Should I tell my son about my alcoholic mother?




My mother has been a functional (and very dysfunctional) alcoholic all of my adult life.

She has been in and out of rehab facilities, in and out of AA, with some periods of sobriety but longer periods where she relapses and we go round in circles again, hoping that this time something will be different. It never is.

I have 2 children, 9 and 6 and am pregnant with my 3rd child due imminently.

Since my first child was born, my mother has had periods of absence from his life – either because she was actively drinking or because she was in a rehab facility. Now that he’s almost 10 he’s noticing her periods of absences more and more.

Last Christmas, she spent 3 months in rehab from. November – January. We had to say she had a bad back and couldn’t drive which is why why didn’t see her at all over Christmas, as he had hoped we would.

This Christmas, she was meant to come and stay with us for the whole period which was discussed with him by her, and she told him how excited she was etc. Sadly :£3 ended up on a massive binge a week to fo which is still ongoing and she hasn’t left her house or made any attempt to sober up and travel anywhere except to buy more wine.

Sadly we have not spent a Christmas with her since before Covid. We have once again had to say that her back is bad so she can’t drive, but I know he knows this isn’t the whole truth.

He was so bitterly disappointed when she didn’t turn up on the day she was meant to be arriving (as was I as she told me she was making an effort to be sober and come) and he knows something is up as he wants to call her and speak to her and he can just tell something isn’t right.

This in turn is making him really anxious and sad. He tells me at bedtime through tears that he misses her, he’s worried about her and wishes she would get seen by a doctor about her back so she can come up to stay.

I am wondering if/when it is appropriate to tell him some of the truth of the story. I have said that her back is painful which in turn makes her very sad and she then struggles with day to day things and speaking to us is one of those things as she feels she has let us down.

We also talk about emotions a lot, about how we cannot control anyone else’s behaviour but own own (I do try and pre-empt her constantly letting us down when she doesn’t turn up to family events/do what she has promised).

Should I be more honest with him? Should I explain that she has a mental illness and it’s very sad?

How honest is too honest?

  • listener


    I’m sorry you have been experiencing these problems for a life time with your mum and that it has impacted you this Christmas and your children too. I imagine it can be painful and difficult for you to go through, and in trying to support you children too, especially your oldest son. It’s good to hear that you are already discussing emotions and the concept that we can’t control others behaviours.

    I think there are things that you could consider saying to your son that are age appropriate and may help him to understand a bit more. Maybe something like: She has Alcohol dependency or an addiction, this is like an illness where someone loses control over their drinking. This can sometimes make them do things they wouldn’t usually do, or may make her not be able to come to see us and can make it difficult to do normal everyday things. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love us, or doesn’t want to spend time with us, but the illness makes it difficult for her to focus on anything else. She has tried to get help for it but it’s difficult to overcome. It’s not your fault that she drinks, you can’t control her drinking or prevent it. It’s okay to feel upset by this. Remember you can always talk to me about how you are feeling.

    You know your son best and may say something similar in different words.
    Children often know there is a problem and are confused when it’s not spoke about and it can make it difficult for them to understand, and they may blame themselves without knowing more about the situation. Reassuring him that it's okay to feel sad or confused about the situation and encourage open communication I imagine will help him to understand a bit more.

    On the Nacoa resources page of the website there is a “Information for Parents” publication which might help you as well, there is also a list of books which could help him to understand and may help you to start the conversation, such as Jaspers Wish. You might like to consider contacting the helpline to talk about speaking with your son, or for yourself too, as I imagine this may be challenging for you too. Your son can also contact the helpline if he would like to. You can also show him the pages on the website aimed at children which may help to answer some of his questions. You can reassure him too that whether or not she stops, he can feel better and talk about it and do things he enjoys.

    I hope this helps, I’m glad you felt able to reach out, by doing so you're already helping your son. Things can get better and I wish you and your family the best.

    Warmest wishes,


  • coald

    I was always very honest with my children in an age appropriate way, and tried to stick to facts rather than feelings because I did not want them to feel the pain and resentment I often had...

    So I would say things like "Grandad often drinks too much alcohol which means that sometimes he doesn't feel well / look after himself properly / can't come and stay".

    After he died we explained that he had passed away because of how poorly he had become because of his addiction to alcohol, explaining that it was an illness, but only one that he could decide to get better from.

    We've subsequently explained that his drinking had damaged his heart etc.

    Factual explanations definitely worked for us, but it was still very hard.

    I wish you well x

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