In an elementary school classroom of 24 students, there are probably four to six of them. But for the most part they are invisible. They do their work, don't rock the boat and they don't reveal their secret--even to each other. They are children of alcoholics, and, as far as they know, the problem is theirs alone, something that no one else could possibly understand.
But someone does understand. The Amazing Spider-Man does, and so do Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel comic book heroes and heroines. Soon their message will be in every elementary school in the nation: "Some moms and dads drink too much . . . and it hurts."
With the endorsement of their employer, Marvel Entertainment Group Inc., the comic characters have joined forces with the National Assn. for Children of Alcoholics in an effort to reach out to children trapped in alcoholic homes.
Adult children of alcoholics have a nationwide movement now, with books, support groups and therapists available to help them recover. But the estimated 7 million children who are still living with their alcoholic parents often don't have access to such resources, according to Gerald Myers, executive director of the National Assn. for Children of Alcoholics, based in South Laguna.
"The adults can speak out for themselves," Myers said. "But no one is speaking out on behalf of those young children. That's what we're trying to do."
This month, the association began its National Elementary School Project. The organization is mailing out information packets featuring color comic posters to each of the nation's approximately 45,000 elementary schools. In addition to Marvel, the project is supported by the Metropolitan Life Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Office of Substance Abuse Prevention.
The packet contains information on how school officials can respond to a child approaching them for help. It also includes a special comic book in which Spider-Man, who had already revealed in a previous story that he was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, advises a young boy who suffers abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father.
The project came about after a sampling of elementary school principals were asked if they would like more resources for dealing with children of alcoholics. "We got a 100% positive response," Myers said. So the foundation, based in South Laguna, put together the packet and a booklet on the subject for school administrators and counselors.
Claudia Black of South Laguna, who wrote and published the first book on children of alcoholics in 1981, said most children react to their parents' alcoholism in ways that aren't likely to call attention to them in the classroom. She has defined four roles that children take on: the responsible child, who becomes a miniature adult and takes on adult responsibilities; the adjusting child, who passively adapts to the constant changes; the placating child, who tries to smooth over problems; and the acting-out child, who has emotional outbursts and often becomes delinquent.
Of the four, Black says, only the acting-out child is likely to behave in a way that alerts teachers or others to his family's problem.
"Children of alcoholics may be super-achievers, and despite the fact that they appear symptomless, they also need to be identified and referred for help," the project's booklet states.
On the posters, the comic heroes urge children of alcoholics to "tell someone you trust." Myers said research has shown that "almost every child has someone they trust. It may be a teacher, or a neighbor, or a relative. What they need to know is that they can tell someone."
In the special Spider-Man comic book, Kevin, whose father is an alcoholic, first tells his uncle, only to be told, "Your dad's drinking is his business." Finally, Kevin turns to the assistant principal at his school, and gets help for the whole family.