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Don’t lose hope You can always fall back on your family
Don’t lose hope You can always fall back on your family

Family rituals can help protect children of alcoholics from developing the habit

Eating dinner together every night. Celebrating Diwali or Pillaiyar Chathurti as a family every year. They’re simple family rituals that most of us take for granted. But research has shown that these rituals can make all the difference to children in families with an alcoholic parent; they can actually protect these high-risk youngsters from becoming alcoholics themselves.

It was back in 1988 that Dr. Steven Wolin, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University, first published his findings on these ‘protective rituals’, based on a study conducted with anthropologist Linda Bennett. Now, 20 years later, Dr. Lakshmi Sankaran from NIMHANS, Bangalore, has replicated his results half-way across the world. Not just replicated, according to Steven who was recently in Chennai for a brief visit, her results are more powerful than his own — that is, there’s an even stronger link found between maintaining family rituals and the prevention of the ‘transmission’ of alcoholism from one generation in the study conducted in Bangalore.

“That’s because of the nature of Indian culture, where there’s a ritual or festival to celebrate almost every week,” says Steven. “In America, the number of rituals is far less, so there’s not as much to lose in a ‘ritual deprived’ family.”

‘Ritual deprived’— that’s the phrase Steven uses to describe families in which family rituals and celebrations have disappeared over a period of time because of an alcoholic parent (most often the father). Where, for example, Christmas may not be celebrated because the father has spent all the money on alcohol or the family scatters during dinner time to avoid confrontation with him.

‘Ritual protected’ families

In ‘Ritual protected’ families, on the other hand, there’s often a spouse or a strong older child who is able to include the alcoholic parent in the ritual in a way that protects the others. “The wife or child is flexible enough to accommodate modified behaviour from the father,” explains Lakshmi. “For example, he abstains at the time of the ritual or at least drinks less so that the celebration is maintained one way or the other.”

The result is that a sense of identity and cohesion is preserved in the family through the act of doing something together — whether it’s celebrating birthdays and anniversaries or taking an annual trip to one’s kuladeivam. And that can protect the children from ‘transmission’ of alcoholism. These findings, when published in the 1980s, challenged the predominant belief then that children from an alcoholic family were ‘damaged’ and would almost certainly be alcoholics themselves.

“We were the first to look at children with alcoholic parents who were doing well, and ask what these families were doing differently,” says Steven.

And when the professor visited India for the first time later that decade, he found his family-based approach resonated well with the country’s researchers. After all, it was (and remains) one of the few countries in the world where family therapy for alcoholics is common — where the entire family comes to the addiction centre and undergoes therapy with the alcoholic. Institutions such as NIMHANS and the TTK Hospital in Chennai, where he conducts training programmes, are cases in point.

“We’ve always believed in helping the family deal with its emotional needs and dysfunctionality,” says Dr. Shanthi Rangarajan, director, TTK Hospital. “At TTK, every festival is celebrated; above all, we emphasise the importance of living a normal life.”

This emphasis on normal everyday rituals of family life might be the country’s best hope for fighting alcoholism in the future, according to both Lakshmi and Shanthi. “We cannot afford to treat every alcoholic in the country,” says Lakshmi. “But protecting children who are at high-risk is something we can do. Our rituals and traditions are a gift we have been given — it took Dr. Wolin’s research to remind us of what we have.”

(Contact Dr. Lakshmi Sankaran at lakshmiseaward@hotmail.com for further details.)DIVYA KUMAR

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