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What Should I Do about Alcoholic Dad?

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From a teen in Canada: For nearly my whole life my father has been an alcoholic. He has anger issues he refuses to address. For a period of time he would have fights with my mom about his drinking, but he’s learned to hide it from her.

When I was younger, he would constantly pick on my older sister. As I got to be 9+ years of age he also began to pick on me, especially once my sister left for school. He would yell at me without being provoked. He would come into my room at random times and yell at me for “not behaving like a normal human being” and cuss me out for other general things.

My sister used to get mad at me frequently as well, and I feel this was because for a long time she would get in trouble from my father but I wouldn’t. I was always upset when he would yell at her. Due to the way my family would interact with me, I tend to isolate myself from them. I am also very careful about managing my own anger, because I do not want to be like them.

As much as I feel my father has hurt me and acted selfishly, he’s still my dad, and when he is in the right mood he is very kind and giving to others. All of my friends think he’s great. I feel a lot of empathy for him because I believe he endured a lot of abuse when he was a child.

So this is my dilemma: My father has hurt me and continues with his behavior to this day. I don’t want to be near him or involved with him at all. However, I want him to be happy and feel loved. If I reject him, I know that I would be hurting him a lot. I truly feel that telling him how I feel and asking him to change will do nothing but make him angry. I have struggled with these conflicting emotions for a long time. What can I do?

Your father is a fortunate man to have such a thoughtful daughter. Being the sensitive person you are, you don’t want to hurt him, despite the fact that he has been hurtful. It’s sad he can’t see it.

That being said, I do want you to know that you are not alone in your dilemma. One of the challenges of dealing with a parent like yours is that he isn’t all bad. As you’ve indicated, it is unfair to write him off completely. He has positive qualities. He has supported his family. He has not alienated your friends. And you understand that his behavior stems from his own abuse history. There is much in your relationship with him that is worth salvaging.

You probably can’t address the situation on your own. I can think of a few things that might be helpful.

First: Look for a chapter of Al-Ateen. Al-Ateen helps teens like you develop tools for coping with an alcoholic parent. There’s a “find a meeting” tab on their website.

Secondly: Get yourself into therapy, not because I think you are mentally ill, but because I think you need an objective therapist to help you sort out the effects of having had an alcoholic parent. A therapist can offer you important support as you figure out what you can and can’t do to maybe change the situation. I hope the therapist will also engage your sister and mother in the project and consider whether a family intervention would be helpful. Sometimes a kind but direct confrontation with the pain that alcoholism has caused does motivate someone to change.

Third: Find a way to forgive your dad for being an imperfect father. Yes, he really has been imperfect. But apparently he has also done the best he could given his own history. The best he could wasn’t good enough but he did somehow manage to stay in the family and to raise a daughter like yourself. Forgiveness is not intended to let him off the hook for his negative behaviors. Forgiveness has the power to help you both move on and perhaps make a better future.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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