CoA Awareness Week
Patrick Kennedy spoke of the “conspiracy of silence” in alcoholic families and the pain and confusion such rigid silence causes family members. His 60 Minutes interview on October 4, 2015—following the publication of his book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction—was a call to end the silence within affected families. Ending that silence is important so the children, who are the first hurt in addicted families and the last helped, can be offered the gift of recovery that is being treasured and celebrated today by over 20 million Americans.
When is COA Awareness Week and What Happens?
This awareness week (February 14–21) is always honored during the week in February in which Valentine’s Day falls. It has been officially declared by governors over the years and, in recent years, the week has been declared by the Mayor of Boston. It is the catalyst for multiple educational activities, including poster contests in schools and celebrations across this country and internationally by NACoA’s forty-two affiliate organizations and by prevention programs, treatment centers, NCADD and many of its affiliates, and increasingly by recovery community support programs associated with Faces and Voices of Recovery. This year the Recovery Month theme will, for the first time, include a focus on family recovery.
There are social media campaigns, references in preaching in faith communities, and prayers for the silent young victims in their midst. In 2014, there were eighty-seven individual public awareness activities reported across Germany. In Great Britain, teenage CoAs sat at bus stops holding signs about the needs and solutions to help CoAs in their country. Each year, the Hazelden Betty Ford Center’s children’s program in Texas hosts a reunion day celebration on the Sunday that begins CoA Awareness Week. Children who have gone through that supportive education recovery program in previous years, and their family members, often numbering five hundred to seven hundred, come together to celebrate that children can also recover and thrive. It is a day of gratitude for the gifts of hope and recovery for children even as young as six or seven years of age.
Every awareness activity helps to break the silence and offers hope to the affected children and to the caregivers who are trying to help them.
Ten Reasons Why We Have CoA Awareness Week
One in four children lives in a family being torn apart by alcohol or drug abuse or active addiction.
Over thirty-five years ago, Claudia Black taught us the rules that still trap CoAs in their fear and painful silence: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. Treatises have been written about the ramifications of these developmentally and psychically damaging rules over the ensuing years. The chronic emotional trauma that too frequently grows from following those rules during a child’s young life fosters mental health problems, increases the rate of adolescent depression and suicide, impairs intimate relationships in adulthood, and increases separation and divorce.
All of this puts our children at risk, yet they become such experts at keeping the family secrets believing that they are the only ones who live this way and that, should they break the silence and actually speak their truth to an adult they want to trust, they would either not be believed or be initiating the destruction of their family.
Caring adults can change the course of a child’s life.
Healthy ACoAs will often say, “There was my 5th grade teacher who believed in me and was always available for support,” or “It was the pastor who reached out and encouraged me and who provided a feeling of safety and love in the church,” or “It was my grandmother, throughout my entire growing-up years.” But most adults—from pediatricians to teachers to the neighbor next door—are still more comfortable following the “conspiracy of silence” which teaches young and teen CoAs that they are alone in their pain and that no one else will understand. They keep their silence along with 25 percent of their classmates—all living in emotional isolation and fearful of what going home will bring.
Judges can take the first step to initiate dramatic change in countless addicts and their family members.
Drug courts and family dependency courts that refer drug-using and alcoholic offenders to programs of treatment and recovery support, with strong sanctions, see great reductions in relapse and recidivism. When they require whole-family educational recovery support, such as the evidence-based Celebrating Families!, rates of successful family reunification are doubled and the time of the children’s separation from their parents is halved. Too often the offenders and their partners are both “yesterday’s children” that no one helped when their parents were drinking, drugging, and involved in family violence. Courts are helping to break the generational transmission of addiction, and the silence that fosters it, helping to set the stage for the beginning of generational recovery in the family.
The science is clear.
Growing up in an addicted family creates varying levels of emotional and personal damage to developing children to such an extent that it was deemed the greatest public health problem in research published in the American Journal of Public Health (Grant, 2000) and claimed again in the findings of the CDC/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in recent times (2014). To intervene in the cascade of assaults to the defenseless child that literally alters their brain and psychic development and as often and as young as possible—across all the systems that touch young lives—should be a national imperative.
Knowledge and validation of their reality begins the healing process for these children.
Program tool kits like the Children’s Program Kit, developed by NACoA for SAMHSA ten years ago and which has been updated and enhanced and will be introduced again this month, provide the activities and curriculum to break the family rules in safe and enjoyable learning activities. Such programs help affected children to understand that it is not their fault, that they are not alone, that they cannot stop their parents from drinking, and that they can learn how to have a good life even if their parents continue to use. They develop this understanding with others who are struggling with the same problems and feel validated. The Kit is designed for educational support groups to help the children of clients in addiction treatment and recovery support programs, for schools to offer age-appropriate educational groups in student assistance programs or for classroom use, and for camps that have offered such education and support groups.
Many people are unaware of how much alcohol is too much.
Parents who drink excessively often don’t realize that their children know, even if they think they are hiding it from them. They need to learn how much is harmful to them and to their children. Sober parents need to become aware of the impact their spouse’s addiction has on their children.
Neighbors need to know that there are children next door who live in hidden chaos caused by parental drinking.
CoAs need to be invited to participate in the life of the neighborhood and they need neighbors who say something if they see something and who help the children to feel special and important and welcome to witness healthy families interact.
Children need to know that there are people in school that they can trust with their secret.
However, they can’t know that unless there are posters, pamphlets, support programs, and clear school policies and statements that there are people who can help.
Clergy need to know that young members of their congregation are suffering in silence.
They need education about addiction, about its destruction of spiritual life in the family members as well as the addict, and that they have the power to change the lives of many families in their congregations just by expressing concern. Clergy can support and encourage education programs for the congregation, beginning with CoA Awareness Week.
[H2]Aunts and uncles know that their brother or sister is alcohol dependent. They may not know how their nieces and nephews struggle each day to appear normal.
They should learn about appropriate interventions for their sibling and help support them. In addition, they can be the life-saving adults for their nieces and nephews, helping them to name their truth and get the support they need from other meaningful adults. They can locate and provide transportation to Alateen meetings to facilitate recovery.
CoA Awareness Week is a gift that keeps on giving so long as those who care make sure that personal support is given, programs get established and are available, and adults learn that keeping the silence when the child does is harmful. Clarity and validation are powerful. When we help to break the silence, we can see these boys and girls go from children at risk to children of promise. They have an intrinsic right to that promise.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014). ACE study: Major findings. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/findings.html
Grant, B. F. (2000). Estimates of US children exposed to alcohol abuse and dependence in the family. American Journal of Public Health, 90(1), 112–26.