Visiting with the Elephant in the Room

Dear Parentworks,

My mother in law has a drinking problem. It seems that she has ever since my husband was young and everyone in his family tries to act like she's not really a problem drinker or that it's no big thing on those occasions when she gets mad at family get togethers and starts yelling. Our oldest child is five and she's begun to ask questions that I simply don't know how to answer. On top of this, my mother in law is starting to notice that we let the kids have sleepovers at my parents house and not theirs and she's been starting to ask us more often why they can't come over, but I keep putting her off. I've told my husband that I think we need to be honest with the kids - but they're so young I'm not sure how or what to say. I don't want to wreck their relationship with her but I also think we need to take some kind of stand with his family. He thinks that this would all be a bad idea; no one else in his family has ever confronted his parents about their behavior and so we should just keep trying to dodge the kids and the in-laws questions. I don't know how long I can keep up the pretense.

- Dreading Visiting the In-Laws

Dear Dreading,

There is an expression that has traditionally been used when people refer to some of the denial and avoidance that occurs in families of alcoholism; "The elephant in the living room". It's hard to ignore an elephant in your living room (the huge problem of alcoholism) but the family will "pretend" it's not there by refusing to acknowledge it, not talking about it and in many cases feeling anger toward anyone who might even suggest there is something there. A key component with alcoholism is denial and secrecy - for if a problem is noticed then something might have to be done about it.

Growing up in a home where these are the basic family rules is very difficult. A child is often told that what they see, what they think and what they feel is wrong..."Your dad missed worked again because he is sick today" (not hung over again), "Stop asking me what that funny smell on my breath is - I just want to give you a kiss" (when a child recoils from the stale odor of alcohol). This may be a large part of the life your husband grew up in and he may have never dealt with or worked through his own feelings about what that was like for him. In some families the child can't wait to grow up and leave home and thereby "run away" from these issues - but out of sight isn't a lasting resolution. Often it isn't until someone has their own children and sees from a different perspective the effect this family denial can have on their own children and only then do they even begin to realize how confusing these messages can be for a child.

You and your husband need to make some decisions. Part of your job as parents is to protect your children from situations which could be damaging or harmful to them. Teaching them the importance of trusting their feelings and learning skills to protect themselves is also in a loving, healthy parent's job description. These may not have been the lessons your husband received as a child but he may have chosen you as a spouse to help him see this as a chance to learn new parenting skills.

Many people consider counseling at this time because the challenges of, essentially,  re-parenting yourself, while you learn to appropriately teach your own children healthy skills can feel a bit overwhelming. "It is difficult to teach what you do not know" is an old saying that fits here and only through addressing these issues will your family - you, your husband and your children break the cycle of denial and secrecy for yourselves. You must both realize that it is not your job nor your goal to teach or change the rest of his family. Any efforts on your family's part to notice "the elephant", change things the way they've always been or do things differently they will likely be met with resentment or anger. Large scale family changes involve a number of loved ones agreeing about the problem and working together for a process called "intervention" and that is way beyond the scale of your question. Also organizations such as Adult Children of Alcoholics help adults and children who are struggling to deal with their own feelings about living or coping with an alcoholic. Their web site is www.adultchildren.org .

Again, it will be up to you and your husband to decide how to proceed regarding your own children but here are a couple of possibilities to get your conversations going. If you decide to continue visiting his family, you both - as the adults, should monitor the emotional level at these gatherings and as soon as it slightly seems as though things might start heating up - get going! Don't stay for the mild arguing let alone wait for the full blown yelling - you and your children don't need to be their audience and your children are only learning negative conflict patterns. Don't make a scene out of leaving.

Secondly, I suggest you honor your daughter's questions about what she is witnessing. Sometimes adults go into big, overblown answers to a child's simple question - and often they are answering more that what the child is really asking. Use simple, straightforward answers and let her know you see that she is curious or worried or whatever the feeling is behind her question, you can let her know you sometimes feel the same way about grandma.

Just like you probably read to your daughter about a variety of other topics, you might choose to get a book from the library or buy a book (since you have other kids which will also need help with this at some point). At the bottom of Parentworks.com BOOKS section there is a link to Amazon.com. They are usually a really good book resource. There are not a lot of books specifically for your daughter's age but I did a search and came up with the following you might want to consider. These were the only ones indicated for this young age and though the Amazon site has reviews and descriptions I have not read these myself and are not therefore on the Parentworks.com recommended list.

“Elephant in the Living Room: The Children’s Book” by Jill Hastings and Marian Typpo for ages 4-8 $9.60

“Kids Power: Healing Games for Children of Alcoholics” by Jerry Moe & Don Pohlman ages 6-12 but indicated could be OK for younger kids $9.95

“Dear Kids of Alcoholics” by Lindsey Hall & Leigh Cohen for 4-8 years $8.95

The challenge for your family to break the cycle of alcoholic secrecy is a noble one and it is one from which your children will benefit immensely. This will not be easy but it is very important and your children are lucky that you are choosing to do things differently in your own family.