Children of Alcoholics and Adolescence: Individuation, Development, and Family Systems

By Crespi, Tony D.; Sabatelli, Ronald M. | Adolescence, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Children of Alcoholics and Adolescence: Individuation, Development, and Family Systems


Crespi, Tony D., Sabatelli, Ronald M., Adolescence


One of the most fascinating achievements of adolescence involves an individual's balance between separation-individuation and connectedness within the family. This praxis, individuation, is a developmental process involving the melding of such qualities in the family of origin (Bartle, Anderson, & Sabatelli, 1989; Grotevant & Cooper, 1986).

While the developmental emergence of an autonomous identity and sense of intimacy is relatively well understood for children from functional family systems, the contemporary literature has neglected to apply this concept to youth from alcoholic family systems. Since individuation affords an important interface between adolescent and adult development and family pathology, a solid understanding of the individuation process within families affected by alcoholism promises insight and understanding into the long-term developmental consequences for identity formation in alcoholic, dysfunctional, family systems.

The link between individual development and the concomitant ability to develop mature relationships, and the disruptive influence of familial alcoholism, is noteworthy. As Mahler, Pine, & Bergman (1975) note, the development of the ability to form healthy relationships begins with the early resolution of the separation-individuation process. Crespi and Sabatelli (1993) suggest that the ability to evolve a mature and differentiated sense of self is tied to the individuation process and note the important ways healthy family relationships can foster individuation in adolescents. Tragically, children of alcoholics suffer from the psychological maltreatment and dysfunction which alcohol brings about in family relationships (Crespi, 1990).

The purpose of this article, globally, is to provide an overview of the current findings regarding individuation as a key to adolescent and young adult development and to link this framework with pivotal developmental issues faced by young people living in alcoholic family systems. The article is divided into sections. In the first, the literature on children of alcoholism is summarized with special consideration to those developmental themes which especially effect individuals throughout their lives. The second section addresses those elements of individuation which have particular relevance to children from alcoholic family systems. The concepts of physical independence and psychological dependence are introduced because of their relevance to families of alcoholism. In the final section suggestions for future consideration are considered.

Children of Alcoholism: The Family as Dysfunctional Catalyst

The incidence of alcohol use is widespread. It has been noted (Crespi, 1990), that at least one in six families are affected. Black (1981) states that there are between 28 and 34 million children and adults in the United States who grew up in or are being raised in alcoholic families. Seixas & Youcha (1985) note that nearly all children from alcoholic families live with emotional and/or physical scars resulting from parental alcoholism.

Of consequence, parental alcoholism can have a legacy which impacts the development of both individual family members and the patterns carried from one generation to the next. Black (1981) notes that children raised in homes where open communication is practiced and consistency is the norm usually have the ability to adopt a variety of roles. Children growing up in alcoholic families, on the other hand, seldom learn the combination of roles which mold healthy personalities. Instead, they become locked into roles based on their perception of what they need to survive and bring stability to their lives (Black, 1981).

In other words, the children of alcoholics, conceptualized as tools lacking in key elements of humanity (Crespi, 1990), often play out roles within the family of origin that serve the needs of the family but have the potential to disrupt their own functioning as adults. …

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