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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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December 13th, 2009

What Works: When a parent is an alcoholic or addict

Making the best of a bad situation


The Drunk, lithograph; George Bellows, 1923

'The Drunk'; George Bellows, 1923

Are you going home for Christmas with trepidation because it means dealing with a drunken parent? Are you not going home for Christmas because, after years of discomfort, you’re not willing to put up with it anymore?

Ever since I first wrote about alcoholism and addiction in the What Works column (Am I An Alcoholic?, Spiritual Recovery), people have asked about a parallel issue — when a friend, family member or partner is an addict or alcoholic. It’s too big a topic to cover in a single column, so for this family holiday, I’ll tackle the most relevant part of it: a parent who’s an alcoholic or addict.

Before my parents passed away, Christmas meant visiting their home. And, among other things, dealing with my dad’s alcoholism. My dad was usually a pretty harmless drunk, getting gradually mellower and eventually passing out. But occasionally he would get rageful instead. And though he never resorted to physical violence, that is all too common a result when alcohol simultaneously fuels anger and loosens inhibitions. (Being of a mix of pilgrim and pioneer stock, my parents’ form of punishment was not violence but shunning — the silent treatment — which could last for days.)

But family holidays meant more drinking than usual, and it meant my dad stayed up and engaged. This combination meant an “incident” or two — of anger or inappropriateness — was likely.


All families are dysfunctional in various ways. We’re all flawed. But when a parent is an alcoholic or addict, it can pour gasoline on the mix. Perhaps the most difficult issue is unpredictability. Will the parent be mellow or rageful, happy or depressed? Having the rules shift under your feet creates a lack of feeling safe. You can think you’re OK, and next thing you know, you’re being yelled at. You can think you deserve to be in trouble and have it totally overlooked.

This unpredictability and the seeming arbitrariness of authority figures can also damage a child’s respect for them. From a pretty early age, I was aware that my father’s reasoning abilities were worse than my own (when he was drunk), removing most of the incentive to follow his rules or respect his guidance. Children need and want structure — not harsh or cruel structure — but an appropriate predictable framework.

You might have heard the term “adult child of an alcoholic/addict,” abbreviated as either ACOA or ACA. There is a whole subculture in the recovery movement devoted to it, though it was much bigger in the 80s. Unfortunately, much of the support out there is unhelpful — amounting to little more than feeding a sense of victimhood.

True forgiveness, true recovery

True recovery from the damage of growing up in an addictive home comes from getting to a place where it no longer continues to harm you. “Resentment” comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, and it literally means to re-feel an incident from the past. The only one being harmed is you. And as Rick Warren said so crisply, “Delay only deepens resentments and makes matters worse. In conflict, time heals nothing; it causes hurts to fester.” The damage to family relationships caused by harms done in the past rarely fades on its own.

The reason most people never let go of the hurt done by an parent is that they never take the essential step of forgiveness. That’s not surprising; forgiveness is hard. But forgiveness is not excusing what happened or defending it. To forgive means to let go of the desire to punish, to look past the harms done and see that of God within the other person. To put it bluntly, the alcoholic or addict parent did they best they could. The “best they could” may not have been good enough — it may have been inexcusable — but it was still the best they could. This is a difficult concept, especially if the harm they did crosses the line from bad parenting into violence or incest. And I’m not suggesting anyone put themselves in a situation they consider unsafe. But if, through prayer and meditation and spiritual counseling, you are able to see the parent as a damaged soul like you, then you can start to let go of the past and not be controlled by it anymore. Because ultimately the point is not what they did; the point is how you can live happily today.

With a decade of self-help work under my belt, I was stuck in a place where I was controlled by my resentments and hurts with my parents. And I had plenty of ammunition. At the height of my father’s alcoholism, he threw me out of the house in a rage at 15 while my codependent mother stood by, and I lived on the streets of New York as a homeless teenager. This would seem unforgivable. It was certainly inexcusable and, I think, illegal. But after deeper spiritual work I can wholeheartedly say that I forgive them. I know they didn’t see any other option, and I see how painful it was for them too.

Most people, instead, keep re-feeling the hurt, nurturing their resentments with a sense of entitlement until in many cases the relationship is nearly or completely severed. Unfortunately, in many ACOA circles, this is celebrated as taking care of yourself.

But what about current harms?

Of course, I’ve been talking about letting go of past harms. But what about the current ones? What if visiting your parents for Christmas means submitting to new abuse? This is where the typical self-help counsel sometimes makes sense. Familial responsibility should not mean putting up with incessant verbal attacks or worse.

In my own case, though, visits in later years were marred mostly by minor incidents — seeing my dad fall over while everyone pretended they hadn’t noticed (it’s called denial, people), or putting up with a brief drunken argument. If the alcoholic parent’s behavior is more annoying or disturbing than it is hurtful, maybe you can let it slide. In my article last year about dealing with political conflict at family holiday events, which was reprinted this Thanksgiving, I offered some suggestions of how to make the best of the situation. In the sidebar on the right, I pull a few ideas from it and add a few more ways to make the best of spending holidays with alcoholic or addict parents.

Parented by God

The damage of an inconsistent, untrustworthy or unrespectable parent has another dimension. Many with such backgrounds find it hard to embrace the idea that they are loved and cared for by the ultimate authority figure, especially when the metaphor used to talk about God is that of a parent. Why would you turn your heart and soul over to the care of God the Father when your only experience of a being parented is not trustworthy?

Self-help often talks about self-parenting the damaged inner child. I’m talking about something else entirely. Both relationships — that between you and your parent, and that between you and God — can be repaired together. Compassionately seeing our parent as a flawed child of God who may not have had the tools to be a decent parent, we let ourselves be parented by God, humbly submitting to His divine grace moving within us, guiding us to become the adult we were meant to be. In this way, no longer needing from our parent what they cannot give, we can build a new relationship with them, free of resentments over their shortcomings.

Have you found other ways to make the best of spending holidays in an alcoholic home? Or of repairing the relationship with a parent? Has a childhood with an addicted parent hurt your relationship with God? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Julie Chlarson

    As I read your article again tonight I think back to the family gatherings of the last few years and recall that my siblings were a part of the on-going drama of a family entangled in addiction. Practicing patience and tolerance and setting limits for myself were part of my survival kit. I would not fuel the fire and if things got too out of control, which they sometimes did; I would leave, taking my children with me.
    One other thing for those of us who do use a support group or 12-step program: I always check out ahead of time when and where the nearest meeting is so I can “go to a meeting” and get some balance if needed. I always made an arrangement with my sponsor or a close friend to be able to call them on the phone if I needed to talk, and I used my Spiritual Director as a sounding board for how to keep the spirit of the holidays central. My mother has passed and my father lives across the country and sadly, none of my siblings have any contact with me or each other; so our opportunity for healing has passed. I still pray on a daily basis for all of us to be healed and protected. It is true, in my opinion, that addiction is a family disease and it will continue to cause us harm unless we continue to work on our recovery.
    Thanks again Phil for writing a great spiritually oriented point of view.

  • Zbridget

    I can relate to how as a child, your respect for your parents were damaged when you realized you could outreason them at a young age.

    My daughter is 8, my husband has been sober for almost 2 months and he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t respect him. I get to play referee.

    I have resisted going to AlAnon meetings because I don’t really need to join in a pity party about how my life stinks. My husband has been attending AA and meeting great supportive people, and taking it one day at a time. Perhaps that is what my family needs to do as well.

  • biteofpunkinpie

    I’m sitting here crying having read this article. I think that your words speak true, just as much for children (or those married to children) of mentally unstable people. I know that my husband suffered years of abuse at the hands of mentally unstable parent and continues to be unfairly treated to this day. I have resented this treatment for so long b/c I believe that my husband (who is SUCH a good man) deserved better. Your lines about “doing the best they could” and not “having the tools to be a good parent” are ringing true to me. Not only have I resented the parent this person was for my husband, I have been mourning the relationship that I wanted to be able to have and cannot.

    Forgiveness is so difficult, but this holiday season I am going to try deperately to seek it within my heart and act accordingly. Seeking God’s grace I hope to be able to stop “needing what cannot be given” and accept the situation for what it is.

    Thank you thank you thank you.

  • sarah

    DBt sessions taught me three simple steps for dealing with an unsafe relationship: 1. Reduce Expectations 2.Increase Self Care 3. Reduce Contact when appropriate….
    Thanks for an insightful article that get’s to the spiritual heart.

  • petrina7

    hie- and thank you so much for writing this column. i’ve been struggling with the after-effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family, but what i know for a fact is that God is with me through this process of discovery and forgiveness.
    i like the bit on being ‘parented’ by God, my mum and dad did the best they could, but sometimes my heart flares up in resentment and it takes so much out of me just to let my heart hook up to my head and remember, they did what they could…esp re my dad who was a victim of abuse himself. Forgiveness, yes, and maturity through being guided by the Heavenly Father. i have no other role models … so yeah, thank God for God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  • Julie Chlarson

    I appreciate your article and agree with most of what you said. I was involved in ACA and ACOA groups years ago and left them because they were mostly eternal pity parties. However, I did do a lot of personal work and therapy about my own issues and forgiveness and between the counseling and spiritual direction was able to reach a point where I could forgive my parents. It came at a point where I could visualize each of my parents as children and realizing that they too had been victims of parents with alcoholism/addiction and they were just living out what they had learned.
    I believe that the key for me besides working on my spiritual life on a daily basis is to learn how to be present in the moment and clearly acknowledge who I am and what my purpose is; and to see that God is in everyone of us. My aunt shared with me about “Practicing the Presence” and it has helped me accept each person and honor the presence of God within each of them.
    Thank you for the work that you are doing with this blog.

  • Linds

    so i just stumbled upon this article, two months after it was written, and i wish i could have read it about two YEARS ago when i was really struggling with these issues. my father has since passed away, but your words about forgiveness and allowing yourself to be parented by God are still so meaningful to me. so often these issues are pushed under the rug around the holidays – thank you for writing this!

  • kellywarbee

    The holidays have come & gone but these issues stay year round for a lot of people. It took me years to understand that my parents were deeply flawed & ill equipped to be parents, BUT we are all children of God. By knowing God forgives me my faults & actions, I was able to finally forgive my parents. I can’t change the past but I do strive to live in the moment & do the best I can & figure that will take care of the future.

  • Mary

    I wouldnt visit my parent under the circumstances, Christmas or not. We dont have to tolerate the self indulgence of others.I grew up with an alcoholic parent who stopped instantly one day without intervention in his early 60s because of embarrassment of his pride. It proved to me that he could have stopped anytime all along.

  • Carla

    Thanks for writing this. It’s very relevant to me right now; and I’m taking a deep breath as I plan my trip home for the holidays. Hopefully I can put it into practice. Blessings to you!

  • John McCoy

    Great piece. But the painting is actually called “The Drunk”, not “The Drunk Father”.

  • Bernadette Noll

    On our Slow Family Living site we have a simple e*book for making the holidays work for you and for your family. It’s full of questions, ideas and inspiration for making your holiday full of comfort and joy rather than fear and loathing. And we encourage everyone to ask, on a regular basis, Is this working?


  • Mark

    Phil, great piece! The next-to-last paragraph is what hit me hardest because it has been my struggle. Without the unconditional love from my parents I struggled for many years with believing that God loved me unconditionally. You are so right that the act of being compassionate (even internally) to our parents as a flawed child of God opened my spirit to beginning to accept God as my ultimate and intimate parent. Thank you for writing this in a way that spoke so deeply to me and gave a voice to my experience!

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