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All About Al-Anon and Alateen: The Pros and Cons

April 6, 2024
35 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 6, 2024
35 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
April 6, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
April 6, 2024
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April 6, 2024
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Demystifying Al-Anon and Alateen: The Pros and Cons

  • Caring for someone who is struggling with alcohol (or dealing with the aftermath) can be a daunting task. Al-Anon and Alateen are free, anonymous, 12-Step support groups for those who find themselves facing this struggle.

  • You can decide if Al-Anon and Alateen might be right for you by considering the pros and cons of each and learning about other support groups that are available.

  • Reframe can help you deal with challenges in your relationship with loved ones struggling with alcohol while supporting you on your own alcohol journey.

In Truly Madly Guilty, author Liane Moriarty paints in poignant detail the inner world of a child growing up with parents who misused alcohol:  

“When he was a kid, it used to feel like his parents disappeared when they got drunk. As the levels of their glasses went down, he could sense them pulling away from him, as if they were together on the same boat, slowly pulling away from the shore where Oliver was left stranded … and he'd think, Please don't go, stay here with me, because his real mother was funny and his real father was smart, but they always went. First his dad got stupid and his mum got giggly, and then his mum got nasty and his dad got angry, and so it went until there was no point staying and Oliver went to watch movies in his bedroom.”

If you’ve ever been close to someone struggling with substance misuse, you know what a lonely road it can be. Luckily, there’s help out there for people who find themselves in this difficult situation. One of the main forms of group support for loved ones struggling with alcohol in particular is Al-Anon (and its counterpart, Alateen). But what is the idea behind Al-Anon, and what’s the difference between Al-Anon and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)? What are Al-Anon meetings and Alateen meetings like, and what are the pros and cons of both? Let’s find out!

Alcohol and Our Loved Ones: The Ripple Effect

Alcohol misuse doesn’t just affect the person who is doing the drinking — it has a ripple effect that can leave a long-lasting, painful mark on families, friend groups, and communities. It can be heartbreaking to watch someone we know and love turn into a person we barely recognize.

And then there are the day-to-day struggles. Living with someone who is misusing alcohol can be unpredictable, exhausting, and often scary. Maybe they don’t realize they have a problem, and their loved ones are left wondering where they are spending their nights (and days). Maybe they’re trying to change their patterns but finding themselves slipping back over and over again. Either way, the days can start to blend together, and it can feel like there’s no end in sight.

1. Supporting Those Struggling With Alcohol

Supporting someone in recovery or someone struggling with alcohol misuse can quickly turn into a full-time job (or even more). Trying to help a relative, romantic partner, or close friend can be a daunting task.

A recent Geriatric Medicine paper titled “‘I Can't Live Like That’: The Experience of Caregiver Stress of Caring for a Relative with Substance Use Disorder” found a strong link between stress and caring for someone with substance use disorder. It goes on to explore the unique stressors caregivers face, focusing on marriage problems, violence, economic hardships, and emotional distress that can cause deep rifts within the family. 

The paper identifies four common themes among the study participants that highlight the unique pain of those who find themselves in these difficult circumstances, and it goes on to identify ways people have been able to find a light at the end of the tunnel. (Rest assured, there’s hope!)

  • Theme 1: “Grieving the loss.” One of the hardest parts of caring for someone with substance use disorder (SUD) is the sense of loss we feel when we interact with what seems like a whole new person. Here’s what one 63-year old mother said: 

    “It impacted me a lot. I've had a lot of grief. I felt like I did lose my son [light sobbing], I lost the son I had, now there is this new man with this illness.”
  • Theme 2: “Living in dread and despair.” Addiction can feel like a ticking time bomb, and many caregivers feel like it’s never safe to simply relax, even when everything seems “okay.” Unfortunately, we just never know for sure. 
  • Theme 3: “Living in perpetual crisis.” Self-care and family responsibilities can quickly fall by the wayside when we are caring for someone with SUD. In the words of a 57-year-old mother: 

    “You will neglect the other part of your family because you're so consumed with what that child is doing. You're wondering, ‘Where are they? Are they safe? Are they sleeping? Are they eating? Are they alive?’ Whatever it is. You're so consumed.”
  • Theme 4: “Mitigating the impact of substance use in the family.” Participants also talked about the difficulty of finding resources to explain the situation to other members of the family or find others who understood their pain. On a hopeful note, the survey showed that when caregivers did come across much-needed support, the results were nothing short of lifesaving. Speaking about Al-Anon (which we will discuss in more detail soon), one 50-year-old sister said: 

    “When I go there and dare to start talking about what was happening in my house, all these other people in the room were doing this and nodding their heads as they knew. I was like, ‘How do you know what's going on?’ Or when they would share before I even started talking, and they would talk about what was going on, I was thinking, ‘Were you looking in my kitchen window because you're talking? You're telling a story that I know.’ They knew my pain.”

2. Growing Up Around Alcohol Misuse

For children growing up around alcohol misuse, the problem is a bit different, but just as (if not more) challenging. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as many as 1 in 5 Americans grew up around alcohol misuse. That’s an enormous burden! It’s hard to imagine if we haven’t experienced firsthand what it’s like to face such a serious problem so early in life.

The AACAP explains that children growing up in alcoholic households experience a number of physical and psychological effects:

  • Guilt caused by the inability to stop the loved one’s drinking or drug use.
  • Anxiety related to the uncertainties of living around substance misuse and the frightening situations it often comes with (such as hospitalizations or overdoses).
  • Confusion caused by the erratic and unreliable behavior of the person suffering from addiction.
  • Embarrassment in front of friends and schoolmates who might not understand what they’re going through and why their home is “different” (or even off-limits).
  • Anger due to unmet needs and what looks like a lack of caring from those they should be able to trust the most.

As a result of this heavy burden, many children are at risk of turning to substances themselves, while others find themselves dealing with problems such as depression and anxiety. Some might even turn to delinquency and end up in trouble with the law.

3. Ghosts of the Past

Not all of the struggles that have to do with someone else’s addiction are necessarily in the present. Trauma left over from the past — for example, growing up with a parent who struggled with alcohol misuse — can leave wounds that feel just as fresh. Dealing with past trauma, in turn, is key to being the best, healthiest, and happiest versions of ourselves. 

Al-Anon: Meetings, Membership, and More

Thankfully, those of us who have watched loved ones struggle with substance misuse are not alone. In fact, there are many others who have gone through similar experiences, and there are a variety of ways to connect with others who have gone through a similar situation. Connecting with others validates our experience and gives us a roadmap for growth. Let’s explore a few.

What Is Al-Anon?

Al-Anon’s origins go way back to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) founder, Bill W. Or, more precisely, they go back to Bill W.’s wife, Lois W., and her close friend Anne B. The women found themselves waiting in their cars while their partners attended AA meetings. They soon realized that they actually had quite a bit to talk about and found that this time was much better spent having a chat of their own — and these chats gave rise to the very first Al-Anon meeting in 1948. 

The name “Al-Anon” was coined in 1951 from the first syllables of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” which served as the template for the new group’s meeting structure and core philosophy based on the “12 Steps” of the AA program. Like its parent organization, Al-Anon values the concept of anonymity: as they say in AA, “What you hear here stays here.”

What Are the 12 Steps?

The 12 Steps form the core philosophy of AA and have since been used to help those struggling with a host of other issues, including helping a drinker in their lives. In the case of Al-Anon, the 12 Steps are all about recognizing what is and isn’t our responsibility in order to help someone without enabling them. Here’s a brief summary:

  • The first 3 steps are the most abstract. They call for admitting our powerlessness over the situation (in this case, our loved one’s alcohol misuse) and asking a “higher power” for help. While many take “higher power” to mean “God,” it doesn’t have to be. In fact, any force or energy greater than oneself (including the Al-Anon community) can work!
  • Steps 4-7 are about making a “moral inventory” (the so-called “character defects” in AA). In this context, they’re all about recognizing how our own behavior might influence others.
  • Steps 8-9 deal with making amends, or setting things right in relationships where we feel there’s unfinished business. These are sometimes perceived as “apologies,” but that’s often not the case — it’s more about clearing the air and resolving past misunderstandings.
  • The last 3 steps are all about keeping up a lifestyle based on the 12-Step principles through practices such as prayer, meditation, and accountability.

What Are Al-Anon Meetings Like?

Al-Anon meetings address challenges unique to parents, siblings, romantic partners, and children of those struggling with alcohol misuse. This takes place during free, anonymous meetings that can have a variety of formats. They fall into a few basic types:

  • Open Al-Anon meetings. Open meetings invite anyone interested in learning about Al-Anon, including students, professionals, and those simply curious about how it all works.
  • Closed Al-Anon meetings. Closed meetings are reserved for members and prospective members only. They offer a safe and private space for sharing personal experiences and are the go-to for mutual support and understanding.
  • Discussion meetings are all about sharing. A topic is chosen (sometimes in advance, sometimes on the spot) and participants are invited to jump in and share their thoughts and experiences related to it. It's like a group therapy session, but with the unique Al-Anon flavor of shared experience, strength, and hope.
  • Speaker meetings feature one or more individuals sharing their personal journeys — how they've been affected by someone else's drinking and how Al-Anon has helped them. 
  • Step meetings focus on the Al-Anon 12 Steps — a set of principles for personal recovery. It’s a bit like a workshop where each step is a tool, and we’re learning how to use them to build a happier, healthier life. 

Al-Anon Online Meetings

These days, online Al-Anon meetings are also an option! These virtual gatherings became more popular during the height of the pandemic, and it seems online meetings are here to stay. They help break down geographical barriers, offering a space for those who may not be able to attend in person due to distance, health, or time constraints. 

Al-Anon online meetings can take various forms, including video conferences, phone calls, chat rooms, or forums. They stick to the same principles as their in-person counterparts, ensuring confidentiality and a supportive environment with an added element of flexibility — they allow us to stay engaged from the comfort of our own home via text-based chat, phone call, or video call. The format is the same as in-person meetings, so members feel right at home wherever they go.

 AI-Anon and Alteen Pros and Cons

Al-Anon Pros and Cons: Is Al-Anon Right for You?

While Al-Anon has helped many people, it’s certainly not for everyone and has its pros and cons. Considering them can help you decide if Al-Anon is right for you.

The Pros of Al-Anon

A study in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors titled “Social Processes Explaining the Benefits of Al-Anon Participation” talks about the mechanisms behind Al-Anon’s wins and narrows them down to “support, goal direction, provision of role models, and involvement in rewarding activities.” According to the authors, these social processes account for a number of benefits for newcomers and “old-timers” alike, including better quality of life, more self esteem, less depression, and a greater ability to handle problems related to the drinker.

Let’s look at a few other benefits of Al-Anon.

  • Emotional support from people who understand. There’s nothing like hearing people tell the same story you know all too well. While it’s unfortunate that many have to face the same struggles, it can be incredibly comforting to know we’re not alone.
  • Shared wisdom. Self-care is key in the process of helping our loved ones, and Al-Anon members can encourage each other along the way by sharing wisdom about what strategies have helped them cope with their situation.
  • Safe space to process difficult emotions. Just like in AA, there’s no judgment in Al-Anon. Everyone’s story is unique yet similar in many ways, and this is a safe place to let those feelings out.
  • Anonymity. Sharing such a personal (and often painful) part of our life can be difficult. Knowing that what we say will stay in the room can be a great relief.
  • No cost to participate. Cost can be a barrier to many when it comes to looking for help, and the fact that the meetings are free means that anyone can join, no matter what their financial circumstances might be.

The Cons of Al-Anon

Of course, everything has its caveats. Let’s look at some common criticisms of Al-Anon.

  • Group dynamics can vary. Like any group, any given community can be a hit or a miss. We’re all human, and while most people within 12-Step communities mean well and are there for the right reasons, there are no absolutes. It helps to scope out a few different groups before becoming a regular. 

  • The idea of a “higher power” might not resonate with everyone. For those with negative experiences around religion, the idea of a “higher power” might be a bit off-putting, especially if there’s a touch of authoritarianism in how it’s presented.
  • Other philosophical differences. Some aspects of the Al-Anon philosophy (the 12-Step teachings in particular) have a tendency to sound a bit negative if presented in a certain light. While this isn’t true of all groups, it does happen, and the way a particular group approaches the steps can be a turn-off (or source of unease and internal conflict) for some.

A study in Addictive Behaviors titled “Newcomers to Al-Anon Family Groups: Who Stays and Who Drops Out?” talks about this issue in more detail. The authors analyzed dropout rates of Al-Anon newcomers and found that often “philosophical differences” were the reason the group wasn’t the right fit for a prospective member. 

Specifically, those who ended up leaving were worried about the psychological fallout for their drinker if they were to dive into the group’s approach head-on. For example, the concept of powerlessness and the emphasis on the need for lifelong attendance were often cited as the reason Al-Anon was ultimately a no-go for some.

Some have suggested outright that Al-Anon may be dangerous. While it’s unlikely to pose an actual threat, it makes sense to use basic caution when we’re still unfamiliar with a new situation. It’s always completely fine to opt out of a meeting if we’re feeling uncomfortable in any way — there should be no pressure to stay or to share anything we’re not ready to.

What Is Alateen?

Unlike Al-Anon, Alateen focuses on teenagers dealing with a family member's alcohol misuse. It was established in 1955 when challenges unique to children growing up around alcohol misuse came up during the AA International Convention in St. Louis. It took another couple of years of planning, but in 1957 the first Alateen group was started in California by a teenager whose parents were members of AA and Al-Anon. By 1962, there were 203 similar groups going in full swing around the world!

Like AA and Al-Anon, Alateen is based on the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, which are the same as the original but are presented in a form that’s geared toward younger folks. 

Alateen Meetings

Alateen meetings follow the same general format as other 12-Step programs but with teenagers in mind. Sharing and listening to others plays an important role, as do confidentiality and safety. Many participants are, unfortunately, coming from homes where safety is not a given, so creating a nurturing and supportive environment is crucial.

Alateen Pros and Cons

Like Al-Anon, Alateen has pros and cons, and it’s not for everyone.

Pros of Alateen

  • The unique challenges of teens are the focus. Specifically, Alateen can help teens untangle the confusing aspects of the situation and, most importantly, understand that it’s not their fault. As one Alateen member put it in the Alateen Talk newsletter, 

    “Before Alateen, my life was a complete mess because of my father’s alcoholism. I remember him bringing me to bars with him so that he could get drunk while I played video games. I was only 10, and it was scary to be there. Since then, my friend introduced me to Alateen meetings. The program has changed my life. My dad is in recovery. Alateen has taught me that I can’t help the alcoholic or tell him what to do. He has to take the steps himself.” 
  • Meetings are an opportunity to meet peers facing the same struggles. Growing up is hard, and doing so in a household where alcohol is a problem can be even harder. It’s common for teens to feel alone and misunderstood, and finding peers going through the same struggles can be a much-needed lifeline. 
  • Teens can learn coping strategies relevant to them. What works for adults may not necessarily work for teenagers, and Alateen tailors coping strategies (and even the 12 Steps themselves) to young people and their needs. For example, here’s how one member describes the strategies that helped her:

    “Before I started to go to Alateen, I hated to go visit my mother. I didn’t like it because we always got into fights. We would yell and scream at each other all the time. Sometimes, she would wake up in the middle of the night, come into my room while I was sleeping and yell at me for something I did wrong days ago. I found out about Alateen through my sixth grade health teacher … Now, I go to every meeting I can. I have learned that I can think about the 12 Steps, read from the daily readers, or even call someone from my group to avoid yelling or fighting with my mom.”

Cons of Alateen

  • There’s limited availability in certain areas. Unlike Al-Anon, Alateen meetings tend to be a bit harder to find and are not available everywhere.
  • Sharing in a group setting can be hard. If it’s difficult for adults to share in a group (this is another reason some Al-Anon newcomers don’t end up staying), it can be even harder for teens, who are not always on solid footing especially when their own identity is still a work in progress.
  • Meetings can be hard to get to. Accessibility could be an issue, and it might be hard to arrange attendance if the teen needs adult help to get to the meeting. 
  • It might be hard to keep the meetings truly “anonymous.” It could also be harder to keep meeting attendance confidential, since word travels fast when people are living under the same roof. For example, there might be hesitation on the part of the teenager who wants to avoid upsetting the drinker in the family.

Alternative Support Groups: If Al-Anon Is Not for You

If you decide that Al-Anon or Alateen isn’t the right fit for you, there are other options available!

  • Other support groups, such as SMART Recovery Family & Friends or Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), have different vibes. SMART recovery, for example, is more rooted in science (so if talking about a higher power isn’t for you, this might be the way to go). CoDA focuses more on relationship patterns.
  • Therapy and counseling options might be great fits for some.
  • Online platforms and apps (such as Reframe) offer support to those affected by alcohol (including someone else’s drinking).
  • Books, podcasts, and online resources can be lifelines as well. For example, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie can help those who find themselves in a codependent relationship where addiction is a component.

If You Are Also in Recovery: Finding Balance

Finally, here are some tips for those who are on an alcohol journey of their own. Often the best support can be provided by those who have faced the same struggle themselves, but that doesn’t mean your own needs should be neglected, even if you’re doing well when it comes to your own recovery.

  • Setting healthy boundaries is crucial (but can be easier said than done). Sometimes we have guilt left over from our own struggles in the past and what we may have put our loved ones through. As a result, it could feel like we “owe” something to the world, especially when it comes to dealing with the turmoil that alcohol misuse creates. However, boundaries are crucial — for both of you. When boundaries fall by the wayside, it’s easy to slip into a pattern of enabling rather than helping, which serves nobody in the end.
  • Self-care is key. You know how they always tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others in an emergency? Well, it applies here as well. You need to eat, sleep, shower, relax with your favorite TV show, and catch up with friends (including talking about subjects that have nothing to do with alcohol) in order to function at your best. These are all “needs” — not “luxuries”!
  • Having a support network of your own is also very important. Wherever you are on your own alcohol journey, you need people around you to help you through the difficult times, and a strong community (such as Reframe!) can be a great support. Many people on the alcohol journey have also been in the situation involving other drinkers and can offer valuable advice.

All About Choices

In the end, we have to recognize that life is a series of choices, and ultimately we have to make our own. We can’t change someone else (as much as we would sometimes love to), but we do have a lot of control over how we choose to see the situation and our role in it. As writer Kami Garcia says in Beautiful Darkness, “We don't get to choose what is true. We only get to choose what we do about it.”

Summary FAQs

1. Why is it difficult to care for someone struggling with alcohol misuse?

Caring for a loved one who is drinking excessively can feel like a full-time job and can be overwhelming for one person. Caregivers face problems such as living in constant fear, not having time for self-care, and neglecting their own needs and boundaries. This can lead to marriage problems, physical danger, economic hardships, and emotional distress.

2. What is the purpose of Al-Anon and Alateen?

Al-Anon and Alateen serve as support groups for families and friends of those struggling with alcohol misuse. Their purpose is to provide emotional support, coping strategies, and a safe space for sharing experiences related to the impact of alcohol misuse on their lives. Al-Anon is geared toward adults, while Alateen is specifically for teenagers.

3. How do Al-Anon and Alateen differ from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?

While AA is designed to help individuals with alcohol addiction directly, Al-Anon and Alateen focus on supporting the loved ones of those with alcohol misuse issues. They offer a space to share experiences and learn from others who are in similar situations. That said, many members of Al-Anon are also on their own sobriety journey and may be members of AA as well.

4. What are the benefits of attending Al-Anon or Alateen meetings?

Attendees can expect emotional support from people who understand their situation, learn coping strategies for dealing with a loved one's alcohol misuse, find a safe space to process difficult emotions, benefit from anonymity, and participate without any cost. These meetings provide a community of individuals facing similar challenges, offering mutual support and understanding.

Ready To Change Your Relationship With Alcohol? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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