How to respect an alcoholic father?


What do I teach my boys, age 15 and 10, about respecting their alcoholic, angry father? We divorced 2 years ago because life was so unbearable, but they still see him every other weekend. ∼ Wendy W.


Dear Wendy,

It sounds like have had a tough few years and we pray that you have a joyous future.

This is one of those extremely tough questions to answer with the scant information we have. We are going to assume certain things and answer based on that, but we urge you to connect to a faith community where you will find people who can answer on a more personal level.

We are assuming that when the boys see their father, he is not intoxicated or threatening. Otherwise, you’d be talking to a lawyer, not to us. Yet, they are both old enough to remember times when he was drunk and to be aware of what led to the divorce.

To your credit, you are aware that you are walking a tightrope. Reading between the lines, we hear an effort on your part not to disparage your ex-husband to his sons. You are right that the boys are obligated to respect their father, despite his failings. What that specifically means at their age is addressing and treating him in a respectful manner (no eye-rolling, insults or rude disagreement). At the same time, they need help dealing with their emotions and processing their ideas, worries and questions. Have you checked into Al-anon and Al-ateen groups? Validating their emotions is not disrespectful to their father.

Over the long term, you are thinking ahead to the men you want your boys to be. By expecting them to behave respectfully towards their father, you are teaching them that even when responsibilities (like honoring a father) are difficult, we still carry them out. Yet, it is also important for them to understand that whatever factors may have been involved, as an adult your husband chose to drink and has chosen not to take every step possible to get help.

Perhaps show your sons the Ten Commandments in the Bible, particularly number five.  Explain that this commandment about honoring your father and mother doesn’t add “only when they behave wonderfully”.  When they do, it is easy to honor and respect them.  The commandment covers all the other times.  It also doesn’t command us to admire their bad behavior but it does require us to behave towards them with respect. Whatever happens, they remain our parents.   A Biblically based conversation along these lines might lend some perspective and bring them close to you.

Their own growth will be assisted if they can feel compassion for their father without seeing him as an innocent victim. This is a message that may take years for them to understand. There may well be positive aspects to your ex-husband that they can access more easily now that they are, hopefully, seeing him at his best.

Your sons very much need men in their lives whom you and they can trust.  We know that such men are hard to find, but extremely important. Your sons need to see that men can be trustworthy (as you pray they will be). You can fill many of their needs, but modeling proper male behavior isn’t something you can do.

May your boys grow up to make you proud,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

2 thoughts on “How to respect an alcoholic father?”

  1. One quick question. It appears there is no distinction between honor and respect in this reply. I believe respect is to be earned by actions whereas honor comes through position. Am I wrong?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Toni–
      Certainly in English and taking the Ten Commandments into consideration, it would seem that your distinction holds up.

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