Personality Characteristics of Adolescents with Alcoholic Parents

By Tomori, Martina | Adolescence, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Personality Characteristics of Adolescents with Alcoholic Parents

Tomori, Martina, Adolescence


Investigations of various factors known to increase the risk of alcohol addiction in adolescents have invariably stressed the association between the personality traits of prospective alcoholics and their dysfunctional family. The unsatisfactory social context, which aggravates the adverse effects of those factors, is commonly determined by parental alcoholism, which significantly affects the dysfunctional family dynamics.

The studies addressing the issue of alcohol abuse in adolescents deal primarily with the following clusters of risk factors: parental influence, peer influence, social context of adolescent involvement in alcohol, and personality characteristics of adolescent misusers (Mayer, 1988).

Our clinical and research work has indicated that in adolescence the above-mentioned factors are most closely interrelated and highly interdependent. Since personality traits are formed within the family, family relations and family dynamics represent, in addition to a number of subjective and objective factors, important determinants of the adolescent personality profile. Similarly, social behavior characteristics, which are so intimately connected with self-image and the process of separation and individuation, reflect all strong and weak points of the family process. Several researchers have identified high levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and low educational goals as common personality characteristics of adolescent problem drinkers (Lisansky & Gomberg, 1982; Mayer, 1988). These characteristics are in many aspects determined by the parental abuse of alcohol and the deleterious effects of alcoholism on the family. Unassertive parents are unable to enhance assertiveness in their children, nor can they promote their uneventful and trauma-free experiences separation process, one of the main axes of adolescent psychodynamics.

Feelings of being rejected and constant fear of emotional loss, which accompany children of alcoholic parents throughout their childhood, tend to culminate in adolescence, a time when the feelings become even more destructive and are further intensified by the adolescent's need for independence. Feelings of inferiority additionally impede separation of children from alcoholic families. Their loneliness provides an ideal breeding ground for the accumulating anxiety, self-rejection, and mistrust of others. Hostility associated with these feelings may assume various forms of aggression. Such adolescents use alcohol to relieve anxiety, reduce dissatisfaction and mistrust, and give vent to accumulated aggression. In adolescents brought up in alcoholic family environments, alcohol, entering through several receptor sites, fills many gaps left over from the development period prior to separation. Their parents--either the alcoholic parent, or the partner living with him/her in co-dependency, or both of them--who are themselves filled with distress, depression, and anxiety, usually cling to their children while at the same time manifesting overt signs of resentment and rejection. In this state of pathological ambivalence, they both reject their children and try to tie them to themselves, thus seriously hindering their separation. As a result, many children of alcoholic parents develop defensive aggression or passive resistance, or take recourse to some other inappropriate patterns of defensive behavior. Their negative self-image, rendered even more somber by the feeling of shame caused by the alcoholism of their parents, only adds to their loneliness and low sense of well-being. They have no opportunity to learn how to cope with anxiety and depression. Encouraged by the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, they find it easier to enter the world outside their family borders in search of relief and self-assertion (Berlin, Davis, & Orenstein, 1988).

Filled with feelings of inferiority, such adolescents cannot or dare not seek accomplishment in a healthy peer group, although their need for social approval and their wish to be accepted as part of the group is much stronger than in their peers who are growing up in a supportive and affectionate family environment. …

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