How do you deal with a father’s alcohol-inspired abusive behavior?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on August 6th, 2009 - Last updated: April 13th, 2023
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Dr. Peele:

Why does one and how does one stop feeling sorry for an alcoholic?

My father is an alcoholic and can be verbally abusive to my mother. In anger I will lash out at him but the next day will continue to act ‘normally’. He takes it very badly if I, his daughter, am cross with him.

Sometimes I feel I should kind of put my foot down to this unacceptable behaviour, but she can take it in a way and he can’t – he gets very morose and starts talking about how soon he is going to die and he knows we all hate him, etc. I know it is emotional blackmail, etc. but I still feel he is in the grip of something he can’t control – it’s a bit like demanding a deaf man hear because you ‘talk’ to him in braille and so he MUST understand.

Sometimes I think the hurt and pain that he is suffering, even if only a little and only in lucid moments, is more than we can feel hurt in ‘real’ life, even though his may be self-inflicted, etc… it doesn’t matter because he is still hurting and he can’t deal with that hurt. And that hurt may be all topsy turvy but it had some kind of root or cause that ‘by the grace of God there go I,’ he hasn’t learnt something in life to help him to deal with it, or perhaps it’s part of what he needs to learn him life.

It seems cruel to punish him more by withdrawing what love and understanding, any love and understanding, one can give him. And everything has its cost. Perhaps that is, in this case, my mother’s greater strength.


Dear Kathy:

Your letter is almost a philosophical treatise — laying out the nature of abusive behavior by a family member whom you love but resent and its impact on other family members, and particularly yourself. People having been dealing with this forever — not only around alcoholism (there are movies and plays about such things — e.g., Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe). Here is my modest little list of ways to respond:

  • protect yourself – make sure you are not hurt and that you don’t implicate yourself in the abuse (by going along with it); remove yourself from the situation when the behavior reaches a level that you feel is intolerable; I assume you don’t have children yourself, because this is often a crystallizing experience that makes people become more insistent on staying way from this abuse;
  • offer support for those most directly affected (i.e., your mother) to remove herself, temporarily or permanently, but if she chooses not to, lay back and accept her choice, because you can do nothing else about it; stop viewing her as a victim but see her as a willing participant, however much this improves or depreciates your view of her;
  • make clear to your father (and mother) that you love them, but that for your own mental health there are certain things you will not put up with or participate in; offer always to support and talk with either of them provided they come to you with “clean hands” (not when they are trying to score points against one another, or to get you to excuse them from previous misbehavior). I hope this is of some help.

And thank you for being a loving daughter.


Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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