Children of Alcoholics Forced Into Adulthood

DWI mother forces her 11-year-old to breathe into ignition interlock.

ByABC News
September 10, 2008, 12:10 PM

Sept. 10, 2008 — -- "What is your emergency?" asked the 911 operator. The little boy replied, "My mom is making me blow air into her interlock."

The Albuquerque, N.M., youngster was asked to help his mother break the law and blow into her ignition interlock device to start the car. Police responded to the call this week and charged 30-year-old Genevieve Sullivan with violating her probation for drunken driving.

The 11-year-old walked a fine emotional line: He told operators he was afraid his mother would hear him and he'd get in trouble. But he was even more afraid of the consequences should his mother drive drunk.

Experts say children of alcoholics bear a heavy psychological burden for the sins of their parents. They are forced into adulthood early and spend much of their growing up years protecting themselves and their families.

"He knew at 11," said New York state psychologist Pat O'Gorman, who isn't involved with the New Mexico case. "He knew his mother was in trouble. He knew she needed help, and he knew he could provide that help."

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, nearly 14 million Americans are considered problem drinkers and 76 million are exposed to alcoholism in family settings.

Studies suggest about one in four children in the United States is exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence sometime before the age of 18, according to the Children of Alcoholics Foundation.

"Many of the popular portrayals of children of alcoholics are clearly overgeneralizations and have the potential to be harmful," said Dr. Oscar Bukstein, a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pennsylvania. "However, many grow up too soon and attempt to act as parents while their parents' alcoholism renders them childlike."

Living with an alcoholic parent can be chaotic and unpredictable. Children can feel confused, insecure and blame themselves for a parent's drinking. Few realize they cannot "cure" their parent's problem.

"If a parent, no matter how loving or well-intentioned, is in a stuck behavior, they are distracted and preoccupied and often impatient and frequently totally insensitive to the needs of the child," said David Deitch, chief clinical officer for Phoenix House, which runs treatment programs for addiction.