Alcoholism has many victims but perhaps the most defenseless of them are the children of alcoholics. Instead of their parents being sources of wisdom and nurturing, such children have to survive with adults who are violent, unpredictable, and given to their own impulses and desires. Children of alcoholics face risks of mental health trauma and substance abuse in their own adult years, but whether they make the choices of their parents is a complex issue.
The mental health trauma is so severe, says Psychology Today, that it is akin to what soldiers in combat suffer; there is chaos and inconsistency, even violence, in an alcoholic family. For children, there may be physical and/or sexual assault (including incest), which can scar them well into adulthood.
Structure is vitally important in a child’s life, so much so that the Centers for Disease Control calls it one of the “essentials” of healthy parenting. It is how children (especially young children) develop a sense of security and trust, and how they learn about the world around them. In a household where alcohol changes parents’ behavior for the worst, there is no concept of stability. While this is obviously unhealthy for the adults, it can be catastrophic to a child’s growth.
As many as 76 million Americans (around 45 percent of the population) have been exposed to some form of alcoholism or alcoholic behaviors in their family; and as many as 26.8 million of those people are children. That part of the population is more at risk for developing alcoholism, or some kind of other drug abuse than children in nonalcoholic families. They are also at a greater risk of marrying an alcoholic than children who grew up with no exposure to problem drinking by their parents.
Stephanie Brown, the founder of the Alcohol Clinic at Stanford Medical Center and the director of a treatment clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area, told Psychology Today that since denial is such a strong part of alcoholism, this makes it difficult for children to emerge from the shadow of being part of an alcoholic family. The concept of the distorted thinking of denial is an “integral part of the disease,” says Psych Central, and it can dominate an affected household. Parents may coerce or threaten their children into silence, making them cover up shameful or violent behavior, or outright refuting the notion that something is wrong.
Denial in the children of alcoholics usually manifests in the form of three rules that Claudia Black, a specialist on adult children of alcoholics, calls dangerous. The rules are:
By the nature of their problem, alcoholic parents become so absorbed in continuing their behavior that important milestones (e.g., birthdays, school and sports events, etc.) are often forgotten. By experience and observation, their children learn that they cannot have faith or trust in anyone, least of all their parents. Alcoholic behavior is painful (both physically and otherwise), and children are passively taught to bury whatever they are feeling, lest they incur the wrath of a drunk mother or father. In time, this means that the children are never given any freedom to express themselves, to develop healthy personalities and characteristics of their own. Lastly, the constant denial not only means that the children are likely to remain silent about the alcoholism (and their feelings about it); it also means that they are unlikely to talk to their parents about anything important or trivial. Alcoholic parents are not capable of talking with their kids about making friends, how to solve homework problems, or how to make the right decisions.
As a result of this kind of upbringing, the children of alcoholic parents may develop depression, anxiety, and other related disorders. They may even feel that they are somehow responsible for their parents’ drinking and resultant behavior, internalizing the notion so deeply that they are not even actively aware they are thinking it.
The weight of the stress can be traumatic in nature, so much so that the children grow up to be afraid and untrusting of other adults and authority figures. They may struggle to forge close friendships and intimate relationships. The anxiety that comes from not being able to understand the world around them (because of how corrupted their childhood was) could mean the development of a drinking problem of their own.
This inability to separate the past from the present is why Psychology Today suggested that growing up in an alcoholic family is not dissimilar to a soldier’s horrific experiences on the battlefield. For either the child of drunk parents, or a battle-scarred veteran, putting that kind of terror behind them does not come easily or naturally. It could take a lifetime of therapy and group support to bridge the emotional chasms caused by their respective situations.
The children of alcoholic parents are often scared, vulnerable, and helpless in the face of the behavior of their drunk parents. For this reason, CNN calls them “the silent victims” of alcoholism in the family; they witness physical, verbal, or sexual abuse from one parent to another, from both parents to each other, or from one parent (or both) to the child and/or any siblings (or even pets). Children cannot psychologically grasp the scope of what has gone wrong in their family, so beyond the most basic comprehension, they are unable to process what they are seeing, hearing, or feeling. As they struggle to make sense of it, their brains develop differently from children who grow up in structured, stable households.
In examining the effects of domestic violence on teenagers who experienced trauma as children, the Neuropsychopharmacology journal found that such teenagers had “connectivity problems” in their brains. One region affected this way was the amygdala, which connects emotions to thoughts; another was the hypothalamus, which regulates behavior. Teenagers who were subject to domestic violence as children at the hands of their parents grew up without the ability to control their emotions. They were exposed to harmful patterns of behavior, and they did not have anyone in their lives who could help them deal with what they were seeing and what was happening to them. As a result, they became fearful and depressed. The unhealthy consumption of alcohol had become so normalized that similar forms of substance abuse were considered acceptable ways of dealing with the feelings.
Further results could be broken down by gender. Teenage boys who witness or experience domestic violence at the hands of their drunk parents express themselves with more violence, assaulting younger siblings or pets, or victimizing smaller children on the playground. Teenage girls, on the other hand, might cut themselves; this is not done as a suicide attempt but to get some temporary relief from feelings of depression, stress, anxiety, emotional numbness, or self-loathing and low self-esteem (if the parents verbally and emotionally abuse their daughters, for example). Other girls become more sexually promiscuous in pursuit of the same goals.
Acts of violence, self-harm, and sexual promiscuity are impulsive, risk-taking behavior that is a sign of the children’s deteriorating mental health.
One of the concerns facing the children of alcoholics is that they will grow up to become alcoholics themselves. Is this an inevitability of biology or one of choice (or lack thereof)?
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics writes that those who grow up under drunk parents are four times more likely to develop alcoholism in their own adult lives than kids who grew up in better conditions. However, the key phrase is “more likely.” Being raised in an alcoholic home is not a guarantee of future alcoholism. Other factors have to be taken into consideration, such as lifestyle, mental health makeup, demographics, environment, and genetics.
To that last point, the National Human Genome Research Institute talks of how most medical conditions (such as alcoholism) have a genetic component to them, meaning that the biological child of an alcoholic parent grows up with a hereditary risk for developing that same condition. Nonetheless, this does not definitively determine if the child will become an alcoholic in their own adult life. It is impossible for any such definitive determination to be made, but risk can be reasonably assessed if other conditions (e.g., lifestyle, mental health, etc.) are considered.
The University of Utah looked at genes and addiction, and wrote that people aren’t born into addiction. The offspring of an alcoholic parent (or parents) will not inevitably become an alcoholic but has a significant susceptibility of being an alcoholic. Scientific American explains that “40 percent of a predisposition to addiction is genetically determined,” while other research quotes figures as high as 50 percent to 60 percent. In some cases, that likelihood of genes influencing addiction rises even further. Male children of male alcoholics are 90 percent more likely to become alcoholics as adults. Even if the babies of alcoholic parents are adopted into homes where there is no drinking at all, the babies have the same risk of becoming alcoholics in their own adult lives than if they had remained with their original parents.
“Childhood trauma creates lifelong addicts,” says The Fix. The formative years of a child’s life can last until they are 16 years old, and familial abuse that occurs during (and even after) this time “massively increases the risk” of violent or sexually risky behavior, or drug and alcohol consumption, as a way of coping with the actions of unfit parents. Researchers writing in the Depression and Anxiety journal looked at the confluence of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and childhood traumatic experience, and found that the more an individual suffered abuse during childhood, the greater the likelihood of developing an addiction (“high rates of lifetime dependence”):
39 percent were dependent on alcohol
1 percent were dependent on cocaine
2 percent were dependent on heroin and/or prescription opiates
8 percent were dependent on marijuana
For this “highly traumatized population,” the extent of the substance abuse (especially with cocaine) was strongly connected to emotional, sexual, and physical abuse during childhood and with adulthood symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The researchers were satisfied that there exists multiple strong links between childhood abuse and traumatization, and substance use disorders.
For smokers, stress is one of the biggest triggers that determine whether someone trying to quit the habit will relapse (but, again, it is only one of the triggers). When Biological Psychiatry looked at the genetic predisposition to stress sensitivity, researchers wondered whether a person’s natural inclination toward low levels of stress or high levels of stress (itself subject to a number of other factors) would have any connection to addiction. Specifically, they looked at whether a latent, passive substance abuse problem could be activated by the right levels of stress.
When it came to smokers and nicotine, inheriting a genetic predisposition to stress sensitivity (from parents who were similarly predisposed to stress disorders) wouldn’t outright cause someone to start (or resume) smoking, but it would make such a person more tempted to pick up the habit or exhibit more negative effects of trying to quit, compared to someone who didn’t have the red flags for stress in their genes.
Being the child of an alcoholic parent is not a guarantee of future alcoholism, but Psych Central warns that there are still many other dangers ahead. A pathological need for perfection and control may result in the formation of obsessive-compulsive disorder or a desire to seek the approval of others to the detriment of their own wellbeing (as a result of never receiving approval from the parents). The adult children of alcoholics face a future where they are so accustomed to living with dysfunction that they may seek out similar traits in their friends and romantic/sexual partners. WebMD calls this a “codependent relationship,” whereby an individual’s sense of self-worth is based entirely on their partner’s whims. Adults who grew up in alcoholic households were taught (from a very young age) to bury their own needs in order to please their drunk parent. This creates the idea of believing that love and care can only come from similarly difficult (and/or) abusive partners even if alcohol itself is not at the crux of the codependent relationship.
However, when the child of an alcoholic is a woman, alcohol will probably be a factor. Daughters of an alcoholic parent (or parents) are more likely to marry an alcoholic man than women who were raised in households where alcohol wasn’t a problem.
Codependent relationships are bad enough on their own, but if children are involved, they create the additional problem of imprinting on those children that the unhealthy dynamic between the parents is normal, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
However, even though the odds are stacked against the children of alcoholics, they are not trapped. A professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego tells Cleveland.com that over 50 percent of children who grew up with an alcoholic parent don’t follow in their parent’s footsteps. A supportive adult (a grandparent, a neighbor, or a family friend) can form a caring, positive bond with the child, allowing for the formation of healthy coping skills that can counteract the effects of the parent’s alcoholism (instead of the negative skills that can develop in the absence of that kind of encouragement).
Psych Central lists some things that concerned adults can to do help the children of alcoholics. Some ideas include early intervention, which entails getting the addicted parent out of the house (and away from the children) and into treatment as soon as possible.
Even if the parent is receiving professional help, the children need specific attention, usually in the form of therapy and peer support (like a 12-Step group).
Many children internalize their parents’ drunken behavior, feeling responsible and guilty for what goes on in their households. Allowing these thoughts to fester unchecked is what leads the adult children of alcoholics to act out in unhealthy ways (e.g., violence, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, etc.). Explaining to the children that addiction is a complicated disease – one that is caused by genetics, environment, mental health, and other factors – goes a long way in releasing them from the shame and humiliation that are huge parts of growing up with alcoholic parents. Kids need to know that they are not responsible for their parents’ behavior and that they are unconditionally loved, no matter what their mother or father says or does.
However, it is still a slow and painful process for those children to step out from the shadow cast by their parents. No matter what those children do to cope – some withdraw and become depressed, others make inappropriate jokes about the situation (humor, tasteful or otherwise, “helps us cope with horrifying images”), others act violently and impulsively – they need patience and compassion. They are too young and too traumatized to deal with their experiences in an emotionally healthy manner, and that is where the presence of a grandparent, neighbor, family friend, or member of the community will make a big difference.
One way a concerned adult can help is by creating a schedule. An alcoholic household is characterized by a complete lack of structure and ritual, which is vitally important for children and teenagers. Little things like family nights, and big things like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, act as a counter to the chaos of an alcohol problem. Doing things together, regularly and deliberately, creates a sense of stability and consistency.
Sometimes (but not always), the children of alcoholic parents develop such a strong sense of resilience, even in the face of the adversity at home, that they are able to lead normal, productive lives when they are on their own. This is a possibility for the millions of other children in similar circumstances, but they need an adult’s help in learning how to communicate, how to focus on the positives (and put the negatives in perspective), and how to trust the world and people around them. Concerned adults have a big role to play in developing resiliency, but some of the hardest lessons have to be learned in a therapist’s office or a group therapy setting.
One of those lessons is how to build healthy relationships. The children of alcoholics tend to either invest in unhealthy relationships or go it alone, to the point of isolation and loneliness. Grandparents, neighbors, or family friends can model better relationship habits, demonstrating to children that it is possible to have a healthy and mutually beneficial bond with another adult. Even when there is disagreement, it can be respectful and not an excuse to get drunk and violent.
Similarly, concerned adults should encourage open discussion. In an alcoholic household, secrecy and silence reign supreme, and the children are raised to think that their feelings don’t matter. Growing up, teenagers and young adults will struggle to identify their emotions, understand why they’re feeling what they are, and not know how to appropriately and healthily express themselves. Creating a safe space, addressing how the children are feeling – even if the feelings are ugly, violent, or distressing – goes a long way in helping them work through what’s in their heads. Such an environment cannot be fostered in an alcoholic household, so it has to come from grandparents or trusted neighbors and family friends. Therapists and counselors will do the same in their respective offices, but children need to know that the safety extends outside treatment sessions.
A part of building that atmosphere of openness is nurturing self-esteem. Children in alcoholic households are already berated and belittled by their intoxicated parents, but devoid of an understanding of how alcoholism works, they tend to internalize what they are hearing and seeing, to the point of believing they are somehow responsible for the situation they are in. When they grow up, they are wired to seek approval from others, by making themselves sexually available or by not having a healthy sense of personal (or even professional) boundaries. Supportive adults can help counter this by giving the children unconditional love, boosting their self-confidence, and helping them engage with the world around them in ways that offer challenges and rewards.
More than anything, children need to have fun. Even when the offspring of an alcoholic parent is being rehabilitated, the idea of letting loose and enjoying life should be central. The simple act of laughter relieves stress, with one scientific journal writing that laughter:
Makes physical, psychological and social relationships healthy
Ultimately improves quality of life
Boosts mental health
Is easy to achieve (requires no special facilities or equipment)
Is effective and scientifically supported
Laughter and fun are important concepts of daily life for the billions of people around the world. For the millions of children who grew up in fear or hatred of their drunk parents, it is a vital and necessary treatment tool.
It is too much to expect sympathetic adults, no matter how concerned they are, to shoulder the entirety of this burden. For this reason, the children of alcoholic parents will need steady treatment during their own adulthood, even as late as their 40s. Specific 12-Step groups for that exact demographic exist, to give those adults a place where they can talk about their fears and frustrations with others who understand exactly what they mean.
Group members will offer no condemnation or judgement, only support and solidarity – something that was sorely lacking in their respective childhoods.
For many of the people who grow up in alcoholic households, the journey is a very long one. Cleveland.com profiled one woman, Beth, who grew up with alcoholic parents. Her grandmother was an alcoholic, her brother was an alcoholic, and she married an alcoholic man. Beth drank consistently between the age of 13 and 26 before trying to quit, then relapsing, and continuing the cycle for the next two decades. It took commitment to an Alcoholics Anonymous program “and a lot of reflection on her childhood,” before she was ready to “defy the legacy of her genetics and upbringing.” As of September 2012, she had been sober for 26 months. She told Cleveland.com that while many assume that experiencing parental alcohol abuse stays in childhood, “those traits carry on” into adulthood.
In many ways, the children of alcoholics are robbed of their childhood. Instead of a parent being a source of strength and inspiration, their mother or father (or both) is a manipulative and unpredictable individual, doling out alcohol-fueled violence or abuse. But through the intervention of supportive adults, and careful therapy and group support, the adult children of alcoholics can receive the help they need to put the demons of their past behind them and focus on living their present life to the fullest.