What Are the Effects of an Alcoholic Father on Children?
The experience of having a parent who suffers with a substance use disorder (SUD) can be confusing and painful. This article will help you discover the signs to look for in a parent who is suffering from a substance use disorder and shed light on the potential effects of addiction on a child with an alcoholic parent.
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Signs to Look for in Child of Alcoholic Parent
Alcohol use disorders aren’t always easy to spot, as many alcoholic parents who abuse alcohol often attempt to hide or cover up the problem. If you suspect that your parent is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, you should first understand the signs of alcohol use disorders. This way, you understand how to cope with a parent struggling with an alcohol use disorder and perhaps encourage your parent to seek help. Some of the signs you might observe in a dad suffering from an alcohol use disorder can include behavioral changes, physical changes, and mental/emotional changes, such as:1,2
- Drinking more often or in higher amounts than they intended (i.e. they may say they’re going to have one glass of wine with dinner but end up drinking the whole bottle).
- Being unable to cut down their alcohol use even if they say they want to.
- Spending most of their time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol.
- Feeling strong urges to drink, to the point where they can’t think about anything else.
- Experiencing problems at work or home due to their alcohol use.
- Having relationship, family, or other social problems because of alcohol use.
- Giving up activities they used to enjoy so they can drink.
- Drinking in dangerous situations, such as while driving or operating machinery.
- Continuing to drink even though they seem to have developed a physical or mental health problem that is probably due to alcohol abuse.
- Needing to drink more than before to experience previous effects (i.e. needing to drink more to get drunk).
- Developing withdrawal symptoms (such as sweating, shaking, or nausea) when they stop drinking.
You might notice that once your parent starts drinking, they don’t know how to stop or can’t tell when enough is enough. They might be defensive about their drinking and insist that they don’t have a problem. They might start fights or arguments with you, your siblings, your other parent, or other members of your family or friends, or have repeated problems with the law (such as DWIs or arrests). In some cases, they might become abusive or violent.3
Does Alcohol Increase the Chances of Child Abandonment or Abuse?
Alcohol abuse could potentially increase the chances of child abandonment or abuse due to its potentially destructive effects on people’s brains, behaviors, and relationships. According to the American Psychological Association, spouses and children often suffer intensely due to a parent’s alcohol abuse. Children may have an increased likelihood of sexual or physical abuse and neglect.3 One study found that parental substance abuse (including alcohol) was significantly related to an increased chance of physical abuse as well as childhood trauma.4 Additional research further explains that children who grow up in alcoholic households may experience increased multiple negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and interpersonal difficulties.5
Another study found that out of 10.5% of families (in this particular study group) affected by parental alcohol abuse before a child’s 18th birthday, the most common family type was characterized by a father’s alcohol abuse combined with parental separation. The second most common family type was characterized by fathers with a drinking or drug problem who experienced financial difficulties and left the family home.6 These results do not necessarily indicate that the father abandoned the family, but rather that the child no longer lived with the father. However, a report from the American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy points out that children of alcoholics can suffer from repeated abandonment, as well as multiple issues such as a chaotic or disorganized home environment, uncertainty, instability, inconsistent discipline, neglect, arguments, an unstable parental relationship, violence and/or physical and sexual abuse, and witnessing violence or abuse of others.7
Resources for Children
If you think your parent is struggling with an alcohol problem, you may not know where to turn. However, it’s important to know that there are various resources available to you that can provide you with help. Some of these resources include:
- Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)/Dysfunctional Families, a 12-step group for Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs).
- National Association for Children of Addiction, which offers tips and other resources for ACoAs.
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which offers education and tips on how to help someone seek treatment.
- SMART Recovery, a non-12-step support group for those affected by familial alcohol abuse.
- Individual counseling, which can offer a safe place for you to discuss and process your feelings and concerns.
- Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, which is a hotline you can call at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) to talk to someone if your parent is hurting you.
How Does an Alcoholic Father Affect a Child’s Future or Outlook?
Growing up with an alcoholic father can negatively impact children in different ways. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry explains that children can experience increased ongoing emotional difficulties and coping problems, such as guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, problems connecting with others, confusion, anger, and depression. They may develop behavioral problems, such as truancy, social withdrawal, suicidal behavior, violent or problematic behaviors like stealing, and experience frequent unexplained physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches.8 Alcohol use in fathers has also been linked to increased mortality, including suicide and violent death, in children.9
If you’re an adult saying, “my father was a drinker,” you may have wondered about the effects your dad’s alcoholism has had on your life as a whole, especially if you’ve struggled with ongoing emotional or psychological problems. It’s important to realize that the impact of an alcoholic father isn’t limited to childhood. Research has shown that adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) can experience persistent emotional and social difficulties, including low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, resentment, communication problems, and increased problems in romantic relationships.10 For example, one study explains that adult daughters of alcoholic fathers tend to experience less secure attachment and may display more intense caregiving behaviors in adult relationships.11
Children of alcoholics may also have an increased risk of developing alcoholism themselves. While many factors affect the development of addiction, genetics are believed to account for about half of a person’s risk of alcoholism, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.12
Can I Stop my Alcoholic Dad from Drinking?
It’s not your fault that your father has a substance abuse issue, and it’s not up to you to get him to stop drinking. You cannot control another person’s behavior. Someone struggling with alcoholism, a serious health condition known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), has to want to stop drinking. However, you can express your concern and encourage your father to seek help.
What Happens to Children While Their Dads Are in Rehab?
If you’re a child reading this page and you think your father may be struggling with an alcohol abuse problem, you might worry about what will happen to you when your dad enters rehab. It’s normal to be concerned, but rest assured that your safety and needs are very important and you will not be left alone or neglected. You will still be able to go to school and be taken care of by your family. Some – but not all – rehab facilities offer family rehab programs, which might mean that you live with your dad at his chosen treatment facility for the length of treatment. If your dad attends outpatient treatment, he’ll live at home with you and go to treatment a few times per week.
Can My Father Recover from an Alcohol Use Disorder?
Yes, anyone can recover from an AUD with the right mindset and appropriate treatment. Some of the treatment options for AUD include:13
- Medication. Certain medications can be a useful option to help someone stop drinking and stay sober.
- Behavioral therapies. There are many different addiction therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or motivational enhancement therapy (MET), that are proven to be effective for treating AUD and preventing relapse. They help someone change their behaviors, develop coping skills so they can avoid drinking, and cultivate healthier relationships.
- Family counseling. You may participate in treatment with your dad and the rest of your family. This helps address issues that may have been caused or worsened by your dad’s alcoholism.
- Mutual support groups. This could include 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or non-12-step groups like SMART Recovery.
Statistics on Alcoholism and Fathers in the U.S.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that around 1 in 10 children (7.5 million) live with a parent who has an AUD. This number includes children from both two-parent and single-parent households.14
- Out of 1.4 million children who live with one parent who has an AUD, 273,000 live with their fathers.14
- According to data provided by the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (an Office of Family Assistance (OFA) funded national resource), around 4 in 5 fathers (79 %) reported consuming alcohol in the past 12 months.15
- The same report indicates that 36% of fathers reported binge drinking in the past 30 days. Binge drinking means a person has 5 or more drinks in one session.15
- 10 % of fathers reported heavy drinking in the past 30 days. Heaving drinking means binge drinking at least 5 times in the past month.15
- 9% of fathers reported ever receiving drug or alcohol treatment in their lifetime.15
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- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). What are the symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD)?
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- American Psychological Association. (2018, September). Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.
- Taplin, C., Saddichha, S., Li, K., & Krausz, M. R. (2014). Family history of alcohol and drug abuse, childhood trauma, and age of first drug injection. Substance use & misuse, 49(10), 1311–1316.
- Park, S. & Schepp, K. (2014). A systematic review of research on children of alcoholics: Their inherent resilience and vulnerability. Journal of child and family studies, 24, 1222–1231.
- Jääskeläinen, M., Holmila, M., Notkola, I. & Kirsimarja, R. (2015). A typology of families with parental alcohol or drug abuse. Addiction research & theory, 24(4), 288-299.
- Fals-Stewart, W. (n.d.). Children of alcoholics.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2019, May). Alcohol use in families.
- Landberg, J., Danielsson, A. K., Falkstedt, D., & Hemmingsson, T. (2018). Fathers’ alcohol consumption and long-term risk for mortality in offspring. Alcohol and alcoholism, 53(6), 753–759.
- Haverfield, M. & Theiss, J. (2014). A theme analysis of experiences reported by adult children of alcoholics in online support forums. Journal of family studies, 20(2), 166-184.
- Jaeger, E., Hahn, N. B., & Weinraub, M. (2000). Attachment in adult daughters of alcoholic fathers. Addiction, 95(2), 267–276.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2008). Genetics of alcohol use disorder.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021, August). Treatment for alcohol problems: finding and getting help.
- Lipari, R.N. and Van Horn, S.L. (2017, August 24). Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. The CBHSQ Report: August 24, 2017. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse. (2018). NRFC data snapshot resident fathers and substance use.