How to Help an Alcoholic Father
Terms such as “alcoholic,” “alcoholism,” and “alcohol abuse” are generally terms we avoid using in the articles we publish at American Addiction Centers (AAC). Stigmatizing language, like this, can create a negative bias, perpetuate the view that addiction is a moral failing—and not a medical disease—and adversely impact treatment retention. Additionally, research shows that stigma can make alcohol use disorders worse and prevent people from seeking the help that they need.1 Alcohol use disorder is treatable, and individuals can and do recover from it.
Signs Your Father May Be Addicted to Alcohol
If you suspect that your parent is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, the clinical term for an alcohol addiction, 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 your dad if they are suffering from an alcohol use disorder can include behavioral changes, physical changes, and mental/emotional changes, including:2,3
- Drinking more often or in higher amounts than they intended (i.e. they may say they’re going to have 1 glass of wine with dinner but end up drinking the entire bottle).
- Being unable to cut back on 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 a physical or mental health problem has developed or become worse due to alcohol use.
- Needing to drink more than before to experience previous effects or not getting the desired effect from the same amount of alcohol. This is called tolerance.
- 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 DUIs or arrests). In some cases, they might become abusive or violent.4
Impact a Father Addicted to Alcohol Has on a Child
Alcohol misuse can negatively impact a child. It could potentially increase the chances of child abandonment or child abuse. This may be due to the potentially destructive effects that alcohol has 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 misuse. Children may have an increased likelihood of sexual or physical abuse and neglect.4 One study found that parental substance misuse (including alcohol) was significantly related to an increased chance of physical abuse as well as childhood trauma.5 Research further explains that children who grow up in households, where addiction is present, may experience increased multiple negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance use, and interpersonal difficulties.6
Another study found that the most prevalent family structure affected by parental alcohol use, tended to be a father’s alcohol misuse combined with parental separation. Fathers with a drinking or drug problem, who experienced financial difficulties and left the family home, was the second most common family dynamic in this study.7 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 and Family Therapy points out that children of parents with alcohol addiction 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.8
Resources for Children of Fathers with an Alcohol Addiction
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 parents with alcohol addictions.
- Alateen, a subgroup of Al-Anon for teens, affected by someone else’s alcohol misuse, to come together—in person or virtually—to encourage and support one another.
- National Association for Children of Addiction, which offers tips and other resources.
- 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 misuse.
- Individual counseling, which can offer a safe place for you to discuss and process your feelings and concerns.
- Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, 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.
Impact of a Father’s Addiction on Child Development
Growing up with a father, who has an alcohol use disorder, can negatively impact children in different ways. The American Academy of Child and 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 stomach pain or headaches.9 Alcohol use in fathers has also been linked to increased mortality, including suicide and violent death, in children.10
If you’re an adult, whose father misused alcohol during your childhood, you may wonder about the effects your dad’s alcohol misuse has had on your life, especially if you’ve struggled with ongoing emotional or psychological problems. It’s important to realize that the impact of a father’s alcohol addiction isn’t limited to childhood. Research indicates that adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders can experience persistent emotional and social difficulties, including low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, resentment, communication problems, and increased problems in romantic relationships.11 For example, one study explains that adult daughters of fathers with alcohol use disorders tend to experience less secure attachment and may display more intense caregiving behaviors in adult relationships.12
Children of parents addicted to alcohol may also have an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder themselves. While many factors affect the development of addiction, genetics are believed to account for about half of a person’s risk of alcohol addiction, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).13
Can I Stop my Dad from Drinking?
It’s not your fault that your father has an alcohol use disorder, and it’s not up to you to get him to stop drinking. You cannot control another person’s behavior. Someone struggling with alcohol addiction, a serious health condition, has to want to stop drinking. However, you can express your concern and encourage your father to seek help.
How to Talk to Your Dad About His Alcohol Use
Convincing your father, who struggles with alcohol misuse or addiction, to get help may actually be the encouragement your dad needs to enter rehab. Approach the subject of treatment compassionately and strategically.
Do your research. Before approaching your dad about addiction, it’s best to be prepared with language that’s supportive and accurate and information that fosters healthy conversations. Understanding addiction not only makes you more sympathetic to your father’s condition, but also better prepares you for the talk. Besides understanding the facts of addiction, look up potential treatment options so you come to the conversation with potential solutions.
Get help from the experts. It might be helpful to consult a medical or mental healthcare professional, who can help you better understand addiction, withdrawal, and treatment options. Additionally, offer to accompany your father to an appointment with a primary care physician or licensed therapist—someone who can evaluate your dad, make a diagnosis, and recommend a treatment plan.14
Have an honest conversation. Wait for a time when your dad is sober and is not suffering from the effects of alcohol use. Plan what you’ll say and practice it a couple of times. Then, free from judgment—and with a willingness to listen—address your concerns about your dad’s alcohol use calmly. Remember that alcohol use disorder is a disease, not a lack of willpower. Focus on facts during the conversation and be supportive.
Be compassionate. When you talk to your father, come from a place of love, compassion, and support. Choose your words carefully, avoiding stigmatizing or judgmental language. For instance, don’t use words like “addict” or “alcoholic.” You might consider the following prompts:
- Ask, “Wouldn’t it be nice to spend more time together?” A question like this puts the decision to make positive changes in your dad’s hands.
- Say, “Alcohol addiction is a disease that affects many people. You’re not alone, but treatment can help and things can get better.” Alcohol use disorder can be a very isolating disease. Remind your father of that, and emphasize that treatment means the cycle of addiction can end and lasting recovery is possible.
- Try, “Let’s go see a movie together, or go for a walk, or something else.” Invite your dad to do activities with you that don’t involve alcohol. Spending quality time with you might be the reminder your father needs that getting better can strengthen the relationship between you two.
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 use 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. A small number of 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, attend treatment therapy and counseling sessions during the day, and return home at the end of each day.
Can My Father Recover from an Alcohol Use Disorder?
Yes, anyone can recover from an alcohol use disorder with the right mindset and appropriate treatment. Some of the treatment options for an alcohol use disorder include:14
- Medication. Certain medications can be a useful option to help someone stop drinking and maintain sobriety.
- 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 alcohol use disorder and preventing relapse. These therapies 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 alcohol addiction.
- Mutual-help groups. This could include 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or non-12-step groups like SMART Recovery.
Reach out to American Addiction Centers (AAC) at . One of our compassionate and experienced admissions navigators will listen to your story, answer your questions, and explain options.
U.S. Statistics on Alcohol Use Disorders and Fathers
- According to the Office of Human Services Policy’s U.S. National and State Estimates of Children Living with Parents Using Substances, 2015-2019, nearly 98 million children lived with a parent who misused alcohol; 5 million children lived with a parent who had an alcohol use disorder.15
- This same survey found that children ages 3 to 11 had the highest rates of having a parent with an alcohol use disorder.15
- Earlier research indicated that of the 1.4 million children living with one parent who had an alcohol use disorder between 2009 and 2014, 273,000 of them lived with their fathers.16
- According to data provided by the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (an Office of Family Assistance funded national resource), 36% of fathers reported binge drinking in the 30 days prior to the survey. Binge drinking means a person has 5 or more drinks in one session.17
- Approximately 10% of fathers reported heavy drinking in the same period. Heaving drinking means binge drinking at least 5 times in a month.17
- Additionally, 9% of fathers reported receiving drug or alcohol treatment at some point in their life.17