Dear Patti,

All my life I was told by my mother and my teachers that I wasn’t smart and shouldn’t bother going to college. Instead I was repeatedly told to enroll in a technical school. There’s nothing wrong with technical schools, but I don’t like being labeled. Nor do I like being told how I should live my life based on how others see me.

Both my parents were alcoholics, but because I was raised by my mother I feel she had a more negative effect on me. As a young kid, I was afraid to go to school, didn’t have many friends, was often tearful, and at a very early age I had trouble with anxiety. When I was older I’d isolate myself at school and at home I’d withdraw to my room. Whenever my mother was drinking she would taunt me and call me stupid, but even when she was sober she never read to me or helped me with homework. I became very self-conscious in part due to my mother’s constant criticism and tried to make up for my many shortcomings by becoming a perfectionist.

Two years ago my girlfriend encouraged me to learn whatever I was passionate about. I started to realize that I am not actually unintelligent. In fact, I’m entering a local university in less than a week and purposely keeping my options open about what I will major in and choose as a career.

I wonder how much my mother’s alcoholism contributed to my social and academic problems growing up. I’m almost afraid to believe that my childhood environment was at fault for my low functioning and that I’m actually an innately intelligent, creative thinker.

— Chris

Dear Chris,

Unfortunately, your experience was not unusual. In general, children of alcoholics do not function as well in school as children of non-alcoholic parents. They typically have higher rates of absenteeism and are more likely to repeat grades or drop out of school. Children of alcoholics have greater difficulty with abstract reasoning, which is critical to academic problem solving, and therefore tend to score lower on cognitive and verbal tests. This same deficiency may impair their ability to express themselves, which is an important skill for school performance.

As early as preschool-age, children of alcoholics exhibit greater difficulty with language and reasoning than other children. This may have more to do with psychological factors such as anxiety or fear of failure than actual academic ability. These children also may be impinged because they frequently have difficulty bonding with their teachers or relating to their peers.

Heavy-drinking parents often exhibit profound and consistent indifference and negativity toward their children. These parents engage in fewer positive interactions with their kids and are often hostile and neglectful toward them. An alcoholic parent is less likely to be affectionate and more likely to become violent toward her children. If your mother consistently responded to her own needs over yours and failed to communicate empathy for you, it is understandable that you would have had difficulty regulating your needs or developing a stable sense of self. Of course this would interfere with your functioning, including academically.

Alcoholic parents often underestimate their children’s abilities and in turn, the children themselves de-value their own abilities. In your case, these erroneous perceptions of you may very well have affected your self-esteem as well as your academic performance. The lack of cognitive stimulation in your childhood home may also in part account for your pattern of academic struggling. After repeatedly being told you were stupid, I understand becoming a perfectionist as a means of acquiring self-esteem. However, it is setting yourself up for failure since you are basing your self-esteem on unattainable perfection.

As a child you didn’t have the choice to create an environment where you could emotionally, socially, and intellectually thrive, but now you do. Strive to reduce stress, develop social competence and self-esteem, and form a strong social support system. Create a positive atmosphere in which you are nurtured, encouraged, and able to maintain healthy relationships with people willing and able to support and validate you. Make sure that you often have someone to talk with about your needs, fears, and hopes.

Rather than trying to prove that that you are academically sufficient, try to allow yourself to experience passion and joy. You do not need to prove anything. Instead, work on allowing yourself to be the man you were meant to be if you had not been traumatized. Celebrate being yourself.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.