effects of alcoholic behavior by one or more family members on the rest of the family. Mental health professionals are increasingly considering alcoholism and addiction as diseases that flourish in and are enabled by family systems. Family members react to the alcoholic with particular behavioral patterns. They may enable the addiction to continue by shielding the addict from the negative consequences of his actions. Such behaviors are referred to as codependence. In this way, the alcoholic is said to suffer from the disease of addiction, whereas the family members suffer from the disease of codependence.
Alcoholism is one of the leading causes of a dysfunctional family. As of 2001, there were an estimated 26.8 million children of alcoholics (COAs) in the United States, with as many as 11 million of them under the age of 18. Children of addicts have an increased suicide rate and on average have total health care costs 32 percent greater than children of nonalcoholic families.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, physicians stated three criteria to diagnose this disease: (1) physiological problems, such as hand tremors and blackouts, (2) psychological problems, such as excessive desire to drink, and (3) behavioral problems that disrupt social interaction or work performance.
Adults from alcoholic families experience higher levels of state and trait anxiety and lower levels of differentiation of self than adults raised in non-alcoholic families. Additionally, adult children of alcoholics have lower self-esteem, excessive feelings of responsibility, difficulties reaching out, higher incidence of depression, and increased likelihood of becoming alcoholics.
Parental alcoholism may affect the fetus even before a child is born. In pregnant women, alcohol is carried to all of the mother’s organs and tissues, including the placenta, where it easily crosses through the membrane separating the maternal and fetal blood systems. When a pregnant woman drinks an alcoholic beverage, the concentration of alcohol in her unborn baby’s bloodstream is the same level as her own. A pregnant woman who consumes alcohol during her pregnancy may give birth to a baby with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) is known to produce children with damage to the central nervous system, general growth and facial features. The prevalence of this class of disorder is thought to be between 2-5 per 1000.
Alcoholism does not have uniform effects on all families. The levels of dysfunction and resiliency of the non-alcoholic adults are important factors in effects on children in the family. Children of untreated alcoholics score lower on measures of family cohesion, intellectual-cultural orientation, active-recreational orientation, and independence. They have higher levels of conflict within the family, and many experience other family members as distant and non-communicative. In families with untreated alcoholics, the cumulative effect of the family dysfunction may affect the children's ability to grow in developmentally healthy ways.
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