Care and Feeding

Alcoholism Runs Strong in Our Family. How Do I Warn My Kids?

I don’t want to shame their relatives, but I also want them to be aware of the risks.

Glass of whiskey with ice.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kateryna Kolesnyk/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

My husband and I both come from families of heavy drinkers, something I would say is a part of our respective cultures. Throughout our childhoods and to this day, beer, wine, and vodka flow freely at our family’s homes. My husband and I have been exceedingly careful to avoid alcohol addiction, but many of our family members are functioning alcoholics. It’s hard to tell because they’re all “regular” adults who hold down normal jobs and behave normally. But no dinner, Mass, gathering, or party is complete without cases of alcohol.

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As a result of this, my kids have no idea that alcoholism runs in both families. It’s time to start the conversation, since I was definitely drinking by the time I was their age. I’m just not sure how to talk about the genetic aspect. I feel like I’ll be throwing my family members under the bus if I point out who has a problem with alcohol, but at the same time, the genetic aspect is a really big deal. I also don’t want my kids to think their relatives are bad people. What’s the best way to broach the subject of genetic alcoholism?

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—The Teetotaler

Dear TT,

Without knowing how old your kids are, I’m going to assume they are tweens or teens: too young to drink, but absolutely at the age where alcohol may be increasingly compelling and easy to access. Instead of centering the idea of genetic predisposition to alcoholism in engaging them, focus on the dangers of alcohol abuse instead. They will likely come to recognize the signs of alcoholism in some of their loved ones, but I think it’s less urgent, at this point in their lives, for you to point out how it has functioned in their family than it is for you to prepare them to be responsible consumers of alcohol in the future. The goal, in other words, should be creating a healthy relationship to drinking.

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The best way to prevent them from judging their loved ones harshly for their boozing is to make sure they know what addiction is, as well as how and why alcohol can take a hold on someone. Explain that there should be no value judgment, as an addiction is an illness, not a moral failing. You can describe behaviors that they may have seen within the family and even use examples from gatherings or events. However, I’d strongly advise against making this about their relatives, not just because of how they may react to these people going forward, but because you also don’t want to accidentally imply that alcoholism is a birthright they won’t be able to avoid. When they get older, closer to the legal drinking age, you can speak to them further about specific loved ones and what role functional alcoholism has played in the family. Wishing you lots of patience and grace here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a close relationship with my family, including my nephew (12) and niece (5), who live on the same street as me. We see each other about two to three times a week, including a regular Sunday family dinner. When our area was in lockdown, we formed a bubble, and Sunday dinner turned into an extended two-hour play date with my niece; my sister desperately needed the break, and my niece was struggling without school and friends. One year later and we’ve kept it up as a special auntie-niece tradition even though our area is close to COVID-free and life is back to normal.

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I am now pregnant with twins, and I can see a natural stopping point when I’ll just be too big and too tired to continue. How do I break this to my niece and transition her out of our hangouts? She is pretty protective of our playtime, gets jealous and annoyed if anything or anyone disrupts it, and will not infrequently mention the two times in 18 months I had to cancel (emotional terrorism at its best!). Her mum is doing a great job in talking to her about the privileges of being older (chocolate, being able to read and go to the toilet on her own, TV) and how babies are fun and sweet. But she seems very worried about never seeing me again.

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—From Fun Aunt to Someone Else’s Mom

Dear Fun Aunt,

You and your sister will have to offer frequent reassurance that your niece still has an important part in your life. Explain that the break you’ll have to take from your tradition is much like how her own mother had to pause certain things when she was pregnant with her, but that you will either return to it in the future or find a new way to bond with her regularly.
Emphasize the important new role she will have as The Big Cousin to these twins, how loving her has prepared you to mother them, and how you will need her continued love and support as you take on this new journey. Perhaps you can give her a stuffed toy or some other keepsake that reminds her of you that she can squeeze on when she’s missing your energy. More than anything, just keep reminding her that you’re always going to have enough love for her, that she is a special part of your life, and that this will not change as your family expands. Best of luck to you, and warm wishes for a safe and happy delivery!

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• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My third grade son was coming home daily with stories about a girl, “Mia,” in his class, who he described as being angry all the time and just a terror. As I hear more stories, however, I realize there are one or two lead students bullying this girl, which is why she’s angry. It culminated in, last week, one of the boys making fun of her for being adopted in front of the whole class. I know from pictures that she is the only visibly Black person in her class. My son’s grandmother is Black, but he passes as White. I know the teacher chastised the student for the adoption comment at the moment, but what else can we do for this girl? My son is so socially anxious he won’t participate in “hat day” because he might be made fun of. He is afraid to befriend her. But this can’t keep going, right? I don’t think she necessarily has behavioral problems, but she’s in trouble all the time.

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—Passing in Rural Indiana

Dear Passing,

There is a lot going on here. I’m not going to say too much about the idea of your son’s “passing,” but it does seem that there is, perhaps, a disconnect between what you understand about an important part of his identity and what he does. Or, in other words, it sounds like you’re troubled by his lack of empathy for his Black classmate … but I’m not sure that your son knows or thinks of himself as being connected to her in any profound way? Does he? You should ensure that he knows how and why he is so that he doesn’t participate in ostracizing Black folks who aren’t mixed and/or White-passing in the future.

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I’m most concerned in the immediate moment, and I think you are as well, about what Mia is up against at school. No, this cannot keep going on. Also, no, I don’t think your socially anxious child is the answer to Mia’s problems either. It would be lovely for him to befriend her, and he should absolutely be talked to about why Mia is likely being targeted by these bullies as both a Black child and an adoptee. Have you spoken to the teacher yourself? You should, and if it seems that she is not helpful or proactive, then you need to talk to an administrator. Have you talked to any other parents? Do you know Mia’s parents? They might not even know what’s going on. Rally support for this girl—she deserves it. Focus on engaging with other adults who can help intervene on Mia’s behalf, as well as raising your own child to be empathetic, kind, and culturally aware. He may never be the kid who is going to speak up and out, but that doesn’t mean he has to be complacent either. Good luck to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We’re expecting a baby girl in a few months. We have an overwhelming amount of clothes, toys, and books that we’ve hung on to in anticipation for her, our second (and final) baby. There are some things that we do need (car seats, bassinet, diapers, and a few other items that can’t be passed down). None of the things we need are fun to buy, and most of the gifts we’ve received so far have been clothes, toys, and books—aka things people enjoy purchasing for new babies. The pandemic has sealed our fate for any chance of a shower or sprinkle. We’re grateful for everything that we have, but our space is small and money is tight. Is there a polite way to direct people to our registry before we end up drowning in duplicate toys and clothes?

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—We Have Goodnight Moon Already

Dear WHGMA,

Send a kind email to the loved ones who would have otherwise been invited to a sprinkle or shower with a few updates about your growing family and a link to your registry. Mention how disappointed you were that you were unable to gather in person, but that you appreciate the inquiries about receiving gifts and wanted to let anyone who wanted to purchase anything for y’all know 1) how to do so and 2) what it is that you need. Explain that, as your children are close in age, you were able to save XYZ items for your new daughter, and that due to limited space, y’all do not have room for duplicates; however, for those who are interested in getting you stuff, provide a tidy registry list of items that you need. While it is impossible to prevent any duplicates, it is likely that the majority of your peeps will read your message, understand, and proceed accordingly. Best of luck and wishing your child a smooth, peaceful arrival.

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—Jamilah

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My husband thinks it’s acceptable to make crude jokes in my presence: Farting at the dinner table, jokes about women’s rear ends as we drive by them on the street, jokes about female masturbation, crude references to his and my body parts. I hate crude humor and think it’s a turn-off. He did not act this way when we were dating. Now that we’re married, it happens several times a week. When I tell him it bothers me, he says a) that he was “just joking,” b) that he would never say those things around other people, and c) that I’m being too sensitive. I’ve asked him to save these jokes for when he’s hanging out with his brother or guy friends, but they haven’t stopped. Help!

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