Children of Alcoholics: Growing Up with an Alcoholic Parent

4 min read · 7 sections
How does a parent or primary caregiver’s alcohol use disorder (AUD) impact the children? Explore the myriad ways this potentially chaotic and dysfunctional family environment can lead to cognitive, behavioral, psychosocial, and emotional consequences for children.1
What you will learn:
Cognitive effects of parents’ alcoholism.
Mental health effects.
Risk of substance use in children.
Effects on adult children.
Treatment/resources for parents and children.

The Effects of Growing Up with an Alcoholic Parent

When a parent or primary caregiver has an alcohol use problem, children in the home can experience a wide range of cognitive, behavioral, psychosocial, and emotional consequences.1 Many of these children are regularly exposed to chaos, uncertainty, disorganization, emotional and/or physical neglect, instability, arguments, marital problems, and more.2 As a result, these kids may experience or exhibit anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, relationship difficulties, behavioral issues, etc.3,4 In fact, they’re 4 times more likely than other children to develop an AUD.4

Will all children suffer the effects of an alcoholic mother, father, or caregiver?

While the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up, children all react differently to these circumstances.4 Some children may develop severe or persistent effects while others may experience minimal lasting effects. Additionally, these struggles and adversities might also lead to the development of healthy coping mechanisms that can help them better respond to challenges throughout their lives.5

It’s also important to note that some of these effects may not be directly due to alcohol or substance misuse but rather to co-occurring risk factors, such as poverty, conflict, and lack of family structure. Risk factors associated with substance use disorders (SUDs), which also include marital discord and unstable homes, can impact children even without the presence of an SUD.5

All of that said, it’s important to explore the potential effects so you, your children, or others in your life can better understand and mitigate these effects.

Academic and Cognitive Effects of Parents with AUDs

Children whose parents misuse alcohol or other substances can suffer from a wide range of negative academic and cognitive effects. They can include:1,3-6

  • Low grade point averages (GPAs).
  • Grade-level retention/failed grades.
  • Failure to pursue secondary education.
  • Poor performance in math, reading, and spelling.
  • Unexcused absences/truancy.
  • Impaired learning capacity.
  • Poor speech and language development in the first 3 years of life.

Mental Health Effects on Children (Emotional, Behavioral, Social)

When parents misuse alcohol, it can negatively impact a child’s emotional and behavioral functioning and their ability to cope and adjust to social situations.5 Research shows that children of parents with AUDs can have an increased risk for various mental, emotional, behavioral, and social conditions including:3-5,7

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Social phobia.
  • Separation anxiety.
  • Obsessive-compulsive issues.
  • Lower rates of social competence.
  • Delinquent and antisocial behavior (e.g., stealing and violence).
  • Aggression toward others.
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors.
  • Emotional isolation.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Behavior disorders.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Substance Use and Involvement

Although many factors influence substance misuse, research shows that children of parents with an AUD are more likely to engage in alcohol or substance misuse themselves.5,8 In fact, by young adulthood, 53% of these children (compared to 25% of children whose parents don’t have an AUD), show evidence of an alcohol or drug use disorder.5

Additionally, compared to their peers, children of alcoholics tend to start using substances earlier and ramp up their rates of use faster. And since genetics play a role in the likelihood of developing alcohol and drug use disorders, biological children of these individuals can have an increased risk for a SUD thanks to their genes.5

Common Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics

Every person and every situation is unique. But given the experiences faced during their upbringing, adult children of alcoholics can display certain common characteristics. Here are a handful of these characteristics as outlined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:9

  • Anxiety.
  • Difficulties handling intensely positive and negative moods.
  • Feeling angry or resentful toward their parent.
  • Difficulties in establishing trusting, healthy relationships.
  • Dysfunctional intimate relationships.
  • Insecurity.
  • Antisocial behaviors (e.g., aggression).
  • Ignoring their own needs in order to care for others.
  • Difficulty communicating with others.

Codependency in Families Struggling with Addiction

The terms “codependency” and “codependent” are controversial among healthcare professionals, but they have historically been used to describe the dysfunctional behavior of those whose close friends or family members have an alcohol or substance use disorder.9   

Often, these well-meaning people do things with the intent of helping the person with the SUD, but their actions may actually enable them and/or their addictive behaviors. These “helpful” behaviors can also perpetuate the disorder as the person with the SUD never experiences the full consequences of their actions and addiction.9

Codependency and enabling can involve various behaviors, such as:9

  • Denying the problem.
  • Protecting the person with the alcohol problem (e.g., making excuses, calling in sick to work for them).
  • Giving them money for alcohol.
  • Providing financial and legal assistance related to DUIs and DWIs.

Effects on Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents

Just like their younger selves, adult children of parents with AUDs can suffer negative effects on their mental health, relationships, careers, and overall well-being and functioning. For example, these adult children have an increased risk of:1,10,11

  • Depression.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • College attrition.
  • Mental health problems.
  • Violence.
  • Committing suicide.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Unemployment during young adulthood.
  • Unsatisfactory relationships.
  • Inability to manage finances.

Explaining Alcoholism to a Child

If you or your co-parent have an alcohol use disorder, how do you explain alcoholism to children? And how can you lessen the impact on them?

Most importantly, the person with the AUD should consider treatment, as rehab can aid not only the individual but also the family as a whole. However, the way you speak and interact with children also may lessen the impact of a parent with a SUD.

When talking with kids about alcoholism, the National Association for Children of Addiction recommends you employ “The 7 Cs.” To help children understand their role in addiction—or more specifically the lack thereof—they can recite and remember these C-centric phrases:12

  • I didn’t cause.
  • I can’t cure.
  • I can’t control.
  • I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating me.

Additional steps to attempt to mitigate the impact of a parent’s AUD include:2,13

  • Maintain a stable and predictable environment via daily routines, expected activities, and family rituals.
  • Establish open communication and discuss the situation honestly and in a manner suited to each child’s developmental level.
  • Explain that the AUD is not their fault.
  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings.
  • Empower older children and teens to seek out age-appropriate self-help groups.

Helping an Alcoholic Parent Seek Treatment

When a parent has an alcohol use disorder, it’s not the child’s responsibility to get the parent into alcohol treatment. However, other adults can certainly step in to encourage the parent to seek treatment.

During conversations with the parent, it may be helpful to ensure they understand what treatment involves and the various options available. So consider pointing them to information on topics such as detox, outpatient, inpatient, aftercare, the admissions process, types of therapies, family treatment, and more. Bear in mind, the manner in which you approach this conversation is also important. So you might want to peruse information on how to talk to an alcoholic before you broach the topic.

If you or the parent have additional questions—or you simply need someone to walk you through the treatment process—American Addiction Centers can help. While AAC offers several treatment facilities across the U.S., our admissions navigators at can provide a host of information and options for your unique situation. They can not only answer questions for those seeking treatment but also provide information and options for those attempting to assist the person with the AUD.

Resources for Children and Parents

Seeking support from others who’ve been in your shoes is extremely helpful during the healing process. Thus, when a parent or primary caregiver has an AUD, the following online resources may be helpful for both children and parents.

Since the family unit is a critical component of substance misuse treatment, it’s often helpful to involve the entire family in the treatment process. Family therapy takes the needs of the whole family—not just the parent with the AUD—into account.1

As such, a wide range of individual and family therapy options are available through American Addiction Centers (AAC). Explore our treatment centers online or contact one of our admissions navigators. We can help you not only explore family therapy options but also identify tailored treatment programs to meet your unique needs or those of a loved one.

 

 

 

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