Youths and their Fathers: Alcoholism and Emotional well-being in Shillong

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David Blah and Victor R. Wanrap
The period of adolescence, a developmental stage between childhood and adulthood,is characterized by number of transitions and profound changes- from their bodies to their sense of identity. James Gross (2014), a prominent psychologist who specializes in the area of emotions and emotional development stated that during this stage, adolescents go through significant emotional developmentalchanges and experiences emotionally challenging situations that typically become more intense and frequent. One can easily recall our own adolescent experiences or observe those who are still sailing the adolescent seas. It is a period of both wonder and exploration on one hand and confusion and coercion on the other.

With the increase of emotionally trying situations, adolescents increasingly adopt ways to handle their emotions in ways that are beneficial or harmful to them.For example when an adolescent feels angry at his mother for scolding him, heeither distract himself to forget the anger or keeps thinking about it elevating the experience. This conscious or even automatic response towards their emotions is known as Emotion Regulation and growth in the EmotionRegulatory capacities is a significant part of emotional development. With adolescent facing developmental challenges, emotional regulation can improve their ability to cope and deal with issues such as anxiety, aggression, peer pressure, self-esteem and even eating or dieting.Various studies, such as McLaughlin, Hatzenbuehler, Mennin, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011, have reported that proper emotion regulation plays an important role in the adolescent’s generally well-being. When the adolescent engages in regulation his or her emotions, their whole body would be involved- from the facial to their behavioral expressions, their thoughts about the situation, the memories associated with the situation, their goals and motivations as well.
In the family context, the adolescents learn how to regulate their emotions mostly through observing the other members of the family, particularly the parents, the way the parents would treat them and other general behaviours that are related to the socialization of emotions. Parent’s emotional responses to their children’s emotions can influence the child’s subsequent emotional awareness and regulation. Thus a home where the parents are emotionally expressive, nurturing and accepts the child’s emotional expression and experiences helps in developing a healthier emotional life and regulation strategies. Sim, Adrain, Zeman, Casano and Friedrich (2009) have found that parents who validate and discuss emotions may significantly impact the child’s understanding of emotions and help validate their emotional regulation strategies. Conversely, parents that dismisses rejects and mitigate a child’s emotions may promote negative responses to such emotions resulting in emotional dysregulation for the child.Realizing the significance of the home environment in the development of these emotion regulation strategies, there are numerous research that focuses on adolescents who come from difficult situations, such as divorce or broken homes, single parents, conflict zones, and alcoholic parents. Christoffersen & Soothill’s (2003) 14 year-long study with 84,765 children and their parents who were abusing alcohol (1979-1993) found that parents’ alcohol abuse may have long-term effects on the children such as self-destructive behaviors, teenage pregnancy, violent and aggressive behaviors and mortality rate.
Within Meghalaya, Alcoholism has been plaguing families all throughout the state. Over 34.4% of the male population and 2.4% of female population over 15 years of age consumes alcohol according to the 2013 district level survey (Ministry of Health and Family welfare: Government of India, 2013). The consumption though not a majority, its effects on family and the community is extensive witharound 70 out of 100 people in Meghalaya are affected by alcohol related problems (Lim, 2017). These effects suffered by near and dear ones of the alcohol user can have detrimental consequences. Studies have suggested that alcoholism in the family can bring about several negative impacts. In the home environment, an adolescent having parents with problem drinking, faces detrimental consequences to his or her emotional development extending to their mental health as well that can persist far into adulthood.This parental problem drinkingcan be understood as an umbrella term that involves the spectrum of problems with alcohol such as abuse, dependencies, maladaptive drinking patterns and other alcohol related. With such severe consequences the families, especially the children face, it was surprising that there was a lack of research and surveys done that focus on how alcoholism affects the emotional life and regulation strategies of family members, and more to the children. With emotion regulation having considerable influence to the welfare of the children, a small research was recently conducted  with the focus to (a) understand the relationship between the adolescents and their fathers who have a drinking problem (b) determine the way these adolescents regulate their emotions and (c) ascertain the strategies they use for emotional regulation. The aim was to help throw more light on the already complex situation and contribute to developing new ways of providing family supportive interventions and out-reach program to families that have been affect by alcoholism. The study used an explorative and qualitative research design and the data was collected from a sample of 8 adolescent from ages of 16-19 years old, that have been identified eligible out of 392 participants from 7 different higher secondary schools in Shillong, through standardized questionnaires and in-depth interviews.
The study found that in relation to the first focus, themes revolving around the disruption of family life, bonding, communication and embarrassment were common. The respondents frequently mentioned that when the father was under the influence of alcohol, negative assumptions whether accompanied by lectures have characterized their relationship. The father would when home would provide lectures about life on the basis of their negative assumptions they would have of the adolescents. The adolescents further revealed that communication in their relationship was poor and would hardly make any effort to communicate especially when the father was drunk. Even if communication would exist, majority would only be in scolding, shouts and arguments. One of the respondents mentioned that often when drunk, the father would vomit out everything he has inside, things he dare not say when sober. This poor communication was a result of the disruption of family life and bond. In addition, the feeling of embarrassment was also prominent in the relationship, a reality that the respondents face and affect the way they behave and interact with others. The societal attitude towards people with problem drinking has affected the way the adolescents feel towards one’s father. The perception of their neighbors, friends, and relatives has added pressure to the respondent consequently affecting their behavior towards them. The one theme thatstood out was the fear of losing the father because of his drinking habit. Though the behaviour of the fathers of the respondents was similar to an extent from the various themes that emerged, yet the reaction of the respondents differed.This variance could be attributed to various factors such as personality trait, family dynamics, family history, family values, cultural values and personal values. These possible mediating factors are more evident in their responses of the kind of Emotion Regulation strategy that they use to regulate their emotions.
With respect to strategy used in regulating their emotions within the context of their relationship with their father when he drinks, the study found thatavoiding the situation so as to regulate their emotions was the most common strategy that the adolescents use. The findings also showed that a majority of them will try to change the situation that they are currently facing by either not paying attention to the father or trying to pacify him. The findings of the study also showed a predominance of behavioral strategies, especially emotional suppression, i.e. “When I experience unpleasant emotions I try to make sure that others will not notice”. When judging the significance of the situation, half of them were able to view it as something minor where as half of them view the situation as something major. The former were able to cope positively on account of not letting it “eat up their head” as by tomorrow it will be over or that it happens again and again. Interestingly enough, not all of the respondents sought help from people. Only 37.5% always seek help while a whopping 62.5% seldom or rarely seek support. This would suggest that when feeling unpleasant emotions the adolescent would often attempt to ignore, avoid and suppress their feelings by changing their thoughts.
By looking only at the strategies used, one will missed out the nuances and patterns found by the study through its in-depth interview. The findings reveal that cultural and personal values influence the regulation strategy that Adolescence adopts. Expressive suppression was seen as a common regulation strategy and this was linked to the experience of being embarrassed or being afraid of what others may say. This echoes a form of interdependent cultural value. For those that were embarrassed, this form of Expressive suppression was a way of dealing with the emotional distress that they feel or may feel. However, this cannot be said to be the same case for the respondent who suppresses because of fear of what others may say. This is due to the feeling of fear that was mentioned. The role of cultural value was also seen in the response towards social support. The findings showed that cultural value of not sharing one’s family problems with others served as an inhibition for the respondents to seek support.The dynamics of the family and its history was also another influence in the regulation strategy for some respondents, along with not being able to relate and open up to others or find someone where one can open up and share. In the case of social support that has been highlighted above, one could easily dismiss it as a case of embarrassment. However, the study revealed that the reasons for it range from a natural disposition to “do it by myself and prayer” to a lack of friends and fear of what their parents will say when they have found out that they had shared their family problems to others. Even the kind of social support varies. One focuses more on the emotional support more where as one does not even seek it but only limits it to some form of intervention by them or the acquiring of ideas on how to deal with her father. Another prominent theme that emerged was the feeling of being responsible towards their father. The effect of this was evident during the interview- from the stories that they share to their facial expressions to their sense of helplessness and anxiety. When they feel responsible for and towards their father, they were able to have a sense of control and command even when the situation was bad.
There were a number of hurdles the prevented the study from being more expansive. Though the number of participants were less, the process of the research revealed that there is still a strong stigma concerning alcoholism and that our societal practice of keeping problems within, either within the family or within oneself, poses a problem for both the researcher who wants to explore, understand and number it and the people themselves who are going through it. Though embarrassment was a common theme among the participants, from among the 8 one participant who evidently was regulating her emotions better in comparison to the others was able to move beyond embarrassment. She cared more about the health of her family and her father more than the embarrassment that they would face. Unless others too care more about the healthy and their families more than the embarrassment that they will face, they will still be stuck in the same mess. Embarrassment is like a debt, it is more costly to keep it rather than to reject it.
On the basis of the findings and the challenges faced during the research, we recommend
1.      Tentative trajectories for interventionthat would focus on intra and inter-emotional strategies and coping mechanisms of the adolescents.
2.      Social support system and recreational centers that will help adolescents develop and strengthen their respective regulation strategies.
3.      More research should be conducted that dives into exploring relationship between emotional regulation with family dynamics and personal values, as well with maternal drinking problem.
                    The writers are M.Sc. Counseling Psychology degree holders



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